Go to UPA home page The U P A voice

September 2011 Contents

UPA Job Bank

UPA 2012


The Tyranny of Change: How to Give Your Audience a Voice in Their Ever-Changing World

Ronnie Battista

Ronnie is the Director of Certification, UPA International.

In 2004, in a Scientific American article titled The Tyranny of Choice, Barry Shwartz posited a counterintuitive argument about the effects of having too many choices (e.g. do we need 38 different kinds of milk?). He questioned why "people are increasingly unhappy even as they experience greater material abundance and freedom of choice? Recent psychological research suggests that increased choice may itself be part of the problem."

I count myself among those who struggle with choice. I am virtually paralyzed when handed the phone book-sized menu at The Cheesecake Factory. The only place I find an easy time eating out is at a wedding (i.e. meat, chicken or fish works great).

This idea of the tyranny of choice got me thinking about a similar phenomenon that occurs with rapid innovation and change. The speed at which new products, interfaces and services are introduced is generally something to admire and celebrate as "Good". But it is as daunting as it is impressive, and there's not always a positive experience for the customers or employees faced with all this change.

True Story: A company wanted to extend their website service into the mobility space with a new app. Without betraying too much detail, the application was to be accessed only when a four-legged loved one gets lost. As I read the RFP, the human impact questions of such an app started flowing: e.g. what do people do differently when they are in a state of panic? What could be unique to a design that might help them remain calm/focused and successful in their search? At the very least, how can we make sure that we don't make an already difficult situation worse? Small as this project was, I really wanted to win it, as it was a great opportunity to research a rare, context-specific behavior, and one of those 'feel good' projects that could really help people in difficult times.

Of course, the senior execs at this company wanted it on their iPhones yesterday and as cheaply as they could get it, so typical deadline and cost pressures were at play as well. The good news was that my primary client knows and values the need for experience design research. The bad news was that the competition (the incumbent agency) offered to build and fully deploy production versions of this mobile application on both Blackberry and iPhone for half the price of just our research alone. How does one make a case for research when it's twice the price of the actual product?

Things are changing. Super fast. Rapid innovative leaps in mobile technology, ever-easier tools for building applications, cloud-based applications that consolidate and streamline development - all of these advances pose interesting challenges for the Experience Design community. When it's cheaper to build an application, launch it and 'fail forward' in a live environment than it is to do the upfront research to validate the wants and needs of your audience, your competition is developers, not agencies or large systems implementation shops. It's two 20-something college guys who work remotely, making money hand over fist pumping out $20K applications while we can run up that tab with a modest Discovery session.

Welcome to the New World

How do those of us who believe that design is a human-centric undertaking that benefits profoundly from research compete when innovation is in hyper-drive and the cost of failing quickly is perceived to be so much lower than the risk of moving too slowly? The answer is we can't compete with a "just build it" mentality. But we can change our perspective to fit the times. Here are three ideas for 'guerilla' tactics that can help ensure that the target audience gets a say in the experience/tools they will inherit. Note that the efficacy of each one is highly dependent upon your particular situation.

1 - Beta research populations - Providing a new application or service to a broad audience increasingly seems to have become a contest to see who can deploy the fastest. Well, one way to address the need for speed is to suggest a pilot program. As opposed to putting out to everyone live, see if it's possible to reach out to a small but diverse subset of your audience. This is a great way to see what people are doing with a live application, which can often satisfy the speed-to-market forces at play. You MAY be able to do this.

2 - Managing the change - Just because you can't have input into a design doesn't mean you can't help improve the impact that design has on people. With cloud-based apps, ERPs and mobile apps, it's likely you simply won't have the chance to change an interface. When the interface can't change, focus on the people who must. Sure, the preference is not to have people forced to 'fit' the technology. Nevertheless, sometimes that's just the way it is. We have many examples of how we - experience designers working beyond the interface - helped bridge the gaps that can frustrate people and affect adoption. You SHOULD be able to do this.

3 - Know your history - Always know what research has been done and leverage it. Don't assume you are a pioneer in any research effort. Certain clients, even entire industries have done their own version of research similar to what you might propose. And there's often general behavioral/psychological/sociological research related to the specific channel/system/device you're charged with optimizing. A little detective work can often uncover patterns and models that can help inform design. You can ALWAYS do this.

Human evolution is increasingly outpaced by technological evolution. Though our ability to adapt to new interactive paradigms is impressive (e.g. even Grandma can pinch and swipe now), the pace of change has implications beyond the interface itself. As experience designers, our job is to think beyond the interface to the larger context of the interaction; beyond the pinch or swipe to the human emotions and behaviors the interface is designed to serve. We can only do so if we insist on finding ways to engage humans in our design processes.

POSTSCRIPT: It is worth noting the winning vendor for the lost pet mobile application did not successfully deploy the application, and costs were much higher than originally scoped.


Usability Professionals' Association
promoting usability concepts and techniques worldwide
Phone + 1.630.980.4997         office@upassoc.org

Contact the Voice