A couple of years ago, I gave a presentation on user experience to a few teams in a corporate organization. This presentation was the first time that many of our team members had heard of the concept of UX, making for an interesting challenge: it had to be engaging, approachable, and applicable to everyone in attendance, without getting too far into the weeds.

My partner at Caribou, Jen Goertzen, is giving a presentation at Prairie Dev Con this week on how dev teams can apply UX mindsets to their work. Inspired by her ceaseless rehearsal, I decided to dig out and share this presentation, along with the speaker notes. Some of the references are a bit dated, but the bones are sound. Enjoy!

On user experience

“I’m here today to share some thinking on User Experience. Let’s start with a story.

I have a partner that I work with at Caribou, and we have a small business bank account that we use to manage that income.

A few months ago, I needed to check the bank balance. I hadn’t signed in for a while, and I’d forgotten my password. It was one of those weird ones that makes you use a specific number of characters in a specific combination.

I clicked “Forgot my password” on my login screen, and was taken to another screen, where I was asked to re-enter my bank card number.

When I hit enter, I was told that my card wasn’t eligible for online password reset. To do the password reset, I would have to call their phone line.

As a bit of extra context, I’m deaf as a post. I use lip reading for conversations, which—while it works marvellously in the real world—makes it impossible to use a phone.

When this kind of situation comes up, I have two options. The first option, contacting them by email, is nowhere to be found.

The second option is to have someone I know make the call on my behalf. My business partner, the other person on the account, gave them a ring.

The support line refused to talk to her, because she wasn’t me.

Usually we can find some way around this, like having her repeat their words, to which I’ll reply myself; but in this case, they refused to talk to her—despite the fact that she was the owner on the account. My deafness fell on deaf ears, and we were told that I would have to go in person to my local bank branch.

When I got to the bank, I spoke to the manager, told them about the experience, and asked how to get my password reset.

She said that I’d have to call them.

After realizing how stupid that was, they decided they’d make the phone call themselves. So here we have the bank’s manager on the phone with the bank’s support line, reporting that they have a deaf customer next to them who needs to get their password reset — and the support line refuses to talk to them, because they weren’t me.

I probably don’t need to tell you that all of that was a terrible user experience.

Let’s look the steps that were involved in our bank story.

  • I had to use a login form.
  • I had to say I forgot my password.
  • I had to call them, which I couldn’t.
  • I had to go to the bank branch and speak with people there.

Each of these was a smaller part of what we call an “interaction.” There’s a number of words we use for interactions, such as “touchpoints” or “points of contact.” Adaptive Path came up with a definition of a touchpoint that I use every day: “A touchpoint involves a specific human need in a specific time and place.”

Interactions are supported by a number of ingredients. Everything that goes into making an interaction is an ingredient.

To make a great interaction, these ingredients have to support each other and work in harmony. By supporting each other, they support the interaction as a whole.

What I was really trying to accomplish on the bank’s website was “reset my online password.” What ingredients were working together to support this interaction?

Well, we have:

  • Human factors
  • Accessibility
  • Technology
  • Business goals & needs
  • Design

There’s many more, but for today, let’s take a closer look at these specific ingredients to see how they affect an interaction.

Ingredient: Human Factors.

Human factors involve our behaviours and our psychology. How we behave and react to things, and the way we approach things. We went a really long time thinking that people would just adapt however we wanted them to — that people could be trained to fit a design.

In WWII, we started to realize that we needed to take human factors more seriously. They were working on new cockpit designs, and found that pilots kept committing errors while in the air. They brought in investigators to see what was going on. The investigators investigated the changes the engineers had made, and returned with their findings — that unrelated controls were grouped together, there wasn’t much tactile or visual differentiation between controls, and there were no warnings when the wrong controls were being used.

The engineers were defensive about this. They said that there were really good reasons that they had made those changes, and that:

“Pilots are very intelligent, highly trained, and had already shown that they could adapt to the changes.”

Problem was, in high-pressure situations like being shot at by enemy pilots 10,000 feet in the air, the pilots were reverting to learned behaviour ingrained into them by hundreds of hours of flight.

