This is a tool cabinet by a Swiss company called WohnGeist.Let me quote from their web site:“We create and market sensual objects of lasting value from natural materials, in timeless designs. We manufacture furniture,kitchens, bathrooms, flooring and kitchen accessories from fine solid wood in our own workshop.Our membership of the WWF Wood Group and our FSC certification are indications of the importance that we attach to ecologicaland socially acceptable trade. More than 95 % of our production uses natural materials such as solid wood, stainless steel, glass, stone and linoleum”Looking at their tool cabinet and listening to their description – how do you feel? What do you think about WohnGeist? Do you think you like them if you met them? Wouldn’t you like one of these tool cabinets for your birthday?Now I went to a technical high school and always enjoyed metalwork much more than woodwork. I just never had that affinity with wood as a material. But even I want one of these. While I’m talking to you, in the back of my mind I can imagine myself using the tools, imagine how great they’d feel, and what I’d make with them.And that’s really important. Because when I’m using a tool that really works well, that looks and feels good to me, I work faster. I make fewer mistakes. I recover better when things do go wrong. I can work for longer. And, of course, I feel more positive about it afterwards. And that works for places – offices, shops, stations, warehouses, … And also for people. You sometimes hear people say that they feel funnier, or more relaxed, or more confident in a certain person’s company. And they probably don’t just feel that way, they probably are funnier, or more relaxed, or more confident.
And of course the opposite is true. When we don’t like what we’re using, what we’re doing, where we are, who we’re with … we are slower, we make more mistakes, we get fatigued more quickly and we are more likely to give up in the face of problems.And of course once we’re done we tell the world just how bad a time we’ve had. Almost every day I’ll overhear someone telling a friend about a terrible new system they have to use at work. The system is hard to understand and doesn’t do what they expect. Even simple things take a long time to get done. And their team has had to introduce some parallel procedures to work around all the mistakes they end up making. They’re frustrated because the system makes it hard for them to do what they need to do. Worse still, nobody’s listening to them. They’ve pointed out the problems, but nobody seems interested in doing anything about it. In fact, it’s their fault. They’re not trying hard enough to learn the new system and use it properly.Are those people on the train talking about one of your systems? Are they your colleagues, suppliers or business partners. When they have to work with one of your systems in the afternoon, what are they thinking in the morning? Are they thinking how easy it’s going to be? Or are they dreading it? Is that why they keep putting it off? Given the choice of doing something with you or with one of your competitors, which are they going to do first? Which are they going to get done fastest? And which are they going to do best?
Given that there are some pretty good analysts, and architects and developers around, why do we end up producing so many system that users hate?Well, I think that this is partly because we misunderstand the systems we deal with, and partly because we overvalue one kind of thinking.
First, let’s look at the systems we deal with.I think that all the important and interesting systems that we work on are what are called socio-technical systems. And socio-technical systems are hard.The definition I synthesized from several sources, is that a socio-technical is “a complex and ever-changing mix of people and technology engaged in some activity.”people: colleagues, customers, people who work for your suppliers, and business partnerstechnology: servers, laptops, networks, services, applications, but also vehicles, tools, devices and equipmentactivity: goals, processes, rules, regulations and conventionsSo one system with three aspects.
Not so long ago, many architects saw the scope of their job as limited to the technology. The technology was the system.Similarly, for many business people information technology was something separate that ‘supported’ the business – even though doing their business was entirely dependent on technology.Now things have improved and we are familiar with descriptions of the enterprise architect role that emphasise aligning information technology with business strategy and goals. And of course that’s progress.But I think that we still pay nowhere near enough attention to the ‘people’ aspect of our systems. We think that if we understand the business process, store all the right data and implement the right business rules then we’re done, right. We’ve taken care of everyone’s needs.
So now let’s look at how we value different kinds of thinking.Here are two lists of words.Which do you like the sound of?Doesn’t the list on the left sound great? Isn’t it impressive?Doesn’t the other list sound a bit … well … weak? Vague? Emotional?Well that’s because words on the left describe the style of thinking that most of us have been taught to value. It’s how you get to be a lawyer, or a doctor, or an engineer … or an architect. We’ve been taught that the words on the right are OK in their place. But that place isn’t at work.And that’s a problem.It’s a problem because most people in the world don’t think in a way that is dominated by that list on the left. It’s why they might respect surgeons, and lawyers, and IT people … but they don’t necessarily want to go to the pub with them after work. To them, the list on the left sounds a bit too much like the factory from Metropolis that I showed earlier.And it’s a problem because building systems that are reliable, secure, robust and responsive is all about the list on the left, but building systems that people love to use, our reaction to that WohnGeist tool cabinet, is all about the list on the right.
So what can you do?If this was the World Economic Forum at Davos and your were all CEOs and I’d tell you how to go back to your organizations and transform them. But I’m me and you are you. So I’m going to talk about some things that you can do. Things you can do next week to make things better.
