Despicable Design — When “Going Evil” is the Perfect Technique
This was written for UI22, last year’s UI Conference. If you want to attend this year’s UI Conference. Check out the presenters for UI23.
Once the product team was settled in the room, I delivered the instructions with the customary evil laugh:
I want you to come up with ways we could make the design much worse.
How would we make a truly horrible experience for the user?
What would make this product evil?
This isn’t how most teams choose to start working on improving their product. Sometimes, a difficult impasse requires an unconventional approach.
This team had gotten stuck. They were a dozen smart, experienced people, each with a different perspective on what their product needed. Nobody was giving in. The team’s executive asked me to break their log jam.
In the room were three designers, four developers, two product managers, a subject matter expert type, and a couple of executive “business owners.” Each had their own agenda on where the product should go. None of them were talking about their users.
As the team filed into the room that morning, I broke them up into small groups of three, spreading each role across separate groups. I then asked each person to grab a sheet of paper and make their own list of ways they imagined the product’s user experience could be made worse.
After validating they’d heard me correctly (“Wait. Did you just say worse?”), they started their list. They each had so many great ideas. “Make it respond slower.” “Add more steps.” “Add errors into the data.” “Have it crash randomly.” “Issue confusing error messages.”
After a few moments of working on this in silence, I asked them to share their ideas with the others in their small group. The room burst alive, as they compared their wild ideas. There was laughing, snickers, and exclamations of “Oh, that’s good!”
In each group, I assigned the person who spoke first as that group’s recorder. They were to track all the ideas the group had.
After they’d heard each other’s contributions, I asked them to build on it. What new ideas for a horrible experience were inspired by listening to their fellow group members? They should write that down, too.
Slowing Down The Designers To Make It More Fun
I love this exercise for many reasons. I love how it immediately gets everyone involved, no matter what their background is. It’s a perfect UX design exercise when you have non-designers mixed in with trained designers.
In many other exercises where you ask a group to talk about user experience, the designers often take over. They have the experience and generate ideas faster than their peers, so they dominate the discussion. This has the effect of pushing the non-designers aside.
Yet, in this exercise, making a design worse goes against every bit of training those designers have. It slows them down.
The people who believe they’re not designers can jump right in. A bonus is there’s no wrong answer. You can’t make something “not bad enough.” There’s always room for more badness.
Plus, it’s fun. Giggling. Laughing. Snickering. The room is alive and vibrant. This is a creative exercise with no downside. Everyone gets involved.
All This Fun Is A Seriously Important Exercise
As they’re doing this simple, fun exercise, they are focusing on the users. This is critically important, if we want the team to go beyond just building features to meet business objectives.
There’s no way to participate in this exercise without thinking about the user’s experience. To come up with an idea, a group member must think about what could make a user miserable. At the core of this is the user’s experience.
Every time someone presents a new idea to their group, you can hear an audible moan from the others. A moment of pity, followed by the glee of achieving the objective for making that user just a little more miserable. Those moments of pity? They are, in their strange way, building sympathy.
What emerges is the realization that the team could make their design’s experience much worse. No matter how bad they think it is now, there’s always room to make it much, much more miserable for the user.
That realization is important, because if they can make it worse, that means they can make it better. And if it’s this easy to imagine a worse experience, how hard is it to imagine a better one?
Mapping the User’s Journey Into Hell
After the groups each have a few minutes to conceive their list of ways to make the experience totally and completely horrible for their users, I ask each group to make a story. I call it the User’s Journey Into Hell. What are the sequences of events the user will encounter, where each event just delivers a bit more frustration than before?
By putting their evil-doing into a timeline, they see how a user journey map works. As they try to squeeze every idea they’ve generated into this timeline, they need to think about what their user is trying to accomplish.
I’ve learned that, in this exercise, the most frustrating designs are the ones with lots of steps, each getting increasingly more hellish. Groups who cut the user off in the first step with a solid Nope don’t get as much pleasure from the exercise as those who envision a long torturous sequence.
After they’ve got their journey mapped, I ask them to share it with the group next to them. As the groups swap their tales of user hell, I see them realizing that there are more dimensions of pain they hadn’t really considered before.
After the groups have shared with their neighboring group, it’s time to update their timeline with any new ideas they might have. They see how inspiration comes from many sources while also looking out for better ideas than what they initially come up with.
Pulling out the Attributes of Experience
Now, for a bit of reflection. I ask each group to look closely at each miserable moment in their journey-from-hell.
What was it they changed to make it so miserable? What name would they give that attribute? If they made the design much slower, they might name the attribute “response time.” If they added errors into the data, they might name it “data quality.”
I insist they divorce each attribute from its evilness. Making it a neutral term means it could be used for evil or for good. By generating a list of the attributes, the groups see how they can control the user experience through a collection of independent knobs and levers.
Discovering The Good That Lives Within
After they’ve generated a complete attribute list from all the hell-making experiences in their user’s timeline, I ask them to think about improving the design. For each attribute, what would be an idea or two on how to improve the current design?
For example, how might they improve response time? Reliability? Data quality? Simplicity? What would that look like for the user?
Could they create a revised user journey — one that’s better than the current design — using each attribute from their journey-from-hell? Most of the time, it’s pretty easy for teams to do.
After the teams have built a better journey, I ask them to share with a neighboring group again. What have they learned about how they could improve the user’s experience?
Stealth-Mode Design Literacy
I’ve been this evil for a long time. When my kids were little, the only way I could get them to eat vegetables was to hide them in other food. My son loved pasta, so I’d mixed pureed peas into the tomato sauce. I had a dozen ways to hide vegetables in food he loved. Stealth-mode nutrition, I used to call it.
If I’d told this team that we would spend an hour discussing the basic elements of design literacy, they would’ve revolted. There was no way I could waste their time doing that.
Yet, here we are, an hour into this exercise and we’ve accomplished that and more. We’ve focused on the user’s experience. We’ve mapped the experience into a journey. We’ve broken the journey moments into attributes of design quality. And we’ve brainstormed ways to improve the quality of the experience. Most importantly, we did it with a cross-discipline team who contributed equally, no matter their prior design expertise.
Without them realizing it, I can get a team to see the power of great experience design. They now have the tools to move forward, breaking their log jam. And they can do it collaboratively.
I had an evil plan all along. And it worked! [Evil laugh.]