The User Experience Mindset

Awaken your UX mind and dispel the myths of non-UX thinkers.

An Excerpt from Chapter 1 of Practical UX Design.
“Silicon Valley is a mindset, not a location.” – Reid Hoffman

Let’s begin by introducing the first topic that every User Experience (UX) practitioner, and business stakeholder needs to understand about UX: The mindset of UX and what it means to think like a UX practitioner. However, before we do that, let’s understand something about UX itself.

UX is a skill. It’s a practice. It’s about where to place a button on a website and how to organize content. It’s about how to make things look pretty and how to improve screen and interface design. It’s about wireframes, focus groups, and usability studies. These are the things we know about UX, but what else should we know?

UX is also about collaboration. It’s about solving problems and finding solutions. UX is about looking at the world with a unique perspective and a unique mindset. UX is also about focusing on the right people at the right time, including customers, end users and also stakeholders whose business goals and objectives are directly related to UX decisions. As you will see, however, UX is harder to get across than you might think. Good design may seem like a no brainer, but as you will see, it is not that simple.

In this chapter we will look at:
• The myths about mindset
• Solving problems effectively
• Examples of using the UX mindset
• The perils of ignoring UX

Let’s begin with a story, a myth if you will, that needs to be dispelled if we expect to deliver better design though UX, better solutions and help those who need our help to understand our true value.

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” — Henry Ford

Dispelling the Myth of “Faster Horses”

If you’ve been in the corporate world or in technology for any length of time, you have probably heard this quote. It implies, albeit subtly, that engaging users in order to find out what they need or want is not important because, hey, what do they know? Seeing this quote and hearing it used for so long, it always seemed odd that Ford would say such a thing. It was also compelling to find out whether he actually did. Not surprisingly, when you do a little digging, you find rather quickly that something is amiss.

The “faster horses” quote is actually relatively new, first appearing around the year 2001 in a letter sent to the UK publication Marketing Week. Additional research by the Henry Ford Museum found that this quote never appeared in any of Ford’s own letters and writings. The museum also claimed that while “Mr. Ford wrote numerous articles for a variety of periodicals and newspapers, the quotes attributed to him were varied and often unsubstantiated.” — Hmmm…so if Ford never said it, why does it persist and why is it attributed to a man who was highly innovative, creative, and effective in the solutions he delivered on a global scale?

This quote originated in a marketing publication. The differences between marketing and UX have always been quite diverse. Marketing tends to view customers from an inside-out perspective evidenced by its strong focus on new customer acquisition and customer retention. UX views its customers from the outside in, working closely with them to understand the problems they face and helping to solve them.

Viewed with a marketing mindset, “faster horses” implies that a designer or an inventor, in the case of Henry Ford, knew better than his customers. Looking from the inside-out, “faster horses” implies that we can make assumptions about our customers/users based on data, usage patterns and thinking that if we did ask customers they would not really know what was best for them. The “faster horses” quote also implies that designers can impact a customer’s experience based solely on intuition, instincts, experience and business smarts instead of in-depth research and engagement. The “faster horses” quote does one more thing as well: it makes the role of a UX practitioner much harder.

For starters, “faster horses” thinking diminishes the understanding of what UX does and how its solutions rely on understanding customers and end users. It also undercuts the ability of UX practitioners to engage in customer/user facing projects because those with the “faster horses” mindset can just do it themselves and then just pass along their work to the UX folks to test it for any last minute usability and interaction issues. Is it the best solution? Maybe or maybe not, but so long as end users can do the tasks then that is good enough.

“Faster horses” thinking also discounts the level of research and trial and error required to deliver real solutions, not just for customers but for business success as well. As we will see in later chapters, there is much more to problem solving than assuming we know what customers want. “Faster horses” thinking also implies that great design can be done in a vacuum, where anyone with enough experience can design and deliver a customer-/user-based solution without having to engage users face to face. “Faster horses” thinking also allows designers to avoid the discomfort sometimes associated with creativity; something we will look at in the next chapter.

The reality is that ignoring our customers/users and thinking we know best can cause many problems, like project failures, over spending, underperforming and lowering user efficiency, effectiveness and satisfaction. These can have huge implications and unless the mindset of “faster horses” is changed these problems will continue to grow.

While going it alone may paint a romantic image of a lone inventor or experienced team delivering what the world needs and making history doing it, realistically it is impossible to do without deep research, customer/user engagement and empathy for the user and stakeholders as well whose goal it is improve business outcomes in a consistently provable and measurable way. The only true approach, therefore, is one that utilizes a truly authentic UX mindset.

The Disservice of “Faster Horses”

Romanticizing lone wolves: people who seemingly go it alone and solve major problems without the help of others, provides us with great stories and legends, but it also does a disservice to the hard work, skill, collaboration, trial and error, problem-solving skills, and the mindset necessary to make it all happen.

There is actually a lot of evidence to support this. It is most readily seen with the amount of projects that fail every year due to teams inadequately addressing customer/user needs. For example, in a video presentation by Dr. Susan Weinschenk of Human Factors International, titled The ROI of User Experience, Dr. Weinschenk stated that the amount of money spent worldwide on projects related to Information Technology (IT) is estimated at $1 trillion per year. The number of projects abandoned because they are hopelessly inadequate is 15 percent.

Refer to http:// for more information on human factors and its importance in project success.

