Strange Days

“These are unprecedented times.”

Everyone likes to say this, lately. Unprecedented. A fine word, but hardly anyone used it. Now they say it a lot. Usually, in any Zoom meeting, someone throws out unprecedented. In just a few weeks it has become as overused as giving you a heads up or let’s circle back, phrases that make us think about doing mean things to project managers.

People used to make smalltalk about the weather. A safe topic, easy to find common ground, but also entirely redundant – no one disagrees when it’s cold out. Now they discuss the global pandemic and how we live in “unprecedented times”. Equally bland and just as redundant.

Because of course things are unprecedented. Twenty years ago we barely had a functioning internet. Now my smartphone has enough processing power to plot the trajectories of comets. With the rate things are advancing, isn’t every day unprecedented? By comparison the pandemic is barely unprecedented at all. When it comes to pandemics, humanity has endured much worse.

This is true: the world is changing faster today than we’ve ever seen – and perhaps will never again move as slowly. The rate of change has become so normalized, it takes a global health crisis to surprise us.

It shouldn’t. These are strange, incredible days, and the pandemic is the least of it.


Reactive Filter

It’s not the customer’s job to know what they want.

Steve Jobs said this originally, in reference to the way that users are a poor source of quality information about their needs. Most of the time they don’t know what they need, misidentify what they need, or lack the language to articulate either way. If you leave it up to the users to make UX decisions, this happens. It bankrupted the company.

We try to minimize client interference in the design process by synthesizing their explanations and ideas into a creative brief everyone can agree on. But it’s not a very reliable process.

I noticed a pattern of behavior common to clients early on in my career: even if they couldn’t explain exactly what they wanted, they knew what they didn’t want as soon as they saw it. You quickly learn to resist doing high-fidelity work early in any project, because you must first get through the reactive filter: the meeting in which you present work and the client says, “That’s nice, but what I was thinking was…”

Listen carefully to what comes after these words, because most of the time it’ll be worth more than anything in the creative brief. Why? Because it’s much easier to react to a point of reference, even if it’s wrong, than to imagine something from nothing, and the output from that reaction is just as illuminating.

This is not a shortcut to avoiding design thinking – you must still define the problem properly before presenting early, or the reaction to your work, whether positive or negative, won’t yield useful intel.

Entire projects cannot be run this way. Use the reactive filter to establish boundaries early on, then direct the design process from there.


The Problem With Playing It Safe

Thinking too rigidly about user experience can make us blind to new opportunities.

An age ago, back in 2004, I was working in Amsterdam designing a website for Philips. User experience as a practice was still relatively new. There were rules, but they were different depending on who you asked. Best practices were a nice idea, but they weren’t very consistent. And that meant that everybody, and nobody, was right 100% of the time.

Our UX guy on the Philips project was a contractor – I’ve quite forgotten his name – and he was of the mind that things should be done just so, and any deviation would be a mistake. Thinking about it now I guess that makes sense: if you bill yourself as an expert in a field nobody knows anything about, you better at least be confident.

Of course, at the time I disagreed. I was an unruly, ego-driven designer, so I disagreed with everything. But in this case, my reasoning was sound: in my view the user experience discipline was too young to have all the answers. We were dictating behavioural patterns to users while knowing scarcely more than they did. And more importantly (to a designer, at least) we were missing opportunities to innovate on the UI side by allowing ourselves to be constrained by rules that were unbaked at best, and outright guesses at worst. Dogma seldom breeds insight.

It didn’t sit right with me, but I had to admit that my opinion was no more valid than his. And letting the process be driven by design would’ve been the tail wagging the dog, so we forged ahead, despite the UX field being in such turbulent flux that by the end of the project all our supposed best practices were obsolete anyway.

I’ve never forgotten that discussion, and I still maintain that the laws of UX, even as well-established as they are these days, can still be wilfully bent. Purists will point breathlessly to some high-profile case study (“Amazon changed the corner radius on their Buy Now button to 2px and it saved them $300M!”) but these are effects that are observable only at scale. For most everyday purposes, the rules, within reason – though not without good reason – can be challenged. It’s how innovation happens.

It is a mistake to dictate terms to users based on an overly-confident UX model, or to assume UX as a practice is fully baked. We should not be afraid to engage users on unfamiliar terms, or to ask them to follow new patterns. Their behaviour outside the sandbox can help us discover new ways to solve old problems.

How will we know if we aren’t willing to take risks?


Breaking Mental Models

When it comes to using a product, people rely on mental models – for better or for worse.

The mind draws on prior experience to create expectations which guide behaviour. We did this last time and it worked, so that’s what we’re doing this time, too. Mental models reduce cognitive overhead because you don’t have to make a series of decisions more than once – just retrieve a successful outcome from memory, and use the same template.

The base example of a mental model is one that every web designer learns to respect from day one:

Put the logo in the top left, and make sure it links to the homepage.

People expect this, and if they don’t get it then certain things might happen. They might become irritated at your brand, with its stupid logo sitting up there all non-linky and such, which is bad. At the very least they’ll wonder if your web designer is incompetent – not much better.

But just because a mental model exists, doesn’t make it mandatory. You can conform your UX to users’ existing (presumed) models, but you can also teach them new ones – if you have the courage. When Blockbuster said people come to the video store to rent a movie, it’s all part of the experience, nobody disagreed. But Netflix started mailing discs instead, and almost overnight the entire movie-watching population completely changed its behaviour.

