A reflection on the power of UX

“The user is not like you.”

This is an essential mantra when designing user experience (UX) for technology-based tools, marketing strategies, and information retrieval systems. As students of information management, my iSchool cohort members and I have had to unlearn our own instincts for the purpose of better listening to users. Unless we do so, any new system or tool we design may not add sufficient value for the intended users.

In an important contribution to thinking about UX strategy, Samantha Starmer (a lecturer at the UW iSchool and senior manager at REI for information architecture and customer experience) has Tweetedblogged, and presented about offering a holistic user experience. Since an enterprise may reach users through online, mobile, and in-person delivery systems, Ms. Starmer urges designers to think about all of the touch points in user experience. From my own experience, and from what I have so far learned about content strategy and UX, the standard processes for configuring a comprehensive UX strategy include:

  • Understanding the enterprise business model and customer service objectives;
  • Discovering how users find and interact with existing services (each platform is different!);
  • Formulating and delivering a consistent message and level of service for each platform;
  • Analyzing transaction data to grasp weak points in each delivery model.

Coupling good UX with a strong service model can lead to an undeniably powerful experience: I was fascinated by a friend’s blog post to this effect. My friend, Mary, works at a community library to assist job seekers in the Boston area. She spends a great deal of time helping people with online job applications, most often for entry-level positions. Many of the people Mary assists are not native English speakers and few have advanced computer skills. One of her recent blog entries told the story of an online application that was more user-friendly than any she had previously encountered (I would encourage reading the entire post here).

In purely heuristic terms, Mary liked the plain language of the application questions. In addition, she appreciated the feedback from the system, informing the job applicant how much further he had to go with the questions. Small details – an encouraging system-generated message, a friendly take on the drudgery that is an online form – inspired Mary to deem the experience “thoughtful, humane, [and] generous.” These are impressive adjectives. They are also a compelling reminder that designing and implementing UX strategies successfully can garner the trust, and even loyalty, of target users.

Given that UX can have such a powerful effect on a user’s perception of an enterprise, I began to wonder whether there are situations in which offering a “humane” experience is more important than others, depending on the enterprise or user task  at hand. Although a seamless, well-executed UX strategy should be the goal of every user interaction tool, the reality is that most service delivery teams are forced to prioritize projects and enhancements based on limited resources.

How should an organization’s management determine its hierarchy of UX needs? And are there customer service situations where UX is more critical than others (such as complaints in service errors or product recalls)? Is UX more critical to certain organizational missions (e.g., disaster relief, child welfare organizations)? I welcome any insights on these questions – or any other thoughts on UX – in the comments.

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Security Vs. Usability ?

In the security blogs and conversations I have watched most security people are constantly fighting usability or trying to get people to focus on security rather than usability.  I believe this is idea is holding back security from progressing farther and faster than it could.  This is also stopping some very impressive security controls from being developed and in many cases may stop companies from implementing the necessary security controls.

I was speaking with someone who had recently presented at a security conference.  He told me that there were multiple presentations where the first 5 slides were purely theory and 90% text. In that atmosphere you are going to lose a vast majority of your audience, even if they were originally interested in the project.  In contrast, tonight I was at a Masters Thesis presentation.  These presentations were about things ranging from User Experience, Supply Chain Management, Security and other Information Management topics.  Having previously heard presentations about all of these projects I was amazed at how each project brought it down to the user level and why it was important.  After thinking about it, I realized that is what is missing from Security and Usability.  People spend all their time trying to do more with security or usability at the expense of the other.  I believe that if Security people spent more time thinking about how to make security usable as well as secure companies would buy into security faster than they do now.

While I believe that much of the problem does lie with the security professionals, I also believe that this problem could be made easier if more User Design/User Experience people could help with this problem by actively incorporated security people while designing things.  If security and design work together more you would have better applications/networks and less applications like one I have to use that requires a 21 character password with at least 2 uppercase characters and 2 numbers and 2 non-alphanumeric characters.

As I am not a full-time security person and I don’t pretend to be a User Design/UX person I early await your thoughts.  Do you think that applications, or other computer related things can be made secure and usable or is it a hopeless cause?