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I’ve been in three board meetings in the last month where it was painfully apparent that there wasn’t a person in the company who owned the UX philosophy of the product. I’m explicitly saying “UX” (user experience) rather than “UI” (user interface) as each company had an excellent designer and the application looked great. But the UX broke down quickly, especially as you went from novice first time user to experienced user.
Now, it’s not that the apps sucks. In each case, the apps ranged from good to great. They had huge amount of functionality, did unique things that other apps didn’t do, and solved a clear set of problems in a compelling way. They were fast, pretty, used nice fonts, and had good screen layouts.
But each had a jumble of different ways of doing things. As you went from one set of activities to another, the approach quickly became inconsistent. I kept noticing that my when I was doing a different set of things in the app, the user flow would change. Or when I switched modalities, I would have different ways to do things that were dependent on where in the app I was.
Sometimes I’d click on a label to take an action; other times I’d click on a text description of the action. In some places I cared a lot about the Tab key; in others it was the Enter key. In some screens data was automatically saved after I exited a field; in others I had to take an explicit action. In some situations all the actions I could take were exposed; in others I had to search a menu tree for them. Orientation of the iPhone mattered in some cases and didn’t in others. Sometimes the key set of data that I was working on was the focus on the screen; in others it was only part of the screen.
When I start feeling uncomfortable with UX, I start counting extra key and mouse actions. When I think I should be able to do something with one action and it takes three or more, there’s a problem. When I realize in one part of the app that I can do something with one action, but in the other it takes four, there’s a problem.
In each of the companies, there is an excellent VP of Engineering. They each have a strong design / UI person. Two of the three had founder/CTOs. And the CEOs in each are excellent. They are each obsessed about the product, but they are approaching it from an engineering perspective. What are the features that the user needs? What is the feedback we are getting about what individuals want to do? Each of these things ends up being a story or a task – a feature – but there is no unifying UX philosophy.
In each case, when asked, no one in the company owned the UX. In one case, no one felt qualified. In one case, no one really knew what I meant and kept conflating UX with UI. And in one case it was a revelation that users were struggling with a chaotic and inconsistent UX.
I’m noticing this more and more in the different apps I use, especially at the early stage. Some are crafted beautifully from a UI perspective, but once I start using them on a daily basis I want to scream. Others have acceptable UIs and a layer of UX consistency that breaks down immediately when I become an advanced user. And others are radically different UX experiences across devices.
I’ve come to appreciate the important of a single person in the company owning the UX with this person being the arbiter of discussion around how to implement the UX. There’s nothing wrong with lots of different perspectives, but a single mind has to own it, synthesize it, and dictate the philosophy. But first, they have to understand the difference between UI and UX, and – more importantly – the product-oriented execs who approach things from an engineering perspective need to understand this.
I’ve decided it times to up our game significantly on this. I’m curious about what resources you rely on, thing are amazing, and would give to an executive team that is struggling with this.
Over the weekend, Kwin Kramer, the CEO of Oblong, wrote a great essay on TechCrunch titled Hey Kids, Get Off My Lawn: The Once And Future Visual Programming Environment. He starts off with a great Mark Twain quote.
“When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”
Mark Twain, ”Old Times on the Mississippi”
Atlantic Monthly, 1874
This describes my continuous interaction with the computer industry. I was 14 once, then 21, and now 46. It’s remarkable to me to reflect on how far things have come since I wrote my first program on APL on an IBM mainframe (no idea what kind) in the basement of a Frito-Lay datacenter in Dallas at age 12. Then there are moments where I can’t believe that we are just now discovering things – again – that were figured out 30 years ago. And last night, while laying in bed in a hotel in Iceland and reading the wikipedia page on Iceland on my iPad, I kept thinking “what’s old is new again.”
Kwin nails it in his essay. Oblong, which is one of the most amazing and unique companies I’ve ever been involved in, is constantly dealing with the constraints of today while working a decade into the future. A year ago the present caught up with the future and their first product, Mezzanine, came to life.
I love working with companies where the CEO still writes code and uses his perspective on the past to inform the product, but isn’t afraid to completely leap over the current constraints to create something entirely new, amazing, and delightful.