07 August 2012

a focus group of one.

Not to long ago I had a dVP of engineering tell me, “you can’t tell me I don’t understand the customer or the customer experience”. I didn’t laugh, but chuckled a bit inside. He then told me that user experience design is part of engineering. I kept a straight face (I think).

Alan Cooper described this phenomena years ago in, “the inmates are running the asylum”. Alan, a developer by trade took a lot of flak for the book, but in the end, adhering to some basic principles implied within the text has proven  advantageous time and time again to those armed with the insights.

Engineers are typically much smarter and more technically adept than the mainstream audience targeted by consumer products. It’s nearly impossible to unlearn that expertise. It’s also really difficult to empathize in an abstract fashion. Even seasoned user researchers are reticent to prescribe general user guidelines across platforms and products. They continue to uncover important cultural and behavioral hurdles for design consideration.

One of the first rules of user experience or interaction design is to NOT design for ones self. Yes, I know there are a handful of successful products who’s inventor claims they designed for themselves and it ‘just took off’. These are the exceptions. There is also a movement within interaction design described as ‘genius design’ driven. This is, in theory, where the designer has so much domain knowledge that they know what customers need before the customer does. I’d contend that the customer is feeling the pain or wishing for the ability well before the designer is.... they just don’t articulate it in our forums. Genius design is effective in highly specialized and technical fields, but is not the norm.

The upshot here is the empathy towards users and customers is not a afterthought or of minimal effort. Real expertise is needed in gaining insights and in the synthesizing of those insights into actions and design direction. There is a growing knowledge base of process and practice that should be implemented... at least if you want to improve actual results in usage.

06 August 2012

more thoughts on judgement.

Not everyone needs to be a leader, and there can be great comfort in being a follower. In fact, fast follower is a very under utilized strategy in the market today. The fast follower strategy allows you to closely monitor the market leaders, capitalize on their R&D investments, and stay or catch up. But like many strategies and tactics embraced by mbas, it’s often not thoughtful. The fast follower strategy is not the same as parroting.  It is not a blind outsourcing of critical thinking or judgement.
It takes a great deal of time and energy to observe, research and understand what another company is doing. So often the critical information behind an action is camouflaged from outsiders for obvious reasons. The tendency to read a book such as ‘Good to Great’  (a really good read btw) and apply remedies as recipes can be catastrophic. Any grafted solution must be verified and measured against your specific situation. In so many cases the differences are large enough to render the recipe nearly irrelevant. One of my favorite professors used to classify these as ‘type 3 errors’... solving the wrong problem.
The other critical element in these endeavors, is the removal of concern for one’s reputation and public image. I’ve had the opportunity to watch this in action recently in very high profile arenas. The presumption that because you are in charge, you are the smartest (whatever that means to you) person in the room only adds to potential errors. If you truly do hire people smarter than you, then you should put trust in that investment. As a leader, you certainly need to own the judgement. But that doesn’t mean that the research and consideration prior to ‘the decision’ should be your’s alone. 
Years ago I had the opportunity to spend quality time with a very smart man. Barnett Helzberg took over a family retail business in the midwest and grew it into a giant. I learned a tremendous amount in the days I spent with Mr. Helzberg, but the most powerful concept I came away with was his pension for being the ‘dumbest guy in the room’. Mr. Helzberg hired smart people and he trained them well. He aligned them with his core approach to business and delivering value. He put his confidence in them and empowered them. Hiring ‘people smarter than me’ wasn’t just a managerial posture for him. 
Bold decisions and market leading actions are not without risk. Thoughtful and strong follow-through is a critical component of successful judgement, but I think the mistake I see most often in business is the result of arrogance and ego driven decisions.