I read an interview you did with Kevin Hoffman where you said, ‘we now know what makes a design intuitive’. Can you tell me more?
In its simplest form you have to step back and think about how someone knows about a design; how do we know what it is about a design that makes it good or bad? So, you start with this idea that when someone walks up to a design they either know how to use it at that moment or they don’t. And if they don’t know how to use it, you have to look at the knowledge that they came up to the design with, what we call current knowledge, as well as the knowledge that they need to achieve whatever their objective is. Whether that’s getting money out of the automatic teller machine or looking at a radiological scan and diagnosing an anomaly in the chest cavity, they have to have knowledge to get that task done. If that knowledge is far away from the knowledge they currently have then they’re going to have to either learn how to do it or the design is going to have to be simplified so they no longer need that knowledge. The space between the two is called the knowledge gap.
A design is intuitive when that gap is very small. It could be so small that when I walk up to the design I instantly know what to do because everything in my previous life’s experience has taught me how to deal with this, even if it’s something I’ve never seen before – I can walk up to an automatic teller machine that I’ve never seen before and I can operate it because my experience with other automatic teller machines has told me what to do, for example. Or I get trained, but that happens so quickly that I don’t even notice it. There’s messaging on the screen or there are helpful graphics and animations and those things basically tell me what to do and it takes me milliseconds to traverse that knowledge gap. That’s intuitive. Something is intuitive when I walk up to it and I know what to do.
Now getting to the point where any user can walk up to your design and know exactly what to do is a lot of work. But that’s how you make something intuitive, by minimising the knowledge gap to almost nothing.
I saw a great video recently of a guy, I think at a Pakistani border, who walked up to the X-ray machine where you’re supposed to put your bag and he got in it with his bag and went through it. I thought that was a lovely example of somebody with no previous experience of that kind of situation.
This kind of thing happens all the time, and you have to think about how you figure things out. Most of the time you figure it out by watching the person in front of you. But if there is no person in front of you and you’re by yourself then you’re just completely clueless as to what you’re supposed to do.
I’ve experienced that in a Danish supermarket, because they don’t operate in the same way that an American supermarket does. So, in a Danish supermarket the cashier looks more like a bank teller. There’s no belt and just a shelf. What you have to do is put your basket on the shelf and pass things to the cashier, who rings them up. But the first time I went to a Danish supermarket I was confused by that because it was outside my experience of a supermarket.
If you look at when the Washington DC subway system first opened, it was the first time you ever had to use a machine to get a ticket. They were so afraid that people wouldn’t be able to figure out how to use the machines that they hired thousands of college students to stand in line and use the machine. They didn’t have them teach anybody, they weren’t there to be helpful. They would just get in line, buy a ticket and then go to the end of the line and do it again. That way you always had someone buying a ticket to watch in front of you so that you were never walking up to it and saying: “I have no idea how to use this and I don’t have any examples to learn from.”
Even now, in the US Hyatt hotels have been shifting away from having a registration desk and instead you’re supposed to just walk up to some person with an iPad and they check you in on the tablet. But it’s really awkward because you’re so used to having that counter – I would call that ‘counter’ intuitive.
Your company has been going for 29 years. I bet a lot has changed in terms of technology, but what hasn’t changed that much?
Humans haven’t changed, we haven’t evolved one bit. In fact, here in the United States it’s possible we’ve gone in the other direction. The technology changes but people stay the same, their behaviour stays the same, their ability to respond to something stays the same. How big our fingers are, how fast we move, what our reaction times are, how quickly we interpret information, all of that has stayed the same. The problems that people have, they don’t change – we still need to communicate, coordinate, collaborate. The technology just changes and hopefully it gets us closer to being able to assist those things better.
“A lot of organisations just don’t have this basic sense that design is going to make a difference”
Is there anything you found challenging back when you started that you still find challenging now?
