If you own a hammer everything looks like a nail

Paul Boag

We may call ourselves user experience designers, but we are web designers at heart. We may rename ourselves a digital team, but we are just the web team in new clothes. It is time to take off our website blinkers.

Why are we obsessing with making the website perfect? There are other things to do. We should move on.” That was a comment made in a recent meeting I attended. I resisted the urge to roll my eyes. Yet another marketer wanting to jump on the new and shiny when the basics still weren’t in place.

She was more interested in mobile apps, social media and other digital channels. Yet there was obvious work to do on the website.

But as I thought about it afterwards I began to wonder. Did she have a point? Was I obsessed with the website? Was I blinkered to the broader digital channels because my background is in the web?

There is a saying: ‘to the man who owns a hammer, everything looks like a nail’. Is that happening to those of us who have spent years nurturing our skills in web design? Are we seeing the website as the solution to every user experience problem? Have we just bolted the word digital onto our job title but kept the mindset of a web designer?

There is a lot out there beyond the website.

Beyond the website

The world has changed. The website is not the end of peoples digital experience anymore. Digital doesn’t stop on your site. There is social media for a start.

We may moan about the closed echo system of Facebook. For those old enough it may conjure up memories of the bad old days of AOLs walled garden. But you know what, users don’t care. They are on social networks discussing your company. Recommending and reviewing your products. Many will never venture to your website.

Talking of reviews, many of the buying decisions don’t happen on your site anymore. They happen after reading a review instead. Whether it be on a site like Trip Advisor or some blog post somewhere. People are out there right now, reviewing and reading about your products and services.

Building decisions dont just happen on your site anywmore.
Building decisions don’t just happen on your site anywmore.

Also don’t forget email marketing. As user experience experts are we thinking about email marketing with the same attention to detail as the website. Designing emails might feel like stepping back into the 90s, but they are a key component in a digital strategy. Are you overlooking it because that is marketing’s problem?

Then of course there is the elephant in the room – mobile apps. We may argue that a responsive website is better. But deep down aren’t you just a bit bitter you aren’t one of the cool kids working on native apps!

Seriously though, mobile apps are a big part of the digital echo system people use. They are just as important as the website in people’s thinking and yet we often skip over it focusing on the website first. That might be the right decision. But our thinking maybe blinkered by our web background.

But perhaps even embracing the mobile app is still too blinkered. After all it is just another graphic user interface. Another screen. More the ever it is technology that is shaping the users experience, not the screen.

Beyond the screen

I have just finished reading an excellent book entitled ‘The best interface is no interface’. It is an inspiring and humorous read that I recommend.

It talks about our obsession with the graphic user interface. That user experience designer are obsessional about dropdown menus, hero banners and parallax scrolling. We have lost our focus on people.

When I talk about no interface your mind might jump to Siri or Amazon Echo. And yes these are two examples. Before long we will need to start thinking of our content as bite sized chunks of information. Information that systems like these can easily read back. We will need to provide APIs to our products and services. APIs that third party services can call upon, rather than limiting information to our own site.

But Siri and Amazon Echo are just the tip of a much bigger iceberg. User experience driven by sensors. Not just a microphone that listens to commands. But a whole range of sensors that allow systems to track and predict what users want.

It maybe that the future of the users experience lies in sensors, not the graphic user interface.
It maybe that the future of the users experience lies in sensors, not the graphic user interface.

Things like cars that unlock when you approach because it detects your keys in your pocket. Thermostats that learn your personal preferences and adjust automatically. Apps that track your movements without you ever needing to take your phone out of your pocket. Wristbands that can give you automatic access to venues and even pay for things.

You might wonder how these technologies can help your users. But you maybe surprised. I am not even saying you need to do anything with these technologies today. I am just saying that there is a lot more out there that can improve your users experience.

But there is too much!

The chances are this is all a little overwhelming. You might be looking at the small digital team in your organisation and wondering how you could ever support such an echo system.

There is no doubt this is a big challenge. A challenge that emphasises how under resourced most digital teams are. Even within large organisations. But many of the new areas I have talked about will need specialist help. Help from people who you could not justify having in house full time. At least not yet.

There is also a degree to which we could do more if our websites had not become so cumbersome. Our obsession with websites has led many to become way bigger, with way more content than they need.

If we are going to embrace a broader digital echo system we will need to slim down our websites. That is no bad thing. Most websites I work with are far too big. To the point it is damaging the user experience.

But there is another final point I want to make here. The expanding digital ecosystem feels big because we are looking at it from the perspective of our little ‘web’ team. But the reality is that before long digital is going to no longer sit under a single team. In time digital will permeate every part of our organisation. Everybody will use it with the same ease we use electricity. But to get to that point there is much work to do. Fundamental digital transformation. Transformation that begins with a program of education. Education to convince management and colleagues of the importance of digital. Yet another task you can add to your list of responsibilities.