10,000 hours to get to Square One

In which, I try to marry an explanation of

  • why, in the real world, domain knowledge is much more important than user experience knowledge


  • Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers


  • a new composition of piano music

Here goes…

Getting something done properly with user experience in the environments I’ve worked in takes more than just knowing what order to put the buttons on your nav bar in.

More than that it takes the ability to understand the chain of events, the business model, value chain, logistics and technologies, and perhaps most importantly the people involved in deliver a result to the customer.

To deliver significant change when you’re not the CEO or MD, you have to understand and be able to articulate these aspects convincingly enough to the people that operate the current chain of events to change their ways. Their behaviour may have been engrained over 5, 10 or 20 years. And the behaviour is likely to have been optimised to create a increasingly more profitable and efficient result for the company. And yet – when joined together – I have seen plenty of examples where that model or chain of events doesn’t create an experience which delivers on what customers need. But – despite some of the proselytising you hear when you work with some UX consultants – this doesn’t always mean companies go bust.

What “UX Knowledge” brings to the party is a suite of tools – and they are only that – to help better understand an organisation or offering from the outside in, rather than inside out. It’s rare that a few contextual interviews, a couple of weeks of ethnography and a handful of user tests give you a complete picture. But those exercises and tools may give you enough to spot some real bloopers. And if you’re good at articulating these bloopers in a way that shows the negative business impact of them, you will get some buy-in. As real and urgent as these bloopers may feel to UX people, surprisingly thinking outside-in is not a way of thinking that many people are used to. Pointing them out rarely significantly changes behaviour. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that a UX approach does not work. I am simply saying that making a few recommendations – no matter how incisive, rational and well-argued – is only the tip of the iceberg.

All too often, UX recommendations that will really make a difference to the way in which the experience is constructed for people require radical rethinks of organisation, of business process, of IT systems, and most fundamentally of value chain. So getting a head of steam behind you to fix the underlying issues takes time. In the travel industry for example, you need to deal with the reality that reservation systems have not been put together to provide people with an up-front and accurate price. (Indeed, the pricing model they are based on – driven by low margins from relentless competition – often tries to complicate, obscure and obfuscate the accurate price as much as possible). Or that tour operators and travel agents do not necessarily see great content as an important asset when selling online. (If they did, then why is content on travel operators’ sites so terribly thin and unhelpful?)

So, if you’re a UX guy or gal operating in an industry you don’t know from the inside, consider the likelihood that you may be banging your head against a brick wall. People may get excited and empathetic when they hear your user testing presentation and see the video clips of just how frustrating the website or service works for customers in the real world. But when it comes to really solving those issues, don’t expect to be treated like Moses parting the Red Sea unless your thinking is truly aligned with theirs, first and foremost. Then, if you are lucky, you build a decent rapport and have the time, you may get to understand the practical obstacles and strategic trade-offs involved in implementing some of your recommendations.

Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers puts forward the notion that the key to success in anything is to just do it for more than 10,000 hours. You can do 10,000 user tests, order the buttons on 10,000 nav bars or wireframe 10,000 product pages, but in my experience this only serves to repeatedly flag up the underlying business reality. It gets you to Square One. Then you have the real work of getting on with actually changing that reality. For me, this is what user experience is really about.

Meanwhile, I was thinking this week about piano music, and it just so cropped up that a guy called Dale Trumbore has put together a piano and orchestra composition callled 10,000 hours based on Gladwell’s theory. There’s another stimulating parallel with UX here: any significant changes to improve the user experience for a company requires serious orchestration. Working top down from the senior management team and bottom up across the organisation with all those people who may come into contact with customers, managing significant change and keeping things on track while commercial pressures try to swerve you off course is, let’s face it, not a walk in the park.

Do all the people who need to make that change to implement your UX recommendations have 10,000 hours of thinking differently on their side, or will you need to get them to Square One too?


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