Slow UX for sustainable product design
Have you ever heard of the slow movement? Slow fashion, slow food, slow travel? It’s a trend that focuses on being mindful about the steps you take, the decisions you make and the resources you utilise along the way. It’s about being deliberate about your doings. How does it relate to UX?
Since 1980’s companies have incorporated digital tools into their operations. Later on, with the dotcom boom, Internet has become a platform for business communication and eventually, for software. In 2005 Google Analytics was launched and so many companies have started looking into web analytics, trying to leverage the power of data in their decision-making. Now, 12 years later some executives are still making decisions in complete isolation from the end user, locked in conference rooms on executive floors. It has taken a lot of time to adapt quantitative data into actual decision making.
I have been talking to a lot of fellow UX specialists — the end of 2016 was especially intense — I was recruiting designers to join my team in Pomegranate Media, an agency I worked for at the time. At the same time I was looking for a new opportunity myself, so I had the chance to explore how companies understand UX and what are the trends in decision making. The conclusion was that most of tech companies are in love with quantitative metrics — A/B testing, conversion rates, email open rates, PPC is thriving. It’s amazing and essential. However, unfortunately, for many companies data-driven design equals using quantitative data. Why is it a problem?
Jumping the gun
Quantitative metrics allow to validate ideas, not to explore new possibilities. Without taking the time to understand the user needs prior to design, you can end up A/B testing 2 versions of an invalid product. Because Agile is so widespread, many design teams are forced to jump straight into prototyping, with business requirements written for them. But none of the 12 principles of the Agile Manifesto mention user-centricity! Being deliberate and mindful in design is the only way to know that you’re heading in the right direction.
Design sprints are amazing, but they are a double edged sword if you rush through design too quickly. What you learn from evaluative research is going to only relate to something you’ve already built, and it’s going to be biased by it. Only open conversation can help you explore the underlying user’s needs and develop empathy.
One of the clients I worked for in Pomegranate had spent almost all their seed money to develop a product that simply allowed to share photos and videos among friends. There was no value, no meaning in the product that resonated with the customers who were already using WhatsApp, Dropbox or Google Drive for the same tasks. The client wanted us to jump straight into another iteration and enhance their user interface, hoping that this will make their product desirable. It wouldn’t and we advised against it. Through lean user research and business analysis, we helped them develop a new business model that actually fulfilled the needs of another group of users. It’s risky to reject your client’s approach to a project, but we took it slowly and avoided another vicious circle of textbook Lean Startup methods.
Slow UX is not about taking weeks
By slow UX I don’t mean we should take weeks for all bells and whistles of user research — you can do it lean, within a small budget. It’s about being mindful of the meaning that the product you’re building has for the end user. It’s about taking the time to develop and apply empathy. It’s also being mindful about the scarce resources your team uses up to build new products or features.
Sometimes it’s our job as designers to slow down the process. We are the facilitators that should ask the most basic and uncomfortable of questions. Senior executives might not know that another feature for your product will mean weeks of development time that will be wasted. That there will be overtime, stress and in the end everybody will lose. We should take a deep breath in with the whole team and rethink the core of a digital product, before we start going into features.
The hierarchy of user needs developed by Nathan Shedroff from California College of Arts is a great illustration of getting to the core of a product. If you manage to develop empathy (through user research) with your customer, you will be able to find that sweet core of meaning your product can be built around. The external layers, such as emotional appeal, financial impact or functional features are malleable and as long as you stay true to your meaning, like CityMapper does, your product will stay relevant.
Design with empathy, build for scale. — Josh Payton
The thing is, developing empathy takes time. Slow UX is about taking the time to do it. In her book ‘Practical Empathy’, Indi Young says that companies need to “Take the time to be curious”. I think it’s a powerful thing to say, because the moment we stop being curious about other people, we start building products for ourselves, which is almost always a mistake.
Democratising user research
UX designers/researchers should be includers. We shouldn’t abduct research findings for our own benefits. Everybody in the organisation can and should be involved — it’s human to engage in a conversation. And developing empathy is nothing more than a mindful conversation.
Mailchimp is great in democratising user research — their researchers are involved with every other parts of the business, often producing excellent stories and artifacts around their users’ stories. But they took the time to develop empathy, to be mindful.
Great, modern companies employ empathy on organisational level and that helps them build products that last. They don’t care about keeping up with the latest features if that would mean dissolving the meaning they provide to the customer. I encourage all fellow designers to take it slow when the gears start spinning to fast.
Probably 10% of our job is to think outside the box. And the remaining 90% is keeping everybody else in the box. Sometimes they will drift away so far that nobody remembers what the bloody box was in the first place. User research and empathy developed through it is what brings focus into decision making. It gives direction, it provides constraints and it helps you ask the most uncomfortable and ridiculous questions to the driving forces in your organisation.
I’d like to finish this little manifesto with a quote from the one and only Don Norman:
I’m sick and tired of design thinking. It’s time we started doing design doing.