The engineers had swapped the location of the throttle lever with the ejection handle, and the highly intelligent and highly trained pilots were running into “pilot errors” noted by the separation of pilot from plane. Before they made these changes, the engineers could have taken a page out of the medical field of psychotherapy.

Psychotherapists take a human-centred approach to their treatments. They avoid prescribing fixes for a patient to adopt, and instead listen to the patient’s needs that must be met for healing to occur.

Instead of the engineers saying “We swapped these controls because it makes more sense to us,” they could have looked at how the pilots were already operating and provided what would help them operate better.

The human factors say, “Your online banking customers are going to forget their password.” Instead of saying, “Remember your password and you won’t have a problem,” anticipate that.

Give them the means to solve their problem. Anticipate and work with the human factors, rather than telling people to adapt.

Ingredient: Accessibility.

Accessibility — that’s another ingredient in an interaction. Accessibility is a hard topic to address, because it can be hard to tell what exactly needs to be done and how to measure when we’ve succeeded.

To be accessible, an interaction needs to be able to function across language, culture, age, gender, and physical and mental capabilities. Problems with accessibility can come up in ways that we wouldn’t expect. Take, for example, this story about Michael Graves, an American architect.

He got a sinus infection while travelling back in the early 2000’s, and put off having it treated until pain in his back had become unbearable.

The infection had spread to his brain, causing him to lose the use of his legs. He spent years trying to recover in three different hospital, and finally decided that that was that, he wasn’t going to walk again. But at the same time, he decided he was going to retain his dignity: he was going to change his own clothes and give himself a shave.

While in his hospital room, it took him an hour to get his clothes on. When he got into the bathroom in his wheelchair, the mirror was too high for him to see his face. He decided he’d just use his electric shaver, but he couldn’t plug it in, because the outlet was on the bottom of the baseboards where he couldn’t reach.

He called in his doctor and said:

“Look at this. You have the resources to be the best hospital in the world, and I can’t even shave my face.”

Accessibility is a challenge both in the physical world and in our digital interactions.

Had the bank considered accessibility as an ingredient in their interaction, they never would have accepted that a phone call was the only way for a deaf customer to reset their password.

We can never forget accessibility when we create an interaction.

Ingredient: Technology.

Technology is an ingredient in almost all of our interactions. It’s behind devices, search engines, APIs… But what’s technology’s role? It’s been around forever. The first stone knife was a piece of technology.

“Take a human desire, one that has been around for a really long time, and use modern technology to take out the steps.”

Technology helps people accomplish more while doing less. And that’s how we can make technology work harder in an interaction.

Decrease input, and increase output. Ask for less of the user, and give them more in response.

This is a great example of this principle. This is the Misfit Shine. It’s an activity and sleep monitor. You wear it over the course of the day or night, and then you can sync it with your phone with their app.

What’s amazing about it is how they’ve approached the syncing process. They asked, “What steps can we remove?” and then removed almost all of them.

You open the app, take the device, and place it on the screen. That’s it. There’s no pairing between your phone and the device, there’s no cables or options to sort out. They’ve used some really neat technology to completely remove almost every step involved in syncing it with your phone.

The bank could have used technology to handle every step of the password reset process online. Instead, they added more and more steps.

When we create interactions, we should find ways to use technology to remove steps for our users.

Ingredient: Business goals & needs.

Remember how the ingredients in an interaction have to support each other? This is an interesting ingredient. Business needs and goals.

Interactions are created in the first place because someone has to meet a business need. An interaction can secure customers, raise money, serve as a marketing tool, build brand loyalty… but for it to do any of these things, it needs to have the financial and human resources behind its creation and maintenance.

To get these resources, the business needs and goals need to be well-defined and understood.

Disney built an ecosystem of interactions for their parks called MyMagic+. It’s a wireless system where visitors are given bracelets that can be used to get into their hotel rooms, pay for meals, and reserve rides. But it’s not just a marketing gimmick.

Jay Rasulo—Disney’s CFO—explained:

“This initiative will drive revenue, because people can use it to plan more of their vacation before they arrive. The company has learned those who plan in advance tend to spend more during their stay.”

The company recognized the need to help visitors plan more in advance, and they created the interaction in response to that need. Having the business need helped them make sure they committed the resources they needed to do it well.

