Deliverables are not your goal — your goal is your goal
It’s easy to get caught up in the high fives and the awards, but we build the internet to make people’s lives easier, and that’s easy to forget.
For a lot of us who work to build the internet, we find ourselves not building websites or apps for ourselves but for other people. This B2B workflow goes under many names — maybe you’re a contractor, freelancer or consultant, or maybe you’re an agency, studio or shop. Perhaps you’re an outsourced digital arm. Whatever it is, building things for other people is treacherous ground and breeds discontent and moral exhaustion over time. We call it agency burnout and it’s a real thing.
I often wonder whether agency burnout is completely unavoidable. In the work that I do — user experience design — it feels like when we’re deployed to a project we are always coming in too late and have very little power to make a meaningful difference.
I want to help businesses make effective digital experiences but there are some massive misconceptions out there — and a lot of complacency and laziness — that makes it hard to do. There are heaps of people working in this industry who get paid pretty well and it’s easy to take the money and continue doing things the way you’ve always done them without questioning.
Moreover, I think it’s easy to go to work, do the tasks and go home without thinking about the reason why you do what you do. Maybe you work as an engineer and have no say in the kind of projects your studio takes on. Maybe you work in sales and you take what you can get rather than have difficult conversations with your clients about what they need (rather than just what they want). It’s easy to just do what you’re told. It’s hard to challenge the status quo.
But there are some actual logical reasons for putting users at the centre of your design process, and for all the times I’ve been made to think I’m just inexperienced, I don’t understand business or I don’t really understand how things work, I remember these things and they help me feel like I shouldn’t give up.
Digital experiences exist because users need them to do a job
There are two levels of jobs being done when you build a website for someone else. Your contact has a job to be done — their actual job, which their boss pays them for, eg. Marketing manager. You also have a job to be done — your job, that they pay you to do. Usually these two jobs are the only ones that come into the conversation with standard B2B web builds. I have to get my job done and you have to get your job done, end of story.
But there are two other jobs to be done that are for more important — the job of your client’s business, which is the reason why they started a company and why they continue to have it, aka the way they make money, and the job that the user needs to get done — which is the user’s problem that the company helps solve, or the actual reason why the client’s organisation still exists (by solving that user need in some way). These two jobs — sometimes referred to as business goals and user needs — are by far the most important jobs that need to be done and the jobs you should be focusing on when you are engaged to build the digital layer.
By focusing on those first-order jobs, your job and my job, we forget about the reasons why we have our jobs. We don’t have our jobs unless we actually help with the user’s and organisation’s jobs. I can deliver you a website that works for your job, but it’s a short-term fix. Addressing the job of the organisation and the job of the user provides long term, meaningful value that does more than win awards and fulfil PDs — it makes people’s lives better.
Asking your clients what they think the website should be only reveals half the story
Once your project is kicking off it’s easy to spend all your strategy time just asking them about what they want. It makes them feel happy and useful when they feel involved. That makes sense.
But spending time only with the client stakeholders gives you only the perspective that covers the business goals, not the user needs. “Oh, but the stakeholders tell us about what their users need!” you might say. It’s usually the case the people think they know what other people want, but how often do they actually know?
User experience design is easily distinguishable from other design methodologies because it involves actually spending time with users. It all circles back to users, over and over again, because of one core principle: we are biased and we make assumptions.
Good interview questions explore context and build empathy
Everyone, even the best, most award-winning designers, is biased. We see things through the lens of our own experience and context. And even business owners and client stakeholders, despite their massive expertise in their area, are biased. If nothing else, they’re biased in that they already know the product or service they offer very deeply, and new users to their site know nothing, so they already can’t step into the shoes of that user easily.
Good UX designers build empathy not by hearing second-hand what users want or need, but by asking them directly. Not too directly though — good interview strategy requires investigation of users’ needs and stories without asking them to design the site for you.
This can be one of the biggest challenges working with stakeholders too — when we interview you about the project, we’re not actually asking for your permission or recommendation on features and design decisions, we’re exploring your needs as internal users and trying to figure out your business goals.
Questions that don’t matter:
- How do you think this page should look?
- What do you think of this font?
- Where should I put this widget?
- What is the sitemap you want me to build?
- What do you think the site needs?
Questions that do matter:
- How does your organisation make money?
- Why does your organisation exist?
- How does your organisation make the world a better place?
- How does your organisation make people’s lives easier?
Questions that matter and get closer to designable problems:
- What is the point where your users tend to get stuck?
- What do you take the most support calls about?
- Tell me about the last time you used this service?
- Where are you when you use this service?
- Can I spend some time with you and watch how you do your job?