Challenging mental models comes with risk, but the rewards can be considerable. When fresh thinking yields innovation, entire markets can shift fast.

Personally I wouldn’t recommend you move your logo link from the top left, though.


Reactive Solutions & the Anchoring Bias

Over-focusing on the first thing we learn stops us from seeing other, better solutions – and it happens whether we like it or not.

As I’ve mentioned before, it’s easy and natural to generate impulse solutions to problems as they arise. This is human nature. We’re so good at it that it happens without effort, and it makes us susceptible to the anchoring effect: a cognitive bias that makes the first answer we come up with crowd out everything that comes after.

This can be especially problematic when it comes to design thinking. There are large numbers of ways to solve any design or UX problem, and it’s much too easy to fixate on the first one that emerges. Any idea you come up with will seem like a good idea – to you.

Avoiding irrational attachment to early ideas – I call them reactive solutions – is precisely the purpose of brainstorming with more than one person. Leave it to one guy alone in a room, and the scope of possible solutions falls dramatically. This is also the reason why team play is an essential element of UX and design practice: one mind alone simply isn’t enough to cover all the angles.

To avoid reactive solutions and the anchoring bias, keep these points in mind:

Make UX strategy and design thinking a social exercise. When designing for interactivity and people, it makes sense that the best ideas will be generated by people interacting.

It’s nearly impossible for the first idea to be the best. Unless you somehow catch lightning in a bottle, the quality of solutions will increase in direct proportion to time spent. Put in the time, get better results.

Think first; design later. Especially for visual designers, our brains tend to run straight for the canvas, making any hare-brained idea seem better than it is. If you have to move to the design phase to make a point, you’re probably making the wrong point.


User Needs & the Availability Heuristic

“People don’t want quarter inch drills. They want quarter inch holes.”
— Theodore Levitt, Harvard Business School

What people say they need probably isn’t what they really need.

It’s easy to confuse process with result, because people like the idea of taking action more than pausing a moment to ponder abstract outcomes. Doing is easier than thinking.

This makes users notoriously unreliable sources of information about what they need. It’s human nature to automatically generate a solution to any problem that presents itself, and the first one that comes to mind then tends to dominate our thinking. This is a version of the availability heuristic: the tendency to place greater value on information that comes to mind quickly. And if you ask a user what he needs, I bet you a box of Timbits he’ll make the same mistake.

To properly understand a user’s needs, forget tools, the mechanics of the process and the functional requirements document. Features and functions are products of the solution, not its drivers.

Instead, probe the user’s motivations for a more complete understanding of the problem. Simple task completion might be the wrong success metric if the motive is less tangible, like proving your worth to a team or avoiding becoming a bottleneck in a production pipeline.


Good Branding is Mind Control

More than anything else, branding is a means of influencing the way people think.

Jeff Bezos is widely quoted as saying: “Your brand is what other people say about you when you’re not in the room.” But here’s the unfortunate truth: more often than not, nobody talks about you when you’re not in the room. People talk about themselves, mostly.

A better way to say it is your brand is how other people feel when they think about you. Substitute ‘you’ for your logo, your face, your product or any representative of your company.

How do you feel when you see a parking enforcement officer lurking near your car? Parking enforcers have a poor brand image. It’s very effective, but not in the way anyone would want.

How do you feel when you see the Amazon delivery man coming up the street? Probably a sense of low-level excitement caused by a tiny hit of dopamine, because he is bringing your stuff. Assuming he doesn’t throw it across the porch, he is the temporary custodian of an exceptional brand image – one that persists even when he’s not standing outside with a box.

Looked at this way, it’s easy to understand why the most successful brands (and their aesthetics and messaging) are rooted in behavioural psychology. Understanding how people think is the first step to getting them to think about you – and to think the right things about you.


Consistency is Not Conformity

When a company fosters uniqueness among its people, the result is a unique brand.

Until 1995, IBM was notorious for an unrelenting dress code that tolerated no disparity. Respect your customer and dress accordingly was the driving adage, and that meant dark suits and ties, without exception. Unsurprising – until the 80s, men wore suits to work for most non-industrial jobs anyway. 

Things changed when tech exploded. Workplaces became dramatically younger – partly because young minds find better traction on emerging advancements, and partly because pioneers like Microsoft sought to distinguish themselves from the stodgy old guard. These days, in many fields, dress codes are an artifact of the past. Trendy, lifestyle-friendly work environments are designed at great expense to attract and nurture talent. Company culture is a brand value. So are diversity, individuality and freedom of expression.

In the corporate world of the 70s, order and conformity were a means of controlling brand image. Suits were a professional imperative, and no one would’ve dared to assert differently. These days we know better. Suppressing individuality leads to other problems: dissatisfaction, resistance and productivity loss. Even without knowing why, most people understand the importance of their own personal brand. Being unique is part of being alive.

This is true for corporate brands too. Consistency of appearance, behaviour and values are desirable brand attributes. But conforming to rigidly-defined ideals is counter-productive, leading to inflexibility, tunnel vision and a failure to be agile, pivot, fail fast or adapt quickly – all traits of successful young companies in the digital age. Brands that can live up to their vision and values without resorting to militant conformity will naturally find resonance with new customers, because individuality is a highly-valued quality.