UX Design – Moving to Maturity: Listen > Learn > Respond

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit”.

This quote, influenced by Aristotle, is perhaps a fancier way of saying ‘practice makes perfect’. As individuals, we recognise that to become better at something, we need to practice it - habitually.

When we look at user experience design however, many organisations seem to view the discipline as a practice, but not necessarily a habit. It’s something activated in cycles but rarely embedded into the culture and fabric of a business.

We classify organisations that lack the habitual and cultural application of user experience in their business models as ‘UX immature’. This by its very nature incubates user experience risks due to gaps in the investment in user experience design.

UX immature organisations are easily recognisable. Clues are many but will certainly include the lack of:

  • Continuous development
  • Management of any user-centred design assets and knowledge
  • This includes outputs like qualitative research, personas, journey maps and of course, social activity.

Cyclical use of such assets is a rubber stamp of immaturity. User centred thinking is only created at the commissioning of either a new project, spending round, steering committee decision or even, a competitor’s market move.

Where are you?

If you’re in a UX immature organisation and trying as hard as you can to develop a competitive advantage based on the experience you offer, irregular investment isn’t ideal in the quest to keep connected to your audience.

Conversely, if you’re in a UX mature organisation, you won’t have this issue as design assets and knowledge are kept in an almost perpetual state of readiness for their next application, updated through a continual - but not only data based - feedback process; often curated and led by skilled experts. If speed to market matters, then having continually maintained insight in what users need (not want) as well as design assets to engage them at your disposal is surely… no surely about it, IS a big advantage.

Moving to greater UX maturity

The question this article therefore seeks to ask is, how might less UX mature organisations keep their insight and design assets fit to respond to market, user, needs? One way is to apply the principle of ‘Listen-Learn-Respond’ to help avoid the disconnect between an organisation and its users.

Circular diagram of the listen, learn, respond cycle. Explained in text.

Figure 1: Listen, Learn, Respond model

Learn, Respond

“You have two ears and one mouth. Use them in that order.”

I think we can all agree that listening to what your users are saying matters greatly. Quantitative data paints a binary picture of journey activity and is often continually run in the background, but what of its bedfellow, qualitative insight? I’d like to argue that to be really connected with users and apply true user-centred perspective to your design assets, qualitative research activity needs to be run often, too.

UX of more broadly, ‘Digitally’ mature organisations continually interrogate their proposition on a qualitative footing. They do this as they know it underpins a process of continual improvement, yet this doesn’t always translate into mediated, face to face testing sessions every day for the sake of it. It does mean, though, supporting an appropriate, regular methodical examination of how users are integrating an end product or service into the contextual relevancy of their lives. And to do this successfully requires leadership; not the delivery of an isolated narrative from one board level Director, but an understanding of the value of straight feedback from users and crucially, the independent, objective and unbiased analysis of it.

One former head of the BBC iPlayer service said he would often pore over customer feedback over his bowl of cornflakes every day. He did this to keep on top of what users were saying. ‘Give us today our daily insight’, to paraphrase. But he didn’t use this to press his own opinion, he used his insight to empower those within his organisation at the time to support calls on innovation, supporting the ‘better never stops’ ethos. Arming yourself with qualified user evidence is the best armour anyone - from intern up to board exec - can bring to any debate for investment.

UX mature organisations also integrate this quantitative insight with an investment in things like social listening and the analysis of upstream activity, too. Any insight can then be taken away, triaged and used to continually refine an offering.

By continually monitoring social chatter, the spread of messages and views, organisations can draw down an offsite (i.e. off their site) perspective that is crucial to understanding end users in this post-digital age. This is not a case of just looking at Facebook and Twitter feeds and subjectively reacting to what people are saying about you. It’s a case of understanding the spread and effect of any activity, linking back those feeds to search terms, understanding patterns, working through any implicated Information Architecture (IA) issues and how your organisation is responding, too. Your value chain starts outside your control to some extent. The key is to get your listening embedded as far up it as possible to meet users as soon as they start heading your way.

