UX - a hidden superpower?
Our job is to understand everyone’s reality. Done well we can line up business efforts with the intended goal and customer needs through the art of UX.
I recently read Alain de Botton's new novel, The Course of Love.
Like most love stories, it has two characters who meet, fall in love and start a life together. What made it stand out is the way it exposes the complexity of human interaction. Thanks to de Botton’s ‘omnipotent narrator,’ the reader sees the story in a far wider view than the characters can.
“We take this idea of love with us into adulthood. Grown up, we hope for a re-creation of what it felt like to be ministered to and indulged. In a secret corner of our mind, we picture a lover who will anticipate our needs, read our hearts, act selflessly and make everything better. It sounds ‘romantic’; yet it is a blueprint for disaster.”
When the lovers project this ‘romantic’ expectation onto each other, the reader gets to see just how fragile their reality is.
Their view of the world is so extremely personal (and therefore biased) and informed by a multitude of invisible factors: upbringing, culture, geography, environment and significant past experiences.
Blind is the protagonist.
In life, most people are subject to this same powerful bias. Most of the world, even in our immediate surroundings, is invisible to us. As a UX professional, de Botton’s approach is very familiar. It’s my job to play that omnipotent narrator role and help steer businesses towards a more successful digital presence.
It can be a powerful way to uncover where perceptions clash, which can lead to problematic outcomes, and show how to realign them. A business, and the people in it, are often caught up in their part of the story, and that can sometimes be as narrow, and subject to bias as any romantic lead. The UXer can bring a valuable outside perspective.
As the characters in ‘The Course of Love’ found, it’s hard to relate successfully to each other all the time, and even harder to be objective about it. It’s a frequent blind spot – we think everyone else shares our view of the world. When ‘everyone else’ includes the customers of your business, the truth can remain hidden far longer than is healthy.
The job of a UX professional is to throw light on objective truth. They will use all the tools and skills they know to delve deep into businesses and understand the competing realities of the protagonists – its customers and employees. They turn multiple experiences and perspectives into something objective, and sharable. That might be a set of diagrams, or a narrative that highlights the pain points. These points may represent the moments where an employee’s view and the customer reality don’t align. It’s easy to dismiss competing realities, but they’re often the most fertile areas. It’s here businesses can add the most value.
Love is not a given.
‘The Course of Love’ reminded me of the value in seeing the bigger picture, but also how important it is to sweat the detail. In its depiction of a relationship, it reminds us that love is not something we experience, but something we master.
Love, over time, is what happens when a relationship lasts. Relationships that last are made of small kindly, gestures, executed over time, and with effort. This is not unromantic. It’s simply how people work. It takes a lot to put someone else at the centre of your world. And so, successful relationships are defined by patience, persistence, creativity, enquiry and dialogue. These are human skills, but skills it can be hard to remember, let alone master. In the book de Botton calls them 'quiet, unnoticed labours.'
It struck me that this concept is not confined to interactions within romantic relationships. It extends to all relationships. It’s just that in business relationships, we’re probably not seeking love. We’re seeking influence or impact.
UX, with its focus on people and users, is an inherently attentive discipline. To create impact, a digital experience will be the result of great care and analysis. A good UXer will spend a lot of their time and effort on these 'quiet, unnoticed labours' across the entire business. And it’s important that we start noticing them.
In a recent talk, Anne Cooper, Deputy Clinical Director and Chief Nurse at NHS Digital, told the story of a project that aimed to digitise a patient whiteboard tracking system.
The organisation had cared enough to do all the right UX things. But at the release stage something crucial was missing. On the physical whiteboard, there had always been some red dots, stuck next to patient names. The significance of these red dots hadn’t been established, or documented clearly, and the red dots were not carried through to the final digital solution.
It turned out they were fundamental. They acted as a marker by and for ancillary staff, so they could identify when patients had been discharged, and whether the treatment room had been replenished.
A tiny detail, but critical. Effective contextual enquiry (essential listening and observing, in situ) of all ER employees, not just medical and clinical staff, would have uncovered it. But it takes a commitment to detail to pick up on it.
In reality, UXers are not ‘omnipotent narrators’. UX is not a superpower. It’s simply an aptitude for listening, observing and asking the right questions at the right time, and taking note of all the answers. Examining all business relationships and allowing all parties involved to express themselves.
We must, like a narrator, retain our objectivity so we can appreciate the view of our protagonists. But we must also understand the wider context, the intimate detail, and any peripheral influences.
UX is the ability to master our own subjectivity, slipping in and out to inspect and analyse the full context of the digital product, whether macro (the environment, the competition and the market), or micro (the feelings, actions and communications between people).
Our job is to understand everyone’s reality. Done well we can line up business efforts with the intended goal and customer needs. But it requires those softer skills – the quiet, unnoticed labours – of creativity, patience, persistence, enquiry and dialogue to achieve it. When we put these together with our insight and analysis, the narrative arc can be transformational.
True are on the lookout for a brilliant UXer. Take a look at our UX Vacancy for more details.