How to Build a User-Centric Culture. An Interview With Userzoom.

Paul Boag

On the 15th of March, I’m going to be giving a talk at better UX in London, the free event organized by the people at Userzoom is shaping up to be a great day. And recently I caught up with Christopher from Userzoom who had a few questions about my talk.


Paul: So on the 15th of March, I'm going to be giving a talk at better UX in London, the free event organized by the people at Userzoom is shaping up to be a great day. And recently I caught up with Christopher from Userzoom who had a few questions about my talk.

Christopher: What can we expect from your talk at Better UX London?

Paul: So, I'm going to be talking about what I call how to start a user revolution or user experience revolution. This came about because I became increasingly frustrated with organizations.

The organizations didn't seem to be taking user experience design as seriously as they should do. We now live in a world where one disgruntled customer can really screw up and damage a brand and so, we need to be taken seriously. There's more competition than ever before so customers could be more demanding than ever before and so it goes on.

So, I wrote a book called The user experience Revolution and the book isn't to teach people how to do good user experience design because there's enough other great books out there to do it, but what it's really about is how to embed a user centric culture within organizations.

A lot of it to be honest is how to sell user experience design, not sell it as in the agency sense of selling it to clients, but rather, how to get colleagues to care about user experience design.

And actually, out the book came a set of cards. I produced 52 cards with each card having a kind of tip on how to get user centric thinking up the agenda internally within an organization. So, the talk is all about that kind of thing, it's how to encourage people to give a shit.

Christopher: Yeah. So, just I guess it's a sort of brief [inaudible 00:02:12] what one piece of advice would you give to a UX team of one, that lonely UX [inaudible 00:02:22] trying to make a case for visibility in their organization.

Paul: My favorite piece of advice actually isn't mine at all. It's a piece of advice from Jared Spool with who's another great figure in the usability community. He wrote a really great article a while back which is "Why I can't convince your executive team to care about user experience and neither can you." Which was a rather depressing title.

But what basically boiled down to when you read the actual post is that we need to stop talking about user experience. We need to stop talking about, why don't you care about the user, and kind of nagging people over that. But instead, we need to appeal to what I call the selfish gene. Every executive, every colleague in an organization has things that they care about, things that they want to achieve.

Whether it be increasing shareholder value, getting their end of year bonus, increasing creasing sales, whatever it be, and in almost all of those cases improving the user experience can actually help. So the best thing to do if you want to get people to care about user experience, is show that user experience can help them personally.

Christopher: How long before you think UX takes a central position with an organization. Do you think it is a winnable battle?

Paul: Oh absolutely. I think … We are almost at the point now, well we are at the point where the first generation of the big boys, the grown ups are beginning to get this. It goes in waves doesn't it, it's like any adoption curve. You've got the early adopters which are your Silicon Valley companies. Apple very much set the way with this, of caring about every aspect of the user experience, and that then got picked up by the valley so you see a great attention to user experience.

Then there's some great case studies, things like Zappos and their 365 day return policy and all this kind of stuff. And then it starts to creep into more traditional big organizations. IBM are investing heavily in designers, General Electrics have spent a lot of money on user experience.

And then it even got into government. You've got the British government with government digital [crosstalk 00:04:53] service, they've invested heavily in user experience.

And so, trickling down and I think it's inevitable now that it's going to percolate into pretty much every sector. How quickly it hits your sector, whatever your sector will be, will be dependent upon that sector and various other factors. But, I think it's going to be inevitable pretty much everywhere.

Even in the B to B sector. A lot of times people go, "oh B to B, you know, I see how this makes sense for B to C but it doesn't make sense to B to B. That's actually wrong. Because the truth is, the same people that are buying and using consumer apps are also B to B purchasers. So, that doesn't make sense. So I think it will come [crosstalk 00:05:47]

Christopher: [inaudible 00:05:47] B to B's yes?

Paul: Yeah.

Christopher: So, there's a lot of … When we talk about the sort of people making great strides in UX, we obviously talk the big boys like the ones you have covered. Is there anyone we should be talking about who you're not really hearing about. Who are the sort of, the upstarts that we might not be sort of talking about in case studies [inaudible 00:06:16]. Is there anyone respect in terms of their UX or what they're trying to achieve?

Paul: I'm actually … the people that I'm most interested in are a sector that on the surface, probably doesn't look like they're making much headway with the user experience, and that's the higher education sector. I do a lot of work in the higher education sector, so universities. This is in the UK.

Universities are facing a perfect storm where suddenly all of their customers are empowered and have got more choice than ever before and all the normal things that has been happening everywhere. But then they're also faced with the fact that suddenly their customers are consumers. They're actually spending a lot of money. It's one of the biggest purchases people make in their life. Which wasn't the case when I went to university. I came out university debt free. So things have changed radically in that sector.

