The Wrong Kind of Problem

If you were recently lucky enough to come along to our Interact London conference you would have heard me talk about Institutionalisation and User Experience debt. Many were curious as to what on earth this was going to be about. Far from being stories of padded cells and financial woes, it was meant to highlight the growing problem that many see UX as the fix to all their problems.

Iceberg floating in sea

In my talk I set out to highlight that using UX as a one size fits all fix, is much like covering over a giant crack in your house with wallpaper. Just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it’s not there. More importantly without a proper fix, your house maybe at risk of falling down, but at least you can’t see the problem. In fact you may not even be aware you have a problem!

As the concept of UX debt is relatively new, I plan on exploring it in more detail here over the coming months. Starting the series off, I’m going to look at what impact can emerge when we fail to understand problems and the knock on effects they can have on the performance of a business.

In my talk, I touched on that when it comes to UX and how it is perceived as the ‘cure’ for the vast majority of problems it can quite easily fail. This probably stems from the view that many organisations have been told they need to listen to their customers more. UX has obviously become the way they can do that. So businesses will engage with a company that can do UX to fix the problem they have briefed us on.

For many of us within the UX community, we’re more than aware that the problem that we’ve been briefed to solve can’t be done using a quick dusting of UX magic. All too often the problem we’re being asked to solve represents nothing better than papering over that metaphorical crack in the wall.

We can see for example, that asking us to improve a couple of things on a website will just expose a whole raft of other problems that we know already exist. Let’s take something we’re often (as UX professionals) asked to do, fix problems with ‘online’ help.

A typical scenario we hear is that ‘we get too many calls to the call centre that people should be using the website to fix’ So we go in and we see a mountain of FAQs (which probably aren’t FAQs). We see help in random places that users have to go and hunt for. Then what we really start to see is that no matter what content we put on the website, the problem doesn’t exist with the help provided on the website, but it could be more fundamental and therefore be the result of the perception of the organisation.

Part of the problem that we see is that most organisations will not necessarily admit that they don’t know what the actual problem is that they are trying to fix. Furthermore, many organisations work within a silo culture, each competing against one another for recognition and revenue. Many are unable to see objectively that problems exist across many of these silos and in order to fix a bigger problem an external view is needed.

My colleagues Juliet and Simon both spoke about the local maximum and needing to be above the mountain to see fully the scale of a problem. This is very much where our industry is heading. We have amassed a wealth of knowledge from hundreds of thousands of hours of user research (both within organisations and with their users). Our toolset is allowing us to gain the correct elevation, and with that a greater sense of perspective.