Understanding Context for UX Strategy UXSTRAT 2015
TO SHAPE UX STRATEGY
Andrew Hinton | The Understanding Group
UX STRAT 2015
WE’LL LOOK AT
3 THEMES FOR
I wrote this book because I had been puzzling for many years over how technology complicates context for people.
How we’re now not just in one place or another place, but in many places simultaneously.
How the context of an action isn’t the same throughout our environment like it used to be, but can be interpreted by digital stuff in so many different ways that we can’t keep
How we’re giving our technology a lot of agency for running big parts of the human world.
So today I’m pulling three themes from the book to talk about UX Strategy.
context and strategy have a lot to do with each other because of the challenges of environments becoming more complex.
body as interface
smart homes pervasive algorithms
WHILE I WAS WRITING THIS BOOK, MY HEAD EXPLODED
So while I was writing this thing, I found myself having to really think through what was changing in our world — what the stuff we’re shoving into the world is doing to change
human experience in general. And it blew my mind — it got me pretty worried, in fact. Because we’re now so far outside of just making things for screens … we’re introducing
pervasive dimensions of meaning and action into our environment.
James J. & Eleanor Gibson
Radically empirical approach to understanding perception & behavior.
In writing the book, I learned about the work of these two extraordinary people — James and Eleanor Gibson.
James Gibson developed theories about how animals, including people, perceive their environment — he’s also the scientist who developed the theory of “affordance.” And
Eleanor helped develop and build on those ideas to pioneer the science behind how people learn their environment, even as infants.
Something I now base my work on entirely is the idea that we have to understand how humans comprehend a context like this, because it’s the foundation for how we
understand everything else we’ve put into the world since the earliest civilizations could build stone walls and wooden fences.
We have to understand that everything we make is ultimately environmental design. Urban design, architecture, industrial design, interaction design, information architecture, all
these things are intermingled now in ways we are only barely starting to understand.
Our environment is changing faster than we can keep up with what those changes really mean in our lives.
Everything I learned about the science of perception and cognition points to huge challenges in making all these invisible connections and rules understandable to the people
living among the stuff we design.
PRODUCT PRODUCT PRODUCT
We tend to be focused on products, and we’re creating them incredibly fast.
In fact, the the way a lot of people are now defining design is essentially pushing product out into the world to see what happens.
>> But all of these are part of an environment. And they’re all connected.
APPROXIMATE INCREASE IN ENVIRONMENTAL COMPLEXITY OVER TIME*
added to human
No big whoop.
MAKE IT STOP!!!!!!
We’re so modern!
Learn a new app? Uh. Ok.
I have no idea what my
phone is doing.
I have no idea what my
house is doing.
Olden times Fin de siècle
* according to Andrew Hinton’s feelings on the subject.
“Information Age” 21st Century
According to my empirical measurement of my own personal feelings, complexity is hitting an extreme upward curve in our world. Humans are creating so many new parts of
our environment that do not behave the way everything has always behaved, that we are entering an unmapped territory.
The sort of territory that ancient mapmakers marked with pictures of sea monsters.
The contexts are too numerous, and the systems are too big.
And yet so much of ux practice is about interfaces — using interface as a proxy for working through the big, systemic challenges of our complex environment.
And whatever UX STRATEGY is, it seems to me it has a responsibility to address this exploding complexity.
THE ANTIDOTE TO UI FIXATION: MODELS & MAPS
This is one reason why I and many of my colleagues, particularly at TUG, are champions for modeling as a key practice in all design work. Scale has to be abstracted enough to
work through it and understand the mechanisms in play, the definitions underneath the work, in order to make sense of interfaces. This is not a waste of time — modeling is
making. But at a strategic level. It allows us to see relationships we can’t see otherwise.
FOR AS LONG AS
In order to really understand how context works in human experience, I had to understand that we need to have a firm grasp of both the principles behind how things work and
how people behave and think, but also the specifics of particular facts.
This sounds obvious — but we miss it a lot of the time.
There’s a conventional idea that Strategy is up in the clouds, and you get actual work done on the ground.
It’s similar to the notion that theory is completely abstract, and somehow separate from practice.
>> I don’t think either of these distinctions is particularly helpful.
One of the things I learned from ecological psychology and embodied cognition studies is that you can’t understand the real experience and behavior of people only through
numbers, or artificial lab tests.
You can’t understand how someone perceives a banana by showing them a picture of a banana, or by working only from theory and not continuously putting those theories into
a feedback loop with real observable data.
ONE LAPTOP PER CHILD — CIRCA 2006
laptop.org via archive.org
back in the mid 2000s, some very smart people with very good intentions created the one laptop per child program. It had ambitious, very humanistic aims.
But the aims were based on concepts and agendas that, while progressive, innovative, and largely good, had some trouble once they hit the real world.
“It would have been far better to begin in the villages,
spend time there and build from the bottom up. [The
OLPC project] might have discovered there was little
need for this kind of machine.”
