Balance the circles, UX designers

ver seen this classic UX Venn diagram before? On one side — user needs. The other, business needs. The sweet spot, we’re told, is that beautiful little intersection of curves in the middle. The area where user and business needs overlap with each other.

Every UX designer, consultant or practitioner I’ve met has seen this diagram in some form, at some time. And when I ask if they agree with its premise, I’ll get nodding heads and bemused shrugs of, “Well of course, everyone knows that!”

And yet…

And yet today, if I type “UX” into The Google, the following comes up as the highlighted definition on the search results page:

It’s a great, simple, plain language definition of user experience design. Also, in my books there are bonus points earned for any official definition that can weave the word “pleasure” into it. But you’ll get a sense of my issue with this description if you keep the Venn diagram image open and in front of your face as you read the definition.

It only focuses on one of the circles. Not two circles, and definitely not the promised land of the magical overlap. My concern isn’t about a Wikipedia definition or search engine result. What’s written is a perfect encapsulation of a challenge that seems to be widespread in our field. Rather, I think the common definition as currently articulated says a lot about the current state of UX as a field, and about one of the fundamental challenges it faces.

The circles should be balanced. And more often than not, they are not.

To find and provide the most value, it takes an understanding of user AND business needs, and as UX champions, we are ideally suited to having empathy and understanding of both. We are the ones in a position to translate from one language and culture to another.

Our ultimate goal should always be to expand the magic overlap, and the way to success comes with doing the work to understand both sides. The more we can make the two overlap, the more value we help unlock, and the more we balance our attention to both circles, the wider the sweet spot that includes them both.

HSHC vs. Target Canada

However, when UX skews far to the user side, the circles are no longer in balance and the zone of value shrinks.

Designing and creating purely what will delight users takes you on the path to contracting acute HSCS — Homer Simpson Car Syndrome.

What Homer articulates as feature requests in this classic Simpsons episode come from a genuine place of user frustration and desire, and his core needs are absolutely valid. But when implemented as articulated, with blinders on to business needs, the resulting design is a monstrosity and business failure. In the end, that helped no one.

On the other end of the diagram, there’s great peril, and a similar shrinking of UX value, when we focus too exclusively on business needs.

One could argue that decades of product and service design choices made internally via HiPPO (Highest Paid Person in the Office) are what caused the failures and frustrations that gave rise to the UX field in the first place. But those failures and frustrations can and will still happen if unchecked by real empathy for user needs and frustrations.

If you’ll forgive a little sidetrip into the wider field of business strategy and CX, you can get a whopper of a cautionary tale from Target’s doomed expansion into Canada.

Rather than coming in small, focusing on customer experience and iterating its way into the market, it chose to blindly focus on achieving arbitrary and flawed corporate leadership decisions and timelines at all costs. How did sticking to those business goals work out for them? Two short years and $7 billion later (!), they were toast.

Focusing on either user needs or business needs to the exclusion of the other puts you in a position where you’re not going to be able to deliver your best work — to the detriment of users and business.

We need to balance out the circles if we’re ever going to do work that matters in the end. What we need, in other words, is a little less Tron, and a little more Up in the Air.

Less Tron, more Up in the Air

For those of you unfamiliar with either film, let’s start with Tron.

The visually groundbreaking 1982 movie follows the adventure of Flynn (Jeff Bridges) as he gets pulled inside the corporate computer mainframe he’s been hacking. He finds himself wandering in a glowing blue ’80s wonderland, where computer programs are represented by human-like bodies with a resemblance to their human programmers. It’s a dangerous and deadly place, and he can only get back to the real world with the aid of a couple of new programs he befriends out of survival — including the movie’s namesake, Tron.

Tron is an autonomous security program released to keep the oppressive digital overlord Master Control Program from ruthlessly controlling their virtual world by defending the freedom of all programs and the users who created them. Or in plain English, Tron is a hero for the good guys, and pretty kick-ass with his glowing Frisbee of doom. What’s his mission?

“That’s Tron — he fights for the users!”

“Fighting for the user” a worthy and just cause to fight for, and who hasn’t had a project where you’ve felt the need to resort to glowing Frisbees of death in order to defend the needs of users?

As cool as it is to play the role of a hero, it often pulls us into territory that’s blind to business needs.

What can help is tempering your excitement for glowing Frisbees with a little Up in the Air.

“Before you try and revolutionize my business, I’d like to know you actually know my business.”

In this quirky and underrated indie film from 2009, Ryan (George Clooney) and Natalie (Anna Kendrick) work for a firm of specialized consultants who are hired by big corporations to handle layoffs and downsizing.

It’s a form of management consulting. A very specialized niche of management consulting, but in that ballpark nevertheless.

I thought of this as my colleague described to me a recent experience he had explaining his UX consulting work to a relative. After patiently listening to him describe the various user experience projects and initiatives he’s worked on, her comment to him was, “Oh, so you’re a specialized version of management consulting.”

Wait what? Management consulting? But my suits and shoes look nothing like George Clooney’s.

Turns out his relative may be on to something. Remember the UX definition that pops up when I did a Google search? In contrast, this is what I see on the SRP when I do the same now for “management consulting”:

Analysis of existing organizational problems and developing plans for improvement. I like the sound of that. In fact this mindset, when added to our classic Venn diagram, can help us balance out the equation from being too Tronny for our own good.

Remember, it’s noble and honourable to fight like Tron for the needs of the user. Many of us got into this field because user needs have been subservient to business decisions for far too long. But as a UX practitioner of any stripe, you’re only going to deliver true value if you balance the circles of user and business needs in order to maximize the sweet spot were the two overlap.

Balance the circles, and you set everyone up for success.

nForm User Experience

Research, strategy, and design for user experience

Christopher Nash

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Japanese-Canadian hafu prairie boy. Electronic singer-songwriter and music producer. Busy dad. Senior UX consultant with nForm User Experience. Go Oilers.

nForm User Experience

Research, strategy, and design for user experience