And there are very devolved organizations, they are not at all customer focused in the past … and they're having to go through this huge transition in thinking. And, they're massively under-resourced in digital for years as well.

But, there are people in these organizations who are undertaking the gargantuan challenge of trying to turn a devolved organization full of academics who are very opinionated, to start taking customer service and customer experience seriously.

And they're doing really good stuff. It's worth following a few of them. A lot of them blog and so you can kind of follow what they're doing. So, there's some great work going on at St Andrews University is one that springs to mind instantly. Dundee University is another one, Hull is another one. So there's a lot of things going on behind the scenes that hasn't necessarily yet trickled down a new website, but there's a lot cultural change going on.

Christopher: Do you see parallels between the higher education Sector and what they're doing with UX with the not for profit sector which I know you do a lot of work for. Are they far more unique [inaudible 00:08:39]

Paul: No, there are parallels. I think there are more parallels if I'm honest between higher education and government. Both massively devolved with everybody running their own silos, which if you try to create a consistent experience across those silos that can be quite challenging.

With the charity sector, they're a little bit more focused actually, because obviously encouraging donations, encouraging giving is their primary aim, and they're kind of very clear on that in most cases. Yes there's volunteering, yes this fund raising and a few other things, but, it's a little bit more focused.

Maybe not as many connections as you think there would be, but both are undergoing radical changes in different ways. And that's interesting to observe.

Christopher: Was there a light bulb moment for you personally when you suddenly realized the parallels, a UX or the value of it. Was there something that you did that you saw results from or was there a certain someone or an article or just basic research. What was the point where you went right this is bloody important.

Paul: If I'm honest I wasn't. I was a User Interface designer. I go into broader user experience purely out of frustration and bitterness and anger.

So I got fed up with designing beautiful interfaces that were let down because 28 different people across the organization were all writing copy in different styles and different tones. Or, having to build interfaces that got around some internal process problem.

A classic example I had with one particular client was, we can't show pricing on our site because each franchisee across the country can set their own pricing.

So, before anybody could get into their website they had to enter that postcode, and of course that's a real barrier to entry [crosstalk 00:10:51] it killed conversion rate dead on the spot.

Over time, I started to get increasingly frustrated with these kinds of things, and started to interfere in things that weren't really my job. I started to interfere in things like, well perhaps your pricing model needs to change for the organization then, or perhaps you need to set up a cross disciplinary working group that produces content together or creates some content style guides or whatever else it be.

So it was really being a busybody and interfering in things that were none of my business is how it came about.

Christopher: What are the soft skills you think need in order to be a UX [inaudible 00:11:35]

Paul: A lot of it comes down to … You need a very broad skill base for a start. You need to have a little understanding of everything. I can write code, I can do interface design, I understand marketing, I've got a business understanding. I mean none of this is very deep but you need to understand everything because your primary job is getting different disciplines that don't normally work together very well to work together very well.

So, you need to understand and be able to speak the language of lots of different people. And then as I said early, you need to be a salesman really, that's a big part of it. You need to be able to sell ideas.

And a lot of that comes down to skills that most UX people have naturally, which is the ability to empathize. We're very good at empathizing with users and thinking about how users feel in a situation, we produce personas an empathy mats and customer journey mat, so we can really get in the heads of our users.

But we tend to be much worse at applying that to our stakeholders and actually we need to empathize with them and understand them if we're going to get them to do what we need them to do.

Christopher: You mentioned marketing. Where do you feel marketing and UX meet? Is the modern … Is modern marketing thoroughly in times with UX, or [crosstalk 00:13:11]

Paul: I think they've still have a bit of a way to go if I'm honest. I think modern marketing yes, absolutely is entirely entwined with UX and the reason it is entirely entwined with UX is cause there is a realization that actually … in the world we live in, it's pretty much impossible to define your own brand identity.

Your customers define your brand identity, they decide what you're like through social media updates, through reviews, through all of these different channels that they've got. They decide how your brand is perceived.

If I say United Airlines to you, I bet you don't think of the how marketing wants you to think of United Airlines. You think of that one passenger being dragged off of plane bloody and beaten. And so the customers have defined the brand identity there.

So as a result, producing an outstanding experience is one of the best ways of ensuring a positive brand identity. I think really switched on marketing people get that but, unfortunately there are very few of those.

I think there's still a lot of people trying to control the brand and control the message. All that's happened when they digitally transform is that they've replaced a billboard ad with a Facebook ad. And that's not digitally transforming. That's not taking into account how the world has actually changed and I think there's still a lot of realizations to go on there.

Christopher: I guess much like digital transformation which … and please correct me if I'm wrong, stuff within culture it's not just as you say, digital billboards replacing print ads, it's how you focus on your users and your customers sort of internally and then how that extends externally and-

Paul: Yeah.

