Are You Giving Users What They Ask For?

Selling UX

A unique perspective on service UX

A column by Baruch Sachs
February 6, 2017

If you give users what they ask for, they’ll continue to ask for more. As I sat reading the children’s book If You Give a Mouse a Cookie to my son one evening, I started thinking about its applicability to our consulting for clients. If you do not know Laura Numeroff’s story, it is what some might describe as a circular tale. The plot centers around a little boy and a mouse. The mouse asks for various items and, when the little boy gives the mouse what he wants, the mouse asks for something else. If you give a mouse a cookie, it will want a glass of milk to go with it. If you give it some milk, it will eventually want something else—until you get to the very end of the story, when the mouse wants just one more cookie. So, the tale could conceivably go on forever.

My children love this book. They think it is very funny and ask me to read it again and again. It was during one of these countless readings that I realized this story holds some great messages about how I find myself interacting with clients every day. How many times have we gone through multiple iterations of designs, only to come back to our original design? How many times have we given the users what they want, only to find out the solution tests poorly and user adoption is low? Sometimes, during an engagement with a client, I feel as though the biggest impact of a request I’ve granted is simply that it begets yet another request.

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The Role of User Experience Versus the Business Analyst

As UX professionals who are well versed in the various specialties of our field, we know that people often cannot articulate what they want. But, as many people like to point out, that does not mean users do not know what they want. Users, in general, do know what they want—at least in broad terms. Our role as UX professionals is not to be order takers. It’s our responsibility to provide the value of our analysis and insights, which form a solid groundwork that lets us not only understand what users are telling us they want, but what they are not telling us. This is especially critical in the world of enterprise software and systems development. In this world, while users do know what they want, they often don't know what things are possible, because it has typically been too hard to achieve them.

In enterprise software–delivery models, I’ve seen the same sort of circular tales as the one in that children’s book. We sometimes find ourselves in endless cycles: the business asks for something, IT delivers it, and the business asks for more and more, until a 9-month agile project has become a 20-month waterfall project that has overrun on costs and underdelivered on what the customer wanted in the first place. One area in which project teams could certainly improve is the definition of requirements and use cases or user stories. UX professionals are superbly positioned to assist on these tasks, but we often get into political issues with business analysts, who view this as their purview.

I would argue that the roles of the business analyst (BA) and UX architect need to be not only complementary, but also much better aligned. In many enterprise software–development cycles