Bruce Nussbaum - Business Week, 2007
ONE LAPTOP PER CHILD — CIRCA 2007
Within a year after launch, OLPC was being called a failure. That may not be entirely fair — it had some mixed successes and is still running in an ever-adapting form — but the
problem was that nobody really went out and learned what the real end-users needed in their lives.
ONE LAPTOP PER CHILD — CIRCA 2009
There was plenty of strategy, and it was academically sound, but the vision didn’t meet the needs of reality. People actually needed their kids to learn how to use computers that
the rest of the world uses in their jobs, for example. Windows and Office, rather than the groundbreaking but otherworldly functionality of the Sugar operating system.
Most design work
happens within a
bubble that ignores
the principles and
Most design work happens in a hurry, within a bubble where the work is driven by assumptions, ideologies, received methods that haven’t been questioned, trends and
>> This bubble keeps us from being aware of the principles that underly how the world works, as well as the particular facts that we use to test the principles against to refine
and re-focus them.
principles & the facts.
Strategy needs both principles and facts, because they’re part of that systemic view — bottom up and top down working together.
OLPC was really smart about the systemic principles that drive human learning in community settings — but it went forward with those without dealing with the particular facts
on the ground.
MESSY TRUTH OF
NOT TIDY DATA
I love this recent tweet showing how the same demographic and personal data can be true of two very very different people.
For example, one of them has expertise in crazy trains, and the other does not. That’s really important.
We make big mistakes when we don’t bring a real, empirical understanding of the human frame of reference into our work.
That leads me to the next theme.
The last theme is about how we frame the world and tell stories to ourselves about it. Because it turns out that for humans, context is powerfully shaped by the way we frame
and narrate our experience.
Tactical Frame Strategic Frame
24 Aug 2015
August 24 a few weeks ago. Big plunge in the stock markets. I mean, look at that horrible drop!
>> but wiser investors were reminding us — this is part of a bigger picture. this drop is just making up for a small bit of the tremendous increases in market wealth in recent
years. Over a 10 year period you’re doing just fine.
>> Where most of us still spend so much of our time and energy is in this frame of reference — in a silo, with the problem right in front of our noses. Even if we don’t want to,
the people around us are freaking out, demanding that we do something! anything! now!!
>> But a strategic frame of reference gives investors who are in for the long game a much better context for making these decisions. They’re more confident — in fact they’re
buying up the shares that the panicked folks are selling.
Another angle to look at this from is through Stewart Brand’s “pace layers” — where the stuff at the bottom changes more slowly than what’s at the top. It forms foundational
layers that have core principles that remain invariant over a very long time.
It can be worrisome to be trying to catch up with the latest trends and fixations. They can be brittle and fickle.
>> But at the same time, to be strategic — as we’ve discussed — you have to not only stay at the foundational level. You have to ground your understanding of those principles
in the current facts of how they’re playing out.
We all have narratives. We’re
all creating stories. Our lives
are stories in that sense.
Center for the Neurobiology of Learning,
But we have invisible, shared structures we live within together as well, that shape our behavior and beliefs powerfully. Our lives make sense to us because of these narratives we participate in.
99percentinvisible.org - Credit: Sam Greenspan]
99percentinvisible.org - Credit: Gresham, Smith, and Partners
Floor tiles nudge foot trafﬁc in the Atlanta International Terminal
the way our environment shapes out understanding and action can be very subtle; one example is the way a building’s floor tiles can nudge foot traffic in particular directions,
just through the visual patterns it presents.
From Understanding Context, O’Reilly Media, 2014
MEANS TO US
Using “Merchant” in
conversation, systems, and
“We know what ‘merchant’
means for our business!”
BEING STRATEGIC MEANS ESCAPING “NARRATIVE DEBT”
We talk a lot about technical debt — where organizations ignore technical improvements for too long, and end up having to “pay” to catch up later.
But I believe a lack of consistent reframing can result in a sort of “narrative debt” that gets int he way of strategy.
In a recent engagement, I worked with a company that knew it had serious technological debt and was working to fix that — ancient databases, crufty support systems,
unmanageable silos. But they kept running into trouble with making progress with those efforts.
We came to realize that even though their whole business was centered around servicing “merchants” they hadn’t actually clearly defined for themselves what “merchant” meant
— from their database schema to their business rules to their content strategy. The problem was invisible to them because they all used the term as if there were no question it
= “It’s Simple”
BEING STRATEGIC MEANS ESCAPING “NARRATIVE DEBT”
The reality was actually very complex, but they weren’t paying attention to the real facts on the ground. They bought in to a collective narrative of simplicity that actually
From Understanding Context, O’Reilly Media, 2014
THE ANSWER TO
Simplicity is good when it isn’t obscuring important parts of how the world works -- if people need to understand those parts in order to understand cause and effect.
“Make it simple” isn’t enough, when what we make creates so much invisible complexity in our environment. Instead, we need to either make the complexity itself simpler, or
make it more clear to people how it works. Ideally, both.
1. Consider the complexity of
the full environment.
2. Understand the context
between principles and facts.
3. Regularly question & reframe
no dragons, no sea monsters — let’s navigate smartly, carefully, and boldly.
ANDREW HINTON | @INKBLURT