This means $150 billion is wasted each year because teams are not utilizing the right mindset when it matters most, that is, before projects go into development; before requirements are defined; after adequate communication with customers, end users, developers and stakeholders has occurred; and that everyone is in agreement. Dr. Weinschenk also pointed out the problem of office politics, where teams often branch off into silos of ownership. Then, when projects fail to deliver blame is placed elsewhere, further dividing teams that should be working together towards a single, company/business focused goal. Dr. Weinschenk further pointed out that in order to solve this problem, teams need to get out in front of these issues using techniques such as business and user research and data and analytics to determine business and customer related metrics, interviewing subject matter experts (SMEs), customers and users, usability testing, root-cause analysis, prototyping and wireframing. All these techniques play a major role in establishing a UX mindset because we are no longer thinking as separate teams. We are now thinking as a unit with the right focus on effective outcomes and measurable results.

When Facts Ruin a Good Story

Let’s pretend for a moment that Henry Ford actually did utter those words about “faster horses.” How would this story hold up when we look at the reality of the situation? Were people in 1908 really looking for faster horses? Were they truly oblivious to the real problems that horse-powered transportation created by the turn of the century? Also, if people were really interested in faster horses, where were they going in such a hurry? Doing some research on the subject, one quickly discovers that the truth is often much more interesting and also much different than what we are led to believe.

By 1908, there were hundreds of thousand of horses crowding city streets around the world, and this was not a new problem. In fact, the problems with horses were well known.

For example, by 1894:

“London…had 11,000 cabs, all horse-powered…several thousand buses, each of which required 12 horses per day, a total of more than 50,000 horses. In addition, there were countless carts, drays, and wains, all working constantly to deliver the goods needed by the rapidly growing population of what was then the largest city in the world. Similar figures could be produced for any great city of the time.” – Stephen Davies, The Great Horse-Manure Crisis of 1894

One can only imagine the impact this had on crowded streets, not to mention the smell. Getting around must have been quite difficult. Getting anywhere faster in the conditions would be better served with flying horses rather than faster ones. In addition, the majority of the population in 1908 were living in cities, most within walking distance of their jobs. Trains and subways existed too, as did automobiles, only they were more of a luxury item that the working class could not afford.

In light of all of this evidence, there is no mention of faster horses, not does it sound like anyone would have been asking for one. Now, if this isn’t enough evidence, horses in 1908 were also quite dangerous. In fact, by 1916, there were 16.9 horse-related fatalities per 10,000 horse-drawn vehicles, a number said to be seven times that of Chicago’s automobile fatality rate in 1997!

“The skittishness of horses added a dangerous level of unpredictability to nineteenth-century transportation. This was particularly true in a bustling urban environment, full of surprises that could shock and spook the animals. Horses often stampeded, but a more common danger came from horses kicking, biting, or trampling bystanders. Children were particularly at risk.” — Eric Morris, From Horse Power to Horsepower

Don’t forget the mortality rate of horses (Warning: This is not for the squeamish). City dwelling horses often fell on average of once every hundred miles of travel. If the horse (weighing an average of 1,300 pounds), was badly injured it would be shot on the spot and left to die, creating a ghastly obstruction that clogged streets and brought traffic to a halt. Special horse-removal services did exist at the time, but moving such a large carcass was not easy. As a result, street cleaners often waited for the corpses to putrefy so the dead horse could be sawed into pieces and carted off.

Problem solved? Well, there was also the problem of the smell, the flies, the horribleness of dead horses on the street and of course the risk of disease — Eric Morris, From Horse Power to Horsepower.


Now, with these conditions in mind, place yourself in 1908 as an inventor/ businessman like Henry Ford. As you are researching on these problems and seeing them firsthand, would you be so callous and indifferent to these problems? Does it make sense in light of this history that Henry Ford would have ignored what people were experiencing, himself included, and think they were ignorant enough to simply want faster horses? Of course, not. These problems were impossible to ignore.

In fact, 10 years before Ford’s Model-T arrived on the scene, the first ever city-planning meeting convened in New York City to address the problems facing large cities. One major concern was also related to horses, namely the overwhelming amount of horse manure infesting city streets. One reporter wrote in the Times of London that 50 years hence, every street in London would be buried under nine feet of manure. — The Great Horse-Manure Crisis of 1894, Stephen Davies.

Faster horses? Hardly. To solve these major problems would require far more than just guesswork and assumptions. It would require research, ethnography, concept design, trial and error, testing, and so on.

So, what did Ford do in light of these problems? Did he invent the world’s largest pooper-scooper, a more efficient way to kill the millions of flies born out of the tons of manure and dead horses? Did he strap rockets on the backs of horses to get them airborne or give everyone oxygen masks to simply deal with the problem? Of course not. He did something much smarter. No, he didn’t invent the automobile. That was done a decade earlier by Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz, inventors of the high-speed gasoline engine in the 1880s.


Instead, Ford saw the problems that horses created, the conditions people were living in and the salaries people were making — on average, the living wage in 1908 was 22 cents per hour with the average worker bringing home between $200 and $400 per year — and delivered a solution that solved all of these problems at once. His solution was to invent the world’s first assembly line where his inexpensive Model-T automobile could be made cheaply, quickly, and in large numbers. By 1914, just six years after introducing the Model-T, it sold more than all other automakers combined. — Ford Model T, Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Quite an accomplishment for someone who supposedly ignored his customers and thought all they really wanted were faster horses.

Regardless of the facts, the “faster horses” myth still persists. It is troubling to consider, but it could very well be a convenient way to rationalize avoiding customer engagement due to the time and money required to do it effectively. It may also be a response to a culture where siloed teams can continue to place blame when things go wrong.

“When problems arise…”the enemy” becomes the players at the other positions, or even the customers…precluding any opportunity to learn from each others’ experience.” –Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline.


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