5 Timely UX Lessons From a Mystical, Small Town Vacuum Museum
Sometimes we all need reminders of lessons we may think we know but have forgotten. Some are bigger than others. Some might even be dangerous to forget. I think these lessons I was recently reminded of are those. It was unlikely how I was even reminded of them, but as a UX designer, they are ones I cannot forget. Even if you’re not a UX designer, but are a manager of teams, Scrum master, developer, etc., and have any input into UX at your company, take heed.
So it started when my wife took me to a vacuum museum…
for Father’s Day…
2 hours away…
With three kids, while literally hearing the cliched question, “Are we there yet?” in repetition.
I was considering how I might rank this Father’s Day amongst the others.
As it turned out, it truly became one of the most remarkable little day trips I’ve taken in a long while. And, if that wasn’t all, I was reminded of some pretty powerful lessons that we should all remember if we have any input on crafting a user’s experience.
Now, there are many elements to a successful experience design, to be sure — including systems, services, interfaces, technology, architecture, development teams, etc. And there are many methodologies, tools to use, and lessons to learn. Definitely more than what a single article can touch on, but what I will touch on here are a few of the powerful ones among all that complexity that should be generally applicable, and can be dangerous if forgotten.
As a UX designer, I more often than not try to pick apart why I might like or dislike an experience, product, or service. This little day trip had so much good stuff to think about and comment on: my family, a waterfall at a cold, natural spring on a hot summer day, a small town lunch with local charm, and a little renovated barn turned winery down a windy country road. Each with experiences made real that someone had to craft to be that way. Even the man-made waterfall at the natural spring. Each was nice in and of itself, but the whole day was much more. And this is an analogy to the first lesson.
Lesson 1: The Sum Should be Greater Than the Parts
A user’s experience can be a sum of many parts, that when successfully crafted, should always be greater than the sum of those parts. It is optimal, therefore, to approach the experience thinking in terms of a whole that will come to being, even if you are responsible for just a part of it. All those many parts will be connected and will form some singular larger thing — The Experience.
You want to be cognizant that there will be a “sum of the parts” when you are part of designing an experience. Be sure you affect your work to the point you help make that “sum of the parts” extraordinary.
Yes, you read that right. And you might be as confused as I was why she chose a vacuum museum. I laughed at the idea, sarcastically smiling at her and stating, “It wouldn’t have been my first choice.” I live in the future with you and now I know better. But at that moment she was doing what she could and did what she thought would be good given the evidence. “It had great reviews from someplace or another,” she said. I remember thinking they probably just had a good content marketer.
On top of that, the true reason for that particular small town trip was to meet my own dad halfway between what would have been a four hour drive for either of us. So she only had one small town, and a few places to choose from that day. It was simply what she had to work with.
And it’s also another lesson.
Lesson 2: Work With What You’ve Got
Sometimes you won’t have a lot to work with, and many times it may seem less than optimal, but it might also turn out to be as good as or better than the result you would have otherwise anticipated. Deal with it, make the best of it, and take action anyway.
This happens a lot. In fact, it’s been my working experience that it is ALWAYS this way. Your project may not get the funding you expected. You might have to bootstrap some hallway testing, or an impromptu design feedback session where all you have to give away as “compensation” is a thank you or a cup of coffee. You might have to design on a PC (gasp) or have to use less than new software. You might be in a regulated company and can’t use cloud-based software (ouch). Doesn’t matter. Get it done. You’ll find a way. You have to, because someone else will eventually. Again, work with what you have — make it your mindset.
Now, I’m NOT saying live with it without question. I am one of those in the regulated company column. And I’m a squeaky wheel who tries to propose good cases and quantifiable proof for changes. But I don’t always get what I ask for, even with good quantifiable proof showing that it’s better. I live with it and make it work, but not without question.
Now, as you’ve guessed, the anchor of our trip was that visit to the small town’s vacuum museum. It was a UX designer’s dream filled with examples of design, research, and a curator who I’m pretty sure is an ancient magical sage from some long forgotten time. I’m pretty sure I heard whispers in the wind saying, “I’ve been ‘doing UX’ before ‘UX’ was a thing.”
The little museum is in the rear of a football field-sized factory, on the outer road of an interstate. Hard to find, and nondescript except for some nicely designed billboards off the highway and a large sign above its double doors.
We walked in and said hi to the man working. He was smiling, very pleasant, and after a few questions from us told us to start at the early 1900s and make our way around to present day.