On the surface, “Resetting your online password” might not seem to have much of a business need — but it could be easily reframed to, “Make sure our customers feel confident while managing their money — and thus remain a customer.”

We need to make sure our interactions are solving well-defined business goals, and commit the resources that are needed to pull it off.

Ingredient: Design.

This is the last ingredient we’re going to look at. Design.

Design plays a part in every interaction. Design can be visual, architectural, or industrial. It’s not about the medium it’s in.

Because design is about making it easier to make human connections. You’re trying to get a person to do something, you’re trying to make it easier for people to connect with other people. And the best way to do that is to use emotion. The interactions that we remember, that compel us to do things, and that we share with other people, deliberately create and take advantage of emotional opportunities.

We can do this on two levels: through the whole and through the parts.

Hipmunk is a travel bookings website that helps you find flights. It’s been around for a few years now, but it skyrocketed in popularity, because everything about it is designed to make finding flights less hellish.

The general look and feel is open, calm, and uncluttered. It’s easy to tell where to focus your attention and what your next steps will be. The visual design of the whole is intended to make you, as the user, feel relaxed and confident in what you’re doing.

Then we have the parts. The process of finding a flight is full of what we call microinteractions that are also designed to create and trigger emotional responses—these are often the parts of a product that make you grin.

For example, you see this cheerful chipmunk while you wait for your search results.

You can sort the flights by “Agony,” along with price and duration.

Designing for emotion can be done at any scale. On AirBnB, a designer made a change to the “Save to Wish List” button that caused clicks to skyrocket — along with the number of bookings made. It’s a really tiny change. A star is an utilitarian symbol.

He changed it to a heart. Because you don’t “star” an apartment, you “love” it. It’s so small that it seems like it would barely matter — but that’s how you design for emotion.

Money is a stressful topic. The bank could have recognized that their password reset process was an opportunity to trigger emotions of security and confidence.

When making an interaction, we need to find ways to use design to create emotional connections.

Those were just some of the ingredients that went into the interaction that was resetting my online password.

None of them were more important than the others. But what we have to remember is that every ingredient that goes into an interaction is supporting each other ingredient. It doesn’t matter how much money you throw at something, or how accessible it is, if you have poor design. It doesn’t matter if you spent weeks on the design if you haven’t made it accessible to a blind user using a screen reader.

Your interactions will get their strength when each of their ingredients is supporting the other.

However, interactions are not user experience.

User experience has two parts. Interactions are the first part.

We just looked at a number of interactions — cockpit controls, power outlet locations, syncing a smart watch with a phone, using a wireless bracelet to pay for a meal, and finding flights online. In all of these interactions, there was something in common:

They all had a user. The user is the second part of user experience.

The User.

The user has their own context. They have their own goals, emotions, habits, physical needs, and life experience.

The user will forget their password. The user may be deaf. The user may be using a device that can do everything for him. The user will spend more money if he has the confidence to remain a customer. The user will recommend the bank to his friends if he enjoyed the experience he had with them.

And that’s the key to user experience: User experience is something that happens, at the point where the user and an interaction come together.

User experience occurs within an interaction and its context.

User experience is felt by the user.

So what do we do with that? How do we take it and use it in our work?

First, we have to change how we think about the “user.” We have to be able to develop a deep empathy with them.

Put yourself in the shoes of someone who’s trying to find a place to eat while traveling in a new city. They’re hungry, impatient, and disoriented. We know what that feels like.

When we think about them like this, they’re no longer an “user.” They’ve become a hungry, impatient person.

And that’s the person we’re creating our interactions for. That’s the person that we’re trying to affect when they use our interactions.

When you get down to it, it’s not user experience. It’s human experience. It’s how people feel when they use your interactions.

So when we create something, we should start with the human experience.

That means discovering and understanding who our users are. It means developing a deep sense of empathy for them. Find out what context they’re operating in. What are their goals? How do we know when they’ve accomplished their goal? What’s their emotional state? What experience do they have? Their pet peeves?

Then, figure out what the interactions are. Discover what ingredients need to be in place and working together. Fix the ingredients that are letting the others down.

When we know the people that we’re creating our product for, and when we know what ingredients are working together to support the interaction that those people are going to use, we can create a great user experience.”