Monitoring the online customer experience, by Mark Hurst.
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The Hidden Stage of User Experience Projects

Monday, June 18, 2001
by Mark Hurst

Why is user experience work so difficult, time-consuming, and rarely as successful as we might like? Finally, someone has written a candid explanation. My business partner Phil Terry pointed me to a paper written by the Communication Research Institute of Australia (CRIA), a non-profit research group that helps organizations improve the user experience.

Their recent paper Experiences in Co-designing gives an insightful summary of their research process -- scoping, benchmarking, prototyping, refinement, production. Even more interesting was one particular chart that shows how much time each of the five stages takes in a typical project.

Added together, all five stages take up less than 50% of the time in the project. What is the "hidden stage" of their user experience work, the work that consumes more time than everything else put together?

One word: Politics.

The paper explains:

The remaining 50% of the time is spent on the politics. Superficially one can look at the diagram of the information design process and imagine it to be rational, even scientific. But it is in fact profoundly political -- people's interests, people's power relationships, and so on -- are an intrinsic part of any information design project.

Often, I hear designers say at the end of a project, "It would have been a great project but for the politics." My view is that "the politics" is no excuse. Dealing with the politics involves a great range of issues.

The paper goes on to explain that usability testing is a form of politics -- and that much of improving the user experience comes down to the transfer of political power:

When you go out [for a usability test] and consult people about something that they're going to have to put up with in the future, and these people have never been asked for their opinion or their advice before, you are engaging in politics. When you bring their opinions back into the decision-making process, what you're actually doing is bringing in a formerly unrepresented constituency to be represented around the table in the decision-making process.

That is not an act of usability testing or research, it's a political act, because you are saying, "Those who have exercised power in this area for some time must now give some of that power to someone else." And of course these things do not happen easily. Power is not something that is relinquished easily. Control is not something that people like to abandon.

To create real change in the experience (online or otherwise) that a company creates for its customers, realize that politics is what the work is mostly about. This is why I believe that the "customer experience" viewpoint is more effective than, say, more academic usability treatments, or more data-focused information architecture projects. Customer experience work gets "down and dirty," in the organization, to get the organization to empathize with the needs of people - customers - who happen to be outside the walls of the company.

Related column: About Information Architecture (April 3, 2000)

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