We did. And as we did so, taking in all the posters of vintage ads and antique vacuums, saw a sign with a simple question: “Do you know why vacuums have headlights?” I love unique little bits of history and relish finding answers to little questions like this. But the man was not around to ask. As all mystic sages probably do, they disappear for a moment, leaving you to your thoughts, until the most opportune moment to return and solidify their lesson. We would have to wait.
As we made our way around, I couldn’t help but sense this was a private collection of some kind. You could just feel how much someone cared for these pieces of that particular history. There were some I’m betting might only be one of a few left in existence.
At one point, I heard my wife ask someone, “Why DO vacuums have headlights?”
The man began explaining, and as he did so, he did with clear passion, knowledge, and care for the subject. As it turns out, when the first electric-corded vacuums were created, most people had only one electric outlet in a room. Not on the walls but the ceiling, which was where a single light bulb hung to provide the light. So to vacuum, they would unscrew their light bulb and screw in the socket of the vacuum. Without headlights on the vacuum, they would just be vacuuming in the dark. Interesting. Never knew that. Now I wondered if our vacuum had a headlight, and if it did why it even needed it? There’s probably a marketing or “mental model” lesson in there somewhere.
We eventually talked more about how the museum came to be, why it was in the factory, and how the engineers in the factory above the museum would come down to his collection and ask him for insight, like: “What’s the best brush ever put on a vacuum and why?” They would discuss, and the engineers would listen. So this man who knew the history of how this problem had already been solved was available, in close proximity, and was able to provide a solution with his knowledge. This also reminded me of a lesson.
Lesson 3: Learn From History
History can teach you a lot, and many times can give you an answer leading to a solution. Many things have already been done and may just be waiting for someone to rediscover them.
The answer may have already been solved, been done, or have existing research to help you toward your answer. Do some digging and you might find that the answer to a solution has already been solved. In my experience with larger companies, research is regularly forgotten about. People transfer to different teams or get new jobs. Data creation pops into existence on a logarithmic scale and intranets might not be able to organize it well, hiding a lot of research or associated information. Some research might be paper based from 10 years ago. And fyi, by “history” I don’t mean long passed. Hidden “history” might be from last year when the person you just replaced created a design but named it “myPrototype_Final.rp.” Dig and learn.
On a particular project I’m working on now, a discovery of some designs and research from at least three years prior informed me that some solutions I was looking for had already been worked on and paid for. I’m making variations of some of them now. It saved me at least a month of very hard work. And I’m utilizing the hundreds of thousands of dollars already spent.
So, as it turns out, the engineers at this factory now have someone who knows the answers and the history right there with them. That’s why the company and the owner of the collection came to their agreement for the location of the museum. It helps everyone involved. It makes a better product and adds to the experience, I’m sure. How well would the alternative have turned out? Meetings, calls, emails, etc. That works well when that’s all you have, but what if you wanted specific knowledge right then to point you in the right direction?
What if you were tasked with a small but important side project where you had to create business requirements, design an interface, and create a prototype within two weeks? You’re a large company and each of those tasks is done by a different person. What do you do when normally the company culture is setting up meetings only “when schedules sync up”? What you do is a lesson the museum’s location reminded me of:
Lesson 4: Reduce the Distance
Reduce the time and space between your problem and the solution. This can lead to accomplishing more in a smaller timeframe, and by extension, with less investment.
Distance can be a function of time and “speed to solution” in many cases. If I need an answer and I had to wait for a Slack comment because the person is on another floor in the office, then that equals time. If they were right there next to me, I could ask and the time is reduced. That’s sometimes only seconds or minutes. But those count. Anyone who disagrees, I would argue, is wasteful. Sounds harsh, but that’s my belief. And so far, all my experiences seem to balance toward that end.
Now, granted, the physical space example I use is just that, an example. And there are examples that show being close all the time may not be optimal (as once thought). But the essence is correct in many cases. And there are many ways to accomplish reducing time and/or space.
You might have a team where the developers, designers, BAs, etc., are separated. Get them together. Even if you are a large company and it has to be scheduled for periods of time. The answer will present itself a lot faster, and in my experience, a higher quality answer because of the reality of the human relationships and interactions being formed.
You might hire a designer/programmer “unicorn” that is good at both.
Your company might be used to setting up a meeting to “talk about the situation.” You don’t always need that. It might take days to set up a meeting with larger companies and a lot of people. If you need answers quick, go to their desk and talk to them. If your job depended on you getting that answer within an hour, I bet you’d find a way. If someone gets their feelings hurt or you fear they might think you’re leaving them out of a meeting because you worked too quickly, then just be respectful and explain. And still do it. Or let everyone know you have a personal deadline. If they can make it, great. If not, share with them after. You can be respectful and demanding simultaneously.