People. What I mean is on the process side of things people still want everything to be so easy that they don’t have to do any work. They don’t want to have to invest in figuring out what the design should be, they just want to be able to wave their hand and make it happen – and I get that. There are days I come home and I want to just wave my hand and dinner appears. There’s this constant reluctance to invest in good design and that’s partially because there’s no pressure for it. A lot of organisations just don’t have this basic sense that design is going to make a difference and that’s coupled with the fact that many people aren’t literate in design. By literate in design I mean they can’t tell the difference between a good design and a bad design.
So, if you think of design as a rendering of intent, a good design is a design that renders intention well and matches what the users need. A bad design doesn’t render intention well and doesn’t match what the users need. You can measure design on a scale of frustration to delight – that hasn’t changed, that’s always been the case – what has changed is that we’ve realised that we can measure design on a scale of frustration to delight.
“There are organisations that believe that it doesn’t matter whether they frustrate their users or not”
When people have complained about a bad design it’s always because the design is frustrating them. When they’re enamoured with a great design it’s because it’s delighting them. You have this notion of frustration to delight and there are organisations that believe that it doesn’t matter whether they frustrate their users or not, partially because they feel their users don’t have any choice. For instance, if you work in a company and you want to get reimbursed for the expenses that you made during travel, you can use the travel expense system and if it’s incredibly frustrating they don’t care because that’s the only way you’re going to get your travel expenses reimbursed. If you don’t want to use it, don’t get your travel expenses reimbursed.
So, they’ve got this locked-in user and it doesn’t make any sense in their head to invest in making the product better. But that, unfortunately, is short and narrow sighted because you’ve got this employee who is struggling with the expense reporting system. That struggle takes far longer than a well-designed, delightful expense reporting system, where maybe you just take a picture of your receipt, or you email the digital version of the receipt to an address where it automatically enters all the information and the employee doesn’t have to do any more than just that one act.
Suddenly you have a different game, because you have now made that employee more productive. You’ve removed a point of frustration from their day, which makes them a happier employee and happier employees produce better work. You’ve probably also reduced error in the system, because on the other side of the expense reporting system you have someone whose job it is to correct all the mistakes that are made and probably check for mistakes. You’ve got this inefficiency in terms of how you process things – mistakes are being made because it’s too frustrating. All these things that are happening are costs to your organisation that aren’t being spent on making a better product, delighting your customers, doing all the things that are actually in the core mission of your company. When you look at it that way, suddenly investing in better design for that tool that people have no choice about using actually makes a business difference. And you can extend that to almost anything that’s going to be built. There are very few cases where not investing in design is the better outcome.
I spoke with Caroline Jarett recently, who told me that when it comes to good form design, most people focus on aesthetic design rather than the right questions. Do you consistently see people focusing attention on the wrong areas? If so, what are they?
Absolutely. People always focus on the wrong things because we don’t have good feedback in place. It’s very easy to look at something and decide whether you think it’s ugly or not. It’s much harder to look at something and decide whether it’s going to be unproductive or not. You get that immediate feedback on aesthetics, but you don’t get that immediate feedback on the non-aesthetic portion, so people focus on the thing they get feedback on, that’s just human nature.
I think that the way to fix the problem is to start giving feedback on the other piece. For example, I can have the world’s prettiest expense reporting app, but it’s still clumsy to use and it still has all the problems we talked about earlier. Now what I need to do is talk about how long it takes to supply my travel report. If a salesman is spending two hours a week putting in expenses from all their customer visits instead of spending those two hours actually making a customer happy and selling them something, that’s costing the company money. So how do I get that feedback to be as obvious as how good the design looks? That’s the trick. We call that exposure and the idea is to get as much exposure to your users and how they use the product or service as possible. The more exposure you can get, the more you know whether there’s a quality design or not. That will quickly shift your focus from aesthetics to the actual functions.
“User research teaches me that I need to always be doing more user research.”
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned through user research?
One of the things that I regularly learn through user research is that no matter how much user research I do, people still surprise me in user research. I have yet to get to the point where I’ve decided I have seen all the research I need to see and we can just keep designing now without having to do more. User research teaches me that I need to always be doing more user research.