Hit the streets.Get out there and talk to people.As an architect, you are often stuck behind a wall of business analysts, consultants and support people who want to own any contact with the world at large.And even if you do get to see some ‘stakeholders’, most of the time they’re middle managers, domain experts and the executives who sign things off.But what about your receptionists, packers, sales people, maintenance engineers. The people at your customers who place orders or receive goods. The people at your suppliers who deal with bids and invoices and make deliveries. If you’ve contracted out some customer service, do you know how their service engineers receive and confirm work orders, how their call-centre staff record information. They’re the people who will have to make a new or updated system work on the ground.What can you do? Well the next time you need to talk to someone about your plans for an update to a system. Go out and see them. And while you’re there ask if you can walk around and talk to some of the users. Because people are much, much better at showing what they do and how they use something than telling you what they want.If transition and modernization is the norm, as other speakers have said, you need to make sure that you really understand what’s going on out there.
Test the user experienceWe test whether systems are reliable, have the capacity and performance we need, whether they keep the correct data, follow the correct business rules, (Although from what I heard about the talk yesterday I suspect that at least some of us aren’t).It’s important to evaluate user experience as well. And you need to do this with real users, performing real tasks, with real systems.So while it may not be your job to actually do usability testing, you can help get it included in the programme.And it’s easier, quicker and cheaper than you think. This a picture from “Rocket Surgery Made Easy” by Steve Krug. It’s a great book on do-it-yourself usability testing. Steve structures the book around some simple maxims and my favourites are: “a morning a month, that’s all we ask” and “the least you can do.” Another favourite quote is that “watching users makes you smarter about how people use things and how things can be designed for use.” So not only do you fix the current system, but you learn how to make the next one better too.
Ask for feedback.Sadly, in my experience most organisations don’t actively seek feedback about their systems and dismiss most of the feedback they do get.Because feedback is scary. People will say bad things. To which my answer is “yes they will.” But at least you’ll be able to do something about it.What you can do is to make sure that feedback mechanisms are part of your ‘architecture’. Make sure that an appropriate mechanism is built into every system. Regularly ask users what they think of the systems they use. Include links to surveys and feedback forms in every communication.Surveys are so easy to put together now – they are built into Sharepoint, and there are public tools like Survey Monkey – so there’s no really no excuse for not asking.Grouping those three together (hit the streets, test the user experience and ask for feedback) its all about evidence over opinion. And for people who like that left hand list of words evidence is great. "We surveyed 240 users and …" "I visited 6 depots last month and watched people using the system and …"
Create some anticipationSeveral years ago I ordered a new laptop for work. I'm not going to name the company because I know they've got a lot better in recent years. But at that time the ordering process was full of irrelevant technical options and endless legal and contractual stuff. And then I got progress emails with just a link to an order number, internal technical terms, more contractual and legal disclaimers, … And when the laptop arrived it was in a nasty packing box with big brass staples. So it was hard to open and I got a paper cut. And inside the first thing I saw was more legal junk, then the laptop was sat in some packing fluff that got all over me and my desk. So eventually I just put the laptop in a drawer while I spent some time clearing up my desk and the packaging. And I didn’t look at it until the next week. Which was a shame cause it turned out to be a really good laptop.Compare that to the best experiences you've had. Or to Roly's fudge box.I know many of you have excellent programmes for rolling out new systems, but I still regularly hear people using phrases like “it was dumped on us”, “it just appeared one day”, “no-one told us anything”.And that’s not good. How a new system, or an upgrade is introduced is the first part of our experience and can colour our perception of a system for years. It affects our adoption of the system and our willingness to tolerate and workaround initial problems. For the business it impacts support costs and how well you realise the intended benefits of the system.As architects what you can do is make sure that programmes include great orientation and training for people – not just technical transition. And if you are getting out there and talking to people, testing users and asking for feedback then you’ll have a much understanding what help people will need to move to a new system.
Be an advocate for usersAdvocacy:The act of pleading or arguing in favor of something, such as a cause, idea, or policy. Often cited as a key skill for architects.Hopefully the things I've said earlier show that good user experience does matter, and that there is something you can do about it.But there are always lots of excuses for poor user experience: “it’s an internal system, people have to use it" or “it works fine, people just aren’t using it properly” or "its always worked that way."When you hear those excuses you be the advocate for good user experience.Why are we delivering systems that people hate to use? There’s something we can do about this. Fixing this will save money and make our business stronger and more responsive.
And of course if you feel that you need help with these things, then get in touch with us at Flow. We're a specialist user experience company and we can help you with user research, interaction design and usability testing. I've brought along some cards for Nathan Hallam, our Account Director. So grab one afterwards.
To finish, I'd like you to think about these Dutch football fans. Think about the emotional connection they have with their team. Now it may be too much to imagine the people who use your systems feeling the same way? They're probably never going to paint their faces orange and beat huge drums.But you really can create systems that people love to use.Thank you.
Questions and discussion.
Some of the pictures came from these web sites. The rest were mine.
Architecting Systems thatUsers Love to UseJohn WaterworthFlow InteractiveArchitect Insight Conference 2010