So the stories continued and I was told how in the ’50s some engineers at a vacuum company were wanting to know how the housewives of the time used their product. They did what eventually became very common. They set up a staged area like a home would appear with a two-way mirror to watch behind. They invited these housewives to use their product and caught insights from their observations. Those observations helped the successful design of the product. Why didn’t they just ask? Why not have a focus group? Those work, right? This brings me, unsurprisingly, to another lesson I was reminded of:
Lesson 5: Actions Speak Louder Than Words
It’s what your users DO that is extremely important.
When testing, or moderating focus groups, or gathering research, just asking and capturing their response won’t necessarily be the best way to arrive at a solution. It could, arguably, even be a detriment. Many times, people don’t truly know what they want, or can’t adequately articulate it. Watch them though, if you can, and you’ll get insight. A previous marketing research boutique I worked at had a great tagline: “It’s not what they say, it’s what they do.” We used ethnography to really see what people did in their environment. It was impactful.
Many insights can be gotten by observation “in the wild.” Their actions can provide value you would not have uncovered from talking. Mix those insights with responses, and they will both benefit. Be observant in the manners you can and focus on their actions. Especially with new or forward-looking solutions. I don’t advocate not listening, I merely suggest we be aware that actions can sometimes be a more powerful generator of insights.
We were at the end of our tour. We talked a bit more, and after some thank you’s for the personal attention and discussion we left. Afterward, I thought awhile and realized the experience I had wasn’t necessarily because of the museum itself or of the items. It was actually what I had learned and the experience I had because of the owner of the collection. His passion and care for his collection really was apparent and infectious. Hearing his stories was quite interesting. I’m sure that factory is infinitely better off because of his contribution.
This brings me to my last lesson I was reminded of (and sixth, if you’re counting):
Bonus Lesson: Surround Yourself With Infectious People
Seek out the people who enjoy what they’re doing and know it well. Get them on your team, fast. They will infect you with their passion and increase productivity.
Attitude is a whole heck of a lot. I think we all intuitively know it. People with infectious, positive attitudes make your workday better. You can produce more, be less stressful, be more creative, find inspiration, etc. People who are very passionate about what they do are a lift for us all. I’ve been lucky enough to work with a few people like this. I know I’ve come up with solutions, ideas, and work that was much better because of working with this type of person. Heck, it’s probably more precise to say “our ideas,” because I know they would not have materialized without that person being there.
So let’s summarize what we’ve been reminded of. (I know the title says “5 Lessons,” but it’s still technically correct. There’s just a bonus one added!)
- A user’s experience can be a sum of many parts, that when successfully crafted, should always be greater than the sum of those parts. It is optimal, therefore, to approach the experience thinking in terms of a whole that will come to being, even if you are responsible for just a part of it. All those many parts will be connected and will form some singular larger thing — The Experience.
- Sometimes you won’t have a lot to work with, and many times it may seem less than optimal, but it might also turn out to be as good as or better than the result you would have otherwise anticipated. Deal with it, make the best of it, and take action anyway.
- History can teach you a lot and many times can give you an answer leading to a solution. Many things have already been done and may just be waiting for someone to rediscover them.
- Reduce the time and space between your problem and the solution. This can lead to accomplishing more, in a shorter timeframe, and by extension, with less investment.
- It’s what your users DO that is extremely important.
- Seek out the people who enjoy what they’re doing and know it well. Get them on your team, fast. They will infect you with their passion and increase productivity.
Take these lessons and do something with them. Knowledge doesn’t mean a whole heck of a lot if you don’t put action to it.
No matter what, I hope you find these lessons worth being reminded about, even if they’re not all entirely new to you. It was almost as if the universe was conspiring to make sure I was reminded of these lessons. They’re very timely for me, and I bet a few of you also. I came away feeling as if I stumbled upon some mystical, magical place that only appears in this small town when “outsiders” come to visit and need to be reminded of the way things work. For a moment, this mystical sage allowed me to share in a speck of the knowledge he had acquired through untold lands and allowed me to part with some of his ancient wisdom.
As we were driving away, I half expected the door to disappear in time and space as if it never existed. But for a moment, I swear I heard again a whisper on the wind, “… been doing UX before UX was a thing …”
Thank you for reading this! It was an article I originally contributed to Content Science Review.