Practice Makes Better: A silver lining to the quarantine

First among Nielsen-Norman’s ten heuristics for a good usability experience is “visibility of system status”, which is a fancy way of saying “feedback”: how clearly, how quickly, and how often is the system showing you its responses to your inputs? Dr. Rob Keefer includes an analogous principle — “Always know how things are going” — in his seven-part Harmonics Way philosophy.

There are a lot of unknowns floating around these days. Will we ever return to normal work and school lives? How much longer will we have to wear these uncomfortable masks whenever we go into a store? Where will the chain reaction set off by the coronavirus eventually take us? It is a time of uncertainty, and if we consider existence as one big system, the virus and its impact are certainly not helping the “visibility of system status”.

Simultaneously, the full days many of us now spend quarantined at home with our families afford us much more feedback about how we’re doing as property owners, as spouses, and as parents. This feedback is linked to the opportunity to practice and improve in these roles.

Musicians who shred for 30 or more hours a week not only get a more intimate feel for their instruments and the music they’re playing; they also get better faster than musicians who only put in an hour or two over that same timespan. In this same way, increased exposure to the “systems” of home life is allowing many of us to find out what we’re really made of when it comes to those areas, and then hopefully to improve.

This can be an intimidating and overwhelming process. Users aren’t (and shouldn’t be) judged by how well they interact with technical systems — for example, how easily they are able to use the checkout process on Amazon.com — but we are judged by how well we interact with our families, jobs, and how well we maintain our property. This creates added stress, especially when there are conflicts or setbacks, but (like most stress) may ultimately represent a chance for huge masses of people to become better homeowners, spouses, and parents.

The Vicious Cycle of Recruiting With Unpaid Work

The pandemic has left lots of people unemployed, including many UX professionals. Some companies are taking advantage of this situation to automate and scale their recruiting. (Historically this has been called “carpetbagging“, and it hasn’t gone away.)  I have seen one company even make the completion of unpaid work part of their application process: after an initial screening interview with a third-party recruiter, the applicant is sent a link to Usertesting.com, where he or she is asked to watch a video of a user interacting with the company’s software and then evaluate the session. Applicants are not compensated for this work, which the recruiter told me takes about three quarters of an hour.

Forty-five minutes of uncompensated work in exchange for a shot at a steady job might seem like an okay deal for someone just entering the field, or who is for other reasons desperate. But if ten people go through this process, then the company has received 7.5 hours of free labor. If 100 people go through this process, then they have received nearly two weeks of free labor. It becomes easy to see how the incentives become misaligned.

When the prospect of being hired is drastically reduced, going through an application process like this is an unambiguously negative experience. Luckily, quality UX candidates have a passion for improving experiences. They want to work somewhere they can put this passion to use, which means a place where their recommendations will be taken seriously. A company that persists in putting people through bad experiences will ultimately fail to attract quality candidates; it’s a vicious cycle.

The unpaid work I described above was ostensibly meant to show the company how the candidate evaluates a usability session. Here are two alternatives to that kind of recruiting method:

  1. Pay applicants for the time they spend evaluating your usability sessions. That at least keeps the incentives more aligned and steers clear of unethical “carpetbagging” practices.
  2. Talk to candidates instead. Quality candidates will be willing to spend time interviewing, because an interview gives them visibility into the process they’re participating in, realtime feedback about how they’re doing, and a personal sense of who they’re going to be working with.

Another writer exposes the terrible downsides of a new technology — but keeps using it!

Not only did Alli Conti get scammed on Airbnb, she uncovered a big ring of scams that exploit baked-in security weaknesses of the site, its rules, and the expectations of its users. But…

Even after a month of digging through public records, scouring the internet for clues, repeatedly calling Airbnb and confronting the [scammer] who called himself Patrick, I can’t say I’ll be leaving the platform, either. Dealing with Airbnb’s easily exploitable and occasionally crazy-making system is still just a bit cheaper than renting a hotel.

Conti’s message to Airbnb is effectively “Don’t worry about fixing these problems, I’ll keep using your site anyway so long as an Airbnb is marginally cheaper than alternatives.” Not counting all the indirect costs, of course.

I suspect there’s something else going on under the surface: a reluctance to go back to reserving rooms in hotels, simply because it is the “old way”. It doesn’t feel as hip or fresh or exciting — or dare I say fashionable? — to book a room in a hotel, and it doesn’t fit the narrative people have told themselves about what travel is supposed to look like in 2019. But that is a narrative, and not only is it an arbitrary one, it’s harmful in the case of people who are unwilling to change their consumer behavior in response to serious problems.

Data analytics, change, and ethics

Much ado is made about data-driven decision-making. Why do things the old-fashioned way with reports written by slow humans when you can make decisions based on vast quantities of realtime data compiled by automated systems, displayed in the most (ostensibly) helpful ways?

The firehose of data from which we are encouraged to drink, and to which our own activity contributes and from which others then drink and act, has a mixed reputation. Nobody would argue that informed decision-making is worse than flying blind, and in certain cases the “more data=better” curve really is a linear diagonal up and to the right. But at the same time, most people instinctively recoil from the collection and use of data in a growing set of instances where it feels invasive, unnecessary, and even “creepy.”

Take the well-known case (perhaps somewhat mythologized at this point) of the dad who found out his teenage daughter was pregnant because the big-box retailer Target tracked the daughter’s shopping habits and, identifying her as pregnant, proactively sent baby formula coupons to the household. It may be true that the dad would have had other more direct opportunities to find out about his daughter’s pregnancy eventually, but most people still see what happened as a violation of some kind.

Target was taking advantage of all the data available to them in order to maximize revenue, just as all businesses are coached to do, with the result that they intruded upon a delicate family situation and maybe even crossed a line with respect to privacy and ethics. To what extent are other companies taking notice of this and learning lessons from it?

The language of change management is often fatalistic: “This is what the future is going to look like, this is where your industry is headed, so you’d better do X or else get left behind.” This creates an environment where it’s easy to forget that even the biggest overarching changes are built from decisions made at the most granular levels, and that we actually have control over our technology choices. “No thanks” is always on the table even if we aren’t thinking about it.

The urgency with which companies are coached to adopt the latest technologies is not necessarily valid. Sometimes it’s better to hang back and wait, or at least to implement a change gradually and cautiously, so that the ethical boundaries of the new technology can be figured out and adhered to. It might be better for the bottom line to ask forgiveness rather than permission, but it isn’t always the right thing to do, and it can get you into trouble later on.

The importance of customer experience

Having a good customer experience can sometimes be more important than just delivering the product successfully to the customer. The primary reason is that most business comes from repeat business. And also in some cases, what the customer remembers is the experience, not the end result.

Imagine a scenario where you are representing the client in a relationship with a vendor. The vendor’s reps do a horrible job with customer experience: you are kept in the dark; appointments are forgotten; you have to hound them for basic information; their systems are buggy and hard to use; you are handed off from rep to rep and given conflicting accounts of their protocols and business structure; etc.

Just as you are at your wit’s end and ready to recommend the relationship with this vendor be terminated, they come through for you and get you exactly what you wanted. On paper, you come out of the relationship better than you had gone in. You should be a happy camper, end of story, right?

The frustration you felt in that journey is still very real, and it is likely to translate into negative word of mouth. Just as positive word of mouth is the best advertising, negative word of mouth can destroy a product or a brand.