Studying user flows and information technology at a research library

Product Design, Design Research, Design Strategy, Methods, UX

The Power of a Story

By Jon Kolko
We all know it’s important to be “user-centered.”

When we’re designing and building flows, we’re in the pragmatics of creating products and user-centeredness is clear. But—how do we put people at the center of a design strategy?

On the pragmatic side, usability testing is fundamental to ensuring the things we create make people’s lives easier. There are variety of different testing methods. The one I rely on most often is called Think Aloud testing, which is exactly what it sounds like. Someone uses a product—even if it’s a rudimentary version, like a series of wireframes—and talks through everything they do as they navigate the interaction. This process provides countless insights into what the person is thinking, how they expect a system to work, and where my design helps their process or creates confusion. Think aloud testing effectively evangelizes a user-centered process because the results are vivid for everyone on the team, from developers to product managers.

During a particularly memorable session we positioned the designers and developers of a direct-to-consumer car buying site behind one-way glass while our participant, Mary, worked through a set of tasks using their realistic, functional system. As time went on, Mary became increasingly frustrated—until she eventually began crying.

We stopped the session and asked about her experience. She told us she was “dumb” and didn’t understand technology, and she apologized for “messing everything up.” We did our best to assure her that she did great, and, in fact, had been very helpful. When we debriefed with the designers and developers watching the session, they were very quiet. Eventually one person spoke up, “I feel terrible. She blamed herself for decisions we made. We need to do better.”

Emotions are powerful. In this case, think-aloud testing brought to light not only individual usability problems—a font that’s hard to read or a form field that doesn’t make sense—but an entirely different way for the product team to think about the people they are serving.

So, how do we champion the user when setting strategy?

Like usability testing, the key is spending time with people.

Strategic design research is about watching people’s actions, not just interviewing them. Often, behavior is prompted through participatory design exercises like sketching the timeline of a set of experiences, walking through objects in their home, or keeping a journal for a few weeks.

Initially, talking to people helps me, not them, and central to a user-centered design approach is advocating for real people throughout the project. In the case of strategy, this means ensuring that the vision of a product, service, or company is aligned with the latent wants, needs, and desires of users.

And that happens when we translate behavior into stories.

Consider some of the pain points participants described during past projects:

Ashley, a biology major two years out of college, walked us through paperwork about her student loans, explaining:

“I kept on getting these loan notices. I almost defaulted and I had no idea, because I was like ‘oh, I’ll just ignore this.’ I kept getting stuff in the mail and was like ‘I don’t have to worry about this!’ I’m paying the other two loans I had…I had no visibility into it…I didn’t have them automated because, it just freaked me out to have it subtracted from my bank account every month, all these late payments, because I wasn’t able to manage it. I was so terrified, I had this shoebox full of past due notices, and I just didn’t look at it…”

Joe, a 26-year-old, showed us his online banking accounts, pointed to the accounts page and said:

“I don’t know the difference between a savings or checking account. When I grew up, we put the money under the mattress. If you wanted something, like a car, you took the money down to the lot and bought the car.”

In another project, we watched Judith, a station control manager at Los Angeles International Airport, answer a phone call, then turned to her radio and say:

“Any available ramp supervisor? I need a ramp supervisor down to the dungeon for some HazMat. Flight 1462 cannot go, the item cannot go.” 

“Any available ramp supervisor? I need a ramp supervisor down to the dungeon for some HazMat. Flight 1462 cannot go, the item cannot go.” 

Now, on the phone: “Hey, I’m not sure what to do, maybe you know–TSA called and said 1462 has a chainsaw and they are going to go collect it…yea, she checked in a chainsaw. I don’t want to know what that’s about.”

These quotes may seem sad or puzzling and we want to know the “rest of the story.” What happened to Ashley’s unpaid loans? Did Joe learn how to manage his finances? Where did the chainsaw come from, where did it go, and what happened as a result?

These stories are powerful because they represent real people, and we have video, audio, and photos to drive home their unique circumstances. These quotes become the strategy equivalent of think aloud testing, helping us advocate for people through usability decisions when setting strategy.

Real Stories Can Drive Real Change

If you are in charge of the TSA, Judith’s experience asks you to examine the messaging: if flyers really think it’s OK to bring a chainsaw on a plane, what other safety rules are they ignoring? How can the TSA better support its mandate for safe flying by regularly listening to front-line employees?

If you are building financial tools, Joe’s perspective on banking can play an instrumental role in how you fundamentally build, name, and structure the products you offer in addition to designing the online tools. If your customers don’t have a foundation in “the basics,” how can you expect them to buy complicated products like annuities or insurance?

And if you run a student loan company or repayment service, Ashley’s story makes you wonder if students are defaulting because they are too afraid to open the notices being mailed to their homes. How can the business change their consumer experience to help Ashley and while supporting business goals by ensuring payment?

When problems become clear, so do solutions. Just as usability testing uncovers product pain points, design research provides stories of behavior-related obstacles. By shifting from using these people’s experiences only for research inputs to using their own words when advocating for their needs and wants as we set design strategy, we can see what we need to do, or build, or change. And by telling and retelling these stories, we can map a strategic path to help people better experience the world around them.

Jon Kolko

COO, Modernist Studio

Jon Kolko

COO, Modernist Studio

Jon is the COO, and a Partner, at Modernist Studio, and the Founder of Austin Center for Design. He was previously the Vice President of Design at Blackboard, the largest educational software company in the world. Jon has also held the positions of Executive Director of Design Strategy at Thinktiv, a venture accelerator in Austin, Texas, and both Principal Designer and Associate Creative Director at frog design, a global innovation firm.

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