Making Promises We Don’t Know How To Keep

I left London after ten years, and moved to Berlin, for various reasons. There is a lot of UX work here, but most of it is in digital B2C Product creation in the lean / Agile / data-informed variety for start-ups (or companies that think they want to be start-ups). Showing up with twenty years of product facilitation and advanced concepts on the CV meant a lot of searching to find a good fit, and I now am working in scientific publishing, enabling an internal platform for many business units.

I recently noticed a core piece of anxiety I used to have almost every day at work in London at the various agencies and clients, is gone. It isn’t just the way UX in London is so over-hyped with its constant events and conferences that makes you feel just doing your job is not good enough, but something else has qualitatively changed for me. I sat with it for a moment and realized what it was: I am not asked to do the impossible anymore.

The higher I got, the more unreasonable the requirements I had to take responsibility for became. I have been the Director of UX for a client where someone included in the pitch the promise that our version of their new website would increase conversion by 10%. Just like that. Or I have been co-tasked with revamping a whole web product to be more socially conscious and long-term oriented, but then also told the lead-generation part of it could absolutely not drop, even though offering those leads were in direct contravention in tone to the new product. That sort of thing, mostly just blithely required so someone upstairs could get or keep their bonus.

So, increasing the business, not hurting the money they make, why do I call that unreasonable? The problem with those kinds of requirements is that UX doesn’t have the tools to evaluate them before the work is taken on. I have no way of conclusively starting out and saying, oh yeah I can do that. Asking me to sign up to goals I can’t evaluate, well, yeah that is unreasonable.

Every UX Researcher will tell you: users never stop surprising you. Every UX Designer who has had their stuff user-tested a lot will tell you: the version before first testing is trash. We can throw however many years of experience we have at any design, however many heuristics we have to get it right, and we will still be surprised at how users interpret some aspect of a page: the copy, not seeing a button because of the surrounding elements, the sizes of boxes misleading the eye. Add to that how every design these days is very often not the actual full page, but a piece that will be inserted into a system of modules, journeys, cookie banners, mail sign-ups, surrounding content, and unpredictable ads, and we’re unable to have any certainty even if we did have predictive tools.

But we don’t have predictive tools in UX. Just a mountain of ways to lower risk by gathering information pre- or post-design. So when during a pitch I find out I am being signed up to a 10% increase of conversion I can’t actually say No and keep my job. I can barely say “I don’t know”, really. I have gotten away with “I’ll do my best” or “Well, their site is fundamentally ten years old–I really think we should be able to do better”.

Programming, i.e. software development, switched to Agile methodologies because it turns out the intricacies of legacy layers of code and business-requirements make it impossible to predict scope and time beyond four weeks. UX design tries to do the same shortening by advocating repeating quick build-test-measure cycles, calling it a “product experiment” to “fail fast at”, but it is still not accepted everywhere, and the reason this methodology needs to exists, that fundamental inability to predict during design how good a design is, just hasn’t properly percolated back up to decision makers yet. We also haven’t let it: part of clawing our way to a seat at the top table has been putting up this facade that “finally” letting us do “proper” proper Service / UX / Customer / Product / User-centered Design will surely lower risk and increase profits by making better products. That facade is hurting us by not letting us push back against requirements we can not fulfill, and that desire for a place at the table is holding us back by stopping us from staring the business in the face and point blank asking “Instead of making me obsess over 40 colors of green to increase click-through rates by .1%, have you considered making a product at a price people actually want? Because if you did, I could hide that Buy button and people would still click it.”

But no. Industry does not work that way. Instead I carried around a tiny gremlin far away in my consciousness, a gremlin I could easily explain and wave away as the way things are, or that by the time the client would notice I did not increase conversion by 10% or whatever, we would be further along the path of doing other things. But it still gnawed at me. I only notice now that it is gone by how much.

My job now has problems of how to display the contents of a book online that has, literally, 20.000 chapters, and how to let users search in reference media without having to ship the whole catalog over in hidden javascript–meaty questions of weighing user needs vs technological capability, and how to best communicate the trade-offs and effects. It’s fun work, it is hard work, it is serious work, but best of all, when I say “I’ll see what we can do, but no promises–this is kind of weird and unprecedented and we’re going to have to make it up for a while”, everybody understands, and nobody waves a contract at me where they go “But we promised the client that…!”

‘Conversion’ is not the work I signed up for twenty years ago when I wanted to make computing easier for my mother. This is.

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