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The Most Important User Experience Method

Friday, June 20, 2003
by Mark Hurst

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One of my favorite stories about user experience consulting came from a project Creative Good conducted a couple of years back for a large organization. The project team went through the usual steps - creating a business-focused context, conducting user tests (what we call "listening labs"), and making recommendations for improvement with wireframe diagrams.

With our sponsor excited about the results, all that remained was to take something out to the larger organization, for those executives who hadn't attended our listening labs. So, at the client's request, we combed through the lab videotapes and created a professionally edited video summarizing the results and our suggestions for improvement.

The video was outstanding: a pithy intro, then scenes of users failing on the current site, followed by our list of common-sense improvements to the website that would surely boost the client's business, increasing their profits.

The video never made it out to the larger organization.

As soon as some key people outside our sponsor's group saw it, they halted the video's progress around the company. The word came back: the video was unacceptable because it implied that the website had problems. (!) What they wanted instead was a video that showed how great the website was, and what a great job the company was doing overall. In the end, the website did eventually change, but it took careful work with the organization to make it happen.

I bring up this story because it underlines a point that comes up a lot in my conversations with user experience practitioners at conferences and client projects:

Changing the organization is the most difficult and most important part of user experience work.

Said another way: you can give the smartest answers in the world, make the most brilliant recommendations; but if the organization doesn't actually change the user experience, it's all worthless. Your final report, nicely printed and bound, with such carefully chosen words, will gather dust in some forgotten pile, forever.

If you really want to become a better user experience practitioner, learn how to work with and change the organization. This is in contrast to most UX books and events, which are endless discussions of methods: Card sorting. Remote usability. User profiles (ohh, this industry's obsession with user profiles and personas, ohh my aching head).

Next time you're at an event, check the agenda for sessions on how to measure business results; or how to get Marketing and IT to work together better; or how to present the results of a UX project to a senior VP; or how to build a customer experience team, with a VP of Customer Experience at the helm; how to change the organization. Those will serve you much better.

This isn't to belittle traditional UX methods, which of course have their place. Rather, I simply point out that the dialog in our community is so fixated on particular usability methods that we've missed "the elephant in the living room": none of this matters if it doesn't result in the organization actually making the improvements.

User experience only matters if it has real-world results.

User experience work should be measured only by results.

Results only come if the organization is the primary focus of user experience work. And yes, there are some particular methods to organizational work (and, for that matter, measuring results). I'll get to those in a future column.

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