What would you say is the most misunderstood concept in UX?
It’s hard to think about the most misunderstood thing, but I do know what the most not understood thing is. So, there are basically three things that an organisation needs to have in order to be successful in producing great products and services. One thing is that you have to have exposure, that constant connection with real people doing real stuff with your product. That means actually watching them use it; not just talking to them, not just asking them ‘what should we do better?’, but actually sitting next to people and watching them use your product or service, watching them go through that experience. The recommendation that we’ve made is that for each person who has any influence over how the product comes out – developers, product managers, designers, maybe even the lawyers, general managers – needs a minimum of two hours of exposure to real users every six weeks.
Most organisations don’t have that. In most organisations most of the people don’t get any exposure at all. It’s funny, because when they’re small and they’re a startup they get a ton of exposure because they give something to a customer and a customer complains and they fix it. There’s always this interaction with the customer because when you only have five customers you have to make all of them happy. But when you get to be a big company and you have millions of customers it’s very easy to never talk to any of them. It’s this great irony: I have way more customers to choose from and I don’t talk to any of them because we know what we’re doing, we’re successful, we’re good at what we do. That lack of exposure is the first thing.
The second thing is that the best companies have what we call experience vision. This is a five-year vision, sometimes longer and sometimes shorter, but it’s a long-term vision of what the experience will be like at that point. So, it’s not what the design will be like, or what the technology will be like, it’s not even what the business will be like, it’s what the experience will be like. If we’re talking about that travel expense application, it will be: what is it going to be like for that salesman to file their travel expenses five years from now? Maybe the salesman doesn’t do anything. Maybe there’s this machine learning tool that’s watching everything that the salesman does and it just notices that they used their corporate credit card to pay for this, or they used their personal credit card during working hours to meet with this customer based on what was in their calendar and what they could pick up from the notes of the meeting. And the next thing you know, it’s automatically filing all the expenses for you and the salesman just has to review a list. It’s a smart system that watches what the salesman does and just takes care of picking up all the expenses, submitting and paying them in real time. Now you’ve got this reporting system and this payment system that’s all automatic and we can say: “Ok that’s what the expenses system of the future is, and now what are baby steps it’s going to take for us to get to that five-year vision?”
The last thing that organisations don’t realise they need to have is a culture of continuous learning. They need to have it built in so that they are always talking about and always thinking about what they’ve just learned; that they have the reflection time built in to sit back and say, “oh that’s something we didn’t know”. Because it turns out that one of the things that traps a lot of people is they get stuck thinking that they know everything and that the mistakes they’re making are because they didn’t follow their process properly.
“They get into these traps where they’re actually not making anything better, they’re just building the same crappy thing over and over and over again.”
They get into these traps where they’re actually not making anything better, they’re just building the same crappy thing over and over and over again. And if they had the opportunity to actually sit back and think: “Yesterday we didn’t know that all our sales people spend all this time filling out their expense reports, but today we do.” Suddenly we can say we’ve learned something and that’s important. So in the future I’m going to think about how we handle expense reports differently, and when I give the sales people what I think is a better design and it turns out not to be better, we can have a discussion and I say: “I didn’t know that this thing that seems completely obvious to me is not obvious to a salesperson because they don’t understand the technology the way I do, so I’ve learned that. So in the future I’m not going to make that assumption that people understand technology in the way I do, but I’m going to start learning more about what they know about technology before I put the design in front of them.” And slowly but surely you get better and better and better at designing things and over time you realise that you’re just better at what you do. The whole organisation has to embrace that culture of learning.
Those are the three things – having exposure about how people are currently using your designs, having a vision for what that experience should look like in the future, and having a culture of continuous learning where you’re always reflecting and saying this is something I’ve learned and it’s important; I need to share that I’ve learned this with other people here. If you only do those three things you will see a dramatic improvement in the quality of the products and services that you produce and the amount of delight that your customers have.
Are these the kinds of conversations you’re having with the organisations you work with?