The advantage of all of this is that it’s not just in support of addressing critical service issues or the deflation of any disgruntled punters, more that it allows integration of their perspective into an organisation’s insight process.

Tying back qualitative insight, social listening and the impact on upstream activity will provide a huge advantage to any business seeking to be as digitally fit – and user centred – as possible.

Listen, Respond

Before you respond in the right way, it’s crucial that you extract the right insight from the listening phase by asking a few questions:

  1. Who is generating the data? Are there clear audience or user types that can be defined from the insight to hand?

  2. What are they saying? What did we do well, not do well?

  3. When is the data being generated? Times, peaks, related triggers?

  4. Where is the data being generated? Geographical perspective, matters.

  5. Why are they saying what they are saying? What are the key points being made? Who or what is instigating the push to comment?

  6. What design assets are being challenged? Are there weaknesses in the application of our design knowledge?

The ‘learn’ phase is about developing insights and understanding the business, the market, the consumer. Strong, UX mature organisations will not only identify the opportunities to change and improve but share this with their users. Take Monzo for example, not only do they listen to their users via their app, they also listen socially and survey customers about what they want to see developed or fixed. But they then take it to a new level by setting up a Trello board for all customers to view what is being looked at and changed, why and when. Can you imagine your high-street bank doing the same?

As Monzo still demonstrate, years after they blew the app based banking market wide-open, learning from what you hear or capture is as vital to a credible proposition and a UX mature operation. It is about establishing how and what to learn before any response is applied. Doing it this way will ultimately help an organisation identify what to invest in, first or last, to positively impact their end proposition and of course, their brand.

Listen, Learn

Faced with a list of things to address – hopefully off the back of valid insight and feedback – most organisations will carry out some sort of triage to identify what to fix first and last, and when. UX immature businesses tend to tackle the proverbial low-hanging fruit using limited business-as-usual teams in the hope of creating just enough change, leaving anything significant or crucial for a larger initiative that could be a long way in the distance.

The risk with this tactical mindset is that the ‘listening and learning’ output tends to be packaged up with a business case and left embedded within documentation ‘ready’ for a future project. That’s ok if it’s a few weeks or a couple of months away as the chances of the outputs remaining relevant and valid are high enough. However, leave it to a window six months later, longer perhaps, and the validity and relevancy of the insight underpinning the case starts to degrade. When this occurs, extra investment often must be made to close the gaps in short-order – see Fig.2.

Graph showing typical application of user experience insight. Y axis: Success. X axis: Time. UX mature organisations have consistent application and a positive correlation on the graph. UX immature organisations have an irregular/cyclical application

Figure 2: Typical application of user experience insight

UX mature organisations adopt a different approach, curated by three key differentials.

  1. Everything they do is part of a ‘Programme, not Project’ mentality. Their brand is their experience, so a release is just a procedural point, not an end point, much like app updates. They have a strategy in place that underpins all their design and marshal their resources respectively.

  2. They provide resources (people) that are empowered and enabled, backed by process and infrastructure to ensure any response is ‘at pace’, user-centred but crucially delivers value to the organisation that can be tracked through a model such as Listen-Learn-Respond.

  3. They cast their net wider to understand their marketplace and their users. For example, they will also look what happens ‘off-site’, once the user has left their digital estate. Up-stream insight is as relevant as on-site insight. The wholeness of this insight ensures that their knowledge of the context of use is supreme and can be used in anger to give their business an advantage.

Not a closed club

The Listen-Learn-Respond approach doesn’t have to be the preserve of the few that have reached an enviable level of UX maturity, perhaps free of legacy systems, processes and filled with people possessing the right design skills, à la mode. It is open to everyone. Better, as they say, never stops.

Can we help you?

If reading this post has inspired you to improve the experience you deliver to users, we’d love to hear from you!

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