The questions that don’t matter focus too heavily on the delivery without questioning the motivation. Essentially what they’re doing is skipping the design stage and focusing entirely on the execution. When you do this, your users or your stakeholders do the design for you and you punch out some code or PSDs and send it back. Rather than a design studio, you become a factory. The questions that do matter focus on the motivation and leave design to the designers. Which is great, because that’s what you supposed to be good at.
User-driven design has to come from the top
Here’s a thing: even if you agree with everything I’ve said, getting it across the line and happening in reality is another question. It has to come from the top, because unless you build user-driven design and measurable goals into your project planning process, sales process and active client eduction, you will never convince people that it’s important.
I’ve heard UX practitioners speak about this a lot, but fighting an organisation to campaign for user-driven design processes is exhausting, especially if good processes are fundamentally in opposition to the business model.
For example, a business model led by cold calling sales is probably not going to need user-driven design because the conversion process is handled in person, not in the product. Businesses whose customers and users are different groups also have less business requirement for user-driven design because their customers (who give them money) aren’t affected by UX issues (because they don’t use the product).
Campaigning for user-driven design where it makes the business model less efficient or less effective is going to be almost impossible. For good user-driven design to flourish, it has to be baked into the business and hard-coded into what the business considers “success”. That means measurable outcomes for users have to be valued, either with actual money from KPIs or through deliverables to clients.
That kind of leadership is hard to establish within small teams, although I’m sure it’s possible. It really need to be championed in the blood and spirit of the company by the people who are responsible for the vision and for the company’s overall goals. The people who are responsible for the business model, basically.
Deliverables aren’t your goal, your goal is your goal
- It doesn’t matter if you deliver on time, under budget, and the boss buys you all drinks if the users can’t use the product
- It doesn’t matter if the project goes live and everybody high fives if you can’t measure improvement
- You’re not good at making websites because you get awards — you’re good at making websites if you make users’ lives easier
It’s really easy to forget these things. We work long hours. We get into arguments. We have to make our billables. We explain simple concepts. We get into difficult email threads. Projects need saving. Overtime needs doing.
Being a good employee and doing purposeful work are not the same thing. You can nail your work hygiene but honestly not make a difference in the world. Don’t get distracted by deliverables and forget the reason why you are doing this work.
Heuristic design is just noodling
I have taken part in a few human-centred design and design thinking events/panels/talks and I noticed once that the other participants had decided to explore human-centred design without any testing or research. What they presented was essentially, “I’m a great designer. I thought about this problem for a bit, then I made some designs in Photoshop. Here it is, trust me it’s good.”
My design work was and almost always is scrappy as all hell, but it was based on real people. It made me realise this:
The thing about human centred design is that you (the designer) are not the human. #hcd #ux
It also made me realise that there are fundamentally two types of designer out there — superheroes and Jon Snow. Superhero designers are tastemakers who sell themselves as having their finger on the pulse and being up to date with current trends. They are researchers and artists who believe they have a “good eye”.
Jon Snow designers know nothing.
They come to each project with fresh eyes and require research and testing to form an understanding of what is the “right way” to design something. They are informed by heuristics but can’t do their work with heuristics alone.
I’m a Jon Snow designer and I believe that it makes me build more effective solutions because I try to cleanse myself of my bias and assumptions and let the people who actually want to use the product lead me to the right solutions.
Don’t get caught up in the hype of superhero designers, because heuristics can only get you so far, and then the rest of the blanks are filled in by your own biases and assumptions.
How you can change this
This stuff is hard to change. As I mentioned before, showing the value of good design process is difficult if it goes against the business model.
But if you are going to fight this fight, don’t get yourself in to impossible situations. Here are some basic points to keep in mind to try to make it work:
- Build up enough buffer so you can choose who you work with and say no to projects where this approach will definitely fail.
- Avoid fixed fee, fixed scope, fixed timeline projects — the quality of the project is the thing that will suffer.
- Don’t agree to a scope before investigation of needs has happened.
- Agree and measurable goals at the start of each project. It will help you prove that what you did was actually helpful. (If it wasn’t, maybe try a different career).
If you get sick of it, build a product instead
That’s what we’ve done. Estimate Work is still in early stages but I am already delighted to announce that we are building the product with our users. By running lean and getting something up as soon as we can, we are able to use their feedback to create a roadmap. It’s not something I’ve ever experienced in companies I’ve worked for, but I truly believe it will make the product really awesome.
The great thing about the internet is that you can learn to make the internet on the internet. You can learn to make a business on the internet. It’s basically unregulated so as long as you’re tax-abiding and legitimate in your country, you can remedy your burnout with the empowered decision to go out and do your own thing.
It’s the best way I’ve been able to actually put user-driven design thinking principles into practice without having a non-technical boss telling me I’m wrong. Sure you might not get a salary, but you do get to change the world, so that’s something.
Deliverables are not your goal — your goal is your goal was originally published in Prototyping: From UX to Front End on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.