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The gift to see ourselves as others see us

The gift to see ourselves as others see us

One of my favourite poems is Rabbie Burns’ ‘To A Louse – On seeing one on a lady’s bonnet at church’ where he draws parallels between a louse ruining a pompous lady’s hat and the futility of human ego and vanity.  Its final verse starts with these wonderful words:

O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us;
To see oursels as ithers see us!

(Oh, would some Power give us the gift;
To see ourselves as others see us!)

Burns continues by exploring the benefit of such a gift:

It wad frae monie a blunder free us,
An’ foolish notion:

(It would from many a blunder free us,
And foolish notion:)

For this author, the poem is a timely and regular reminder to try not to take himself, or life too seriously, and a challenge that most people can see through whatever grandiose mask I may choose to wear at any moment in time.  But it’s also a poem which applies to my professional life as well as my personal life.

This is because at its heart, UX helps organisations see themselves as others see them.  It empowers businesses to design real solutions which solve real problems for real humans.  It helps them see their place in the world and understand their actual relationship with their customers.

The oft quoted 2005 ‘Closing the Delivery Gap’ report from Bain & Co serves as a stark reminder about the gap between how we see ourselves and how others see us.  While compiling their report, they surveyed 362 firms, 80% of whom said they provided a “superior customer experience”.  How many customers agreed with their self–synopsis?  8%!  Organisations overestimated how they were seen through the eyes of their customers by a whopping 1,000%.

As the Bard warns us such hubris can lead only to blunders and foolish notions.

There are three characteristics related to users and their motivations which organisations regularly fail to grasp, most commonly because they overvalue their own importance.

Users are obsessive about getting s—t done

Organisations regularly underestimate the ruthlessly utilitarian mindset of their users.  They are you on your site to get stuff done, they want to find content, transact with a service and buy things online.  Their emotional contract is clear, “I will give you my attention if you don’t waste my time.”

The theorists tell us that our mobile phone home screen is our most intimate digital space and the apps which find their way on to that space are closely connected with our lives.  Have a look at your home screen now – and consider how you use the apps on there.  You have put them in that space because they help you get stuff done, they help you manage and live your life.

Digital winners invest time understanding the core needs of their users and build digital products around them.

Users hold the balance of power

The internet has flattened marketplace hierarchy and has swung the power pendulum towards the user throughout the buying and consideration process.  50 years ago, when someone was buying a car, the person selling the car knew much more about the product than the person buying the car.  40 years ago, when someone was buying a hi–fi system, the person selling the hi–fi knew much more about the product than the person buying the hi–fi.  30 years ago, when someone was buying a service, it was very difficult for them to find out what the service was really like, beyond having to listen to what the salesman told them.

Today, users are overwhelmed with objective and factual information, third–party reviews and immediate access to your competitors alternative offering.  Your users are in firm control of the transaction and they are drunk on the power.

Digital winners understand that clarity trumps persuasion, so they communicate with not at their users.

Users would typically prefer to be doing something else than be on your site

The importance of features vs goals is well rehearsed and explained elsewhere and extrapolates the observation that software has features but users have goals.  This simple observation is a helpful way for designers to understand user motivations, and the environment within which the software exists. But as well as helping designers make better software, it also reminds us that the software part is virtually always a means to an end – and that users would prefer to be closer to the end than they actually are.

Digital winners design digital products that empower users to quickly do something else.

In 2014, Russell Davies was Creative Director of Government Digital Services and played a leading role in the design of, delivering over 600 public services online to the UK public.  He was interviewed by Econsultancy that year and was asked the following question “GDS has received praise from many quarters for its work over the last few years, but what do your users think?” His answer revealed why the site was performing so well, usage was increasing exponentially and user satisfaction is consistently high “Hopefully most of our users don’t think about or notice us. They just use the service and get on with their lives.”

By Gareth Dunlop

Gareth formed Fathom in 2011 and has been in the business of design performance for over two decades.

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