Christopher: And I guess [inaudible 00:15:25] the relationship between that and UX. Do you feel like … I'm going to say, popularity is the wrong word but do you feel like digital transformation has sort of run parallel to the rising importance of UX or does one help the other. Is one helping one across the finishing line?

Paul: Yeah. I mean I actually think they are almost the same thing if I'm honest. It's no coincidence that I wrote a book on digital transformation and then followed up with a book on user experience. Because, I actually think they're pretty much the same they're just different angles on the same thing.

Different people define digital transformation in different ways but most of the definitions of digital transformation is about organizational change and adopting new technologies to better support changes in customer behavior.

So, ultimately, all comes down to the fact that basically in my opinion, the power has shifted. The power shifted away from companies that used to be able to use their big budgets to say what they wanted and grab our attention and make us because believe whatever they wanted, to a situation now where the consumer has control because they've got unlimited choice and the ability to bad mouth us if they like, if they want to.

That shift in behavior that comes along with that realization that customers have had about the power that they now have, has led to the need to digitally transform, which basically boils down to providing better customer service.

Christopher: Certainly. What keeps you interested in talking about UX. What sort of sparked your passion for it?

Paul: If I'm honest I see negative experiences everywhere. Basically my passion is driven out of being a grumpy middle aged man. And wherever I go, I see things that annoy me. And then, like any proper grumpy old man, I have to rant uncontrollably about those things.

It's like little things all the time, it could be so much better than that. It doesn't need to be that rubbish. Without a lot of expense or a lot money, my latest one is my bank. My banking app on my iPhone is great, but you look into the website and it's a train crash.

That makes me really mad and before I know it, I'm ranting online about it and writing blog posts and giving talks and that of thing. So it's all driven out of bitterness and anger really, which is not the best motivation but it kind of works for me.

Christopher: It makes you an entertaining feature I think. [crosstalk 00:18:33]. If you were to strip back as to why that is happening, why is that a mobile experience so good, and why is that desktop experience so bad. Why does that happen do you think? Obviously it's a very long and technical question but, in broad strokes why does that [crosstalk 00:18:54] have to be the case?

Paul: A great example of it is, when you log in on my mobile app, you've created a password and it asks you for the first, third and fifth letter of the password, that's how banking does that. And on the app what they do is they show blank boxes for all the letters and you just fill in the ones they're asking for.

On the web it doesn't do that. And you think but why does something like that happen? And a lot of it is down to the way that organizations are run and owned, and operated should I say.

The chances are that a different group of people run the website, run the mobile app, and they're not talking with one another. And that's one of the biggest problems the user experiences is, is a lack of a joined up experience across platforms.

So, one group is running one thing, another group is another and they're not really talking to one another because everybody has their own systems.

Added to that, you've got a senior management team that has got this tendency of being out of … well they're out their depth basically with digital and user experience, they don't understand it. Typically, they come from a generation of management style where you don't accept your weaknesses. You don't come out and say look I know nothing about this, you got and make a decision. They believe that because they are in senior management, they have to provide leadership.

So what they start doing is, they hear that mobile apps are the big thing these days. My nephew tells me we should be in the App Store.And so they'll pour money into that and then they're all neglect another thing like the website.

So, often it's a very kind of knee jerk reaction that's going on. There's no overall strategy in place for managing this kind of thing, and the very structure of the organization undermines it.

Now you compare that to my business experience. My business banking is a totally different experience. With that, you've got great features for example like if I log into my mobile app, and in that app, if I discover say a transaction that looks dodgy and I want to talk to a person, I can just press a button in the app and it automatically connects me without the need for me to log in again or identify myself to the person at the end of the phone. It knows that I've looked into the app and so that's enough.

So, that's a joined up experience where they've removed obstacles for me, because different parts of the organization is talking and different systems or talking to one another.

Christopher: Yeah, yeah [inaudible 00:21:46] and I guess that it's the same root causes as what digital transformation should be solving is that kind of joined up thinking and yeah, and maybe those silos, just getting everyone talking and transparency it's all part of it.

But I'm very conscious that you've got only a few minutes left so I'm going to ask you a couple of quick questions to end on. What's your favorite piece of professional advice you've been given?

Paul: Wow that's a good one. What's my favorite piece of professional advice I've ever been given.

Christopher: And it could be related to your current role or what you're talking about now or [crosstalk 00:22:32]

Paul: Do you know the best piece of professional advice I have ever been given, was given to me by Winston Churchill, which is quite remarkable as he's dead. But he's got a quote that I've built my life around not just my business. Which is "Success is going from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm." And I think that's … especially for something like UX and trying to embed UX culture in an organization.

You've got to keep going. You've got a key, it's a marathon and not a spring. You're not going to change culture overnight, and you need to keep going even when you fail, even when a stakeholder ignores your advice or whatever else, just keep plodding on.