Absolutely, this is where we start. The first thing I do when I start working with an organisation is look at what is their current exposure, what is the vision that they have if they have one, and how is their culture set up so that they’re continuously learning? Based on each of those things we can put together a set of plays that will improve the ones that need improving. So some organisations have great exposure but no vision. Some organisations have a great vision but no exposure. A lot of organisations haven’t done enough to set up a great culture of continuous learning.
We have plays for each of these things and we can go through and pick the plays we want from the play book and make that happen.
What excites you about the future of UX?
The future of UX that I’m most excited about is that we will see a day, I’m convinced of it, where there is no more bad design in the world. I think it will take us 100 years.
What’s the difference between someone who’s good at UX and someone who’s great at UX?
The big difference is that a great designer knows how to say no to ideas that were just good enough but not great. The other thing is that a great designer knows how to get the rest of the organisation doing really good design, so they’re very much collaborative and they’ve done a good job of setting the expectation that if a product design is not good enough, the organisation is ok with holding that back; they don’t ship it.
The difference between an organisation that produces good designs and an organisation that produces great designs is that the organisation that produces great designs actually reaches what we call the tipping point. This is the inflection point between when an organisation thinks it’s ok to ship something where it technically works and meets all the business needs but the design could use improvement; to when it technically works, meets our business requirements but we’re actually not going to ship it unless the design is really great. Organisations that hold back, knowing that holding back is costly, will create cost-effective mechanisms to prevent that from happening going forward without reducing their quality standards. Those organisations consistently ship great results and a great designer is at the centre of that.
“One of the myths that UX people get wrong a lot is that they need to quantify return on investment in terms of discrete acts”
You’ve talked before about the $300 million button. Do you have any other examples of something that has had that kind of impact?
That one’s pretty crisp and clear because we changed one thing and made $300 million, but those types of things don’t come along very often. You can see that great design is changing the world. You look at companies like Air BnB or Tesla and you see that really what makes a difference there is great design.
But when it comes to pinning down what caused the impact, you need to realise that most organisations don’t need to do that. One of the myths that UX people get wrong a lot is that they need to quantify return on investment in terms of discrete acts and that’s a mistake because of the problem you cite, that the world doesn’t happen in terms of discrete acts, it’s a very complex system and to be able to isolate this is very difficult.
If you go down that road and try to find a discrete return on investment declaration to be able to prove to management, you will fail every time. What you have to do is to point out the obvious, why are we tolerating these expenses? I could probably quantify the amount of money salesmen will make if I give them back two hours a week on travel expenses, but it’s easier for me to just show that it’s obvious, that two hours a week on something that isn’t selling to customers is not a good use of a salesman’s time. That’s an easier story to tell, and it doesn’t matter what the dollar amount underlying it is.
At the end of the day, any smart executive is going to know that a salesman not spending a minute selling is a wasted minute – or they don’t understand sales, at which point no return on investment is going to help them understand this.
You’ve been running a UIE for a long time now. Do you have any tips for anyone else running their own UX business?
When I started there weren’t any UX businesses so we were amongst the first, and nobody knew what that business was. Now there is no such thing as a UX business because there are millions of different ways to approach it. Any consultancy is just a service, and it’s helping people do things they can’t do by themselves. So maybe what they can’t do is figure out what the UX issues are in their product, at which point you build a business around research. Maybe what they can’t do is figure out how to solve them once they know what they are, at which point you build it around design. Maybe they don’t know how to build their own UX team, or how to make design a central part of their strategy, at which point you build a strategy consultancy. All of those are fundamentally different things and there’s flavours of all of them, at which point there is no such thing as a UX business. Or, to put it another way, every business is a UX business. If every business is about making products better then they’re all UX businesses. I think the biggest advice I have is stop thinking of yourself as a UX business. Figure out what you actually do and where you bring value and frame it that way.
I’m always struggling to explain what I do to people. If you meet someone at a party who has no idea about you, how do you describe what you do?
I basically say: “Have you ever been frustrated by a computer, or an app, or a fax machine, or something at the airport? I work with the people who try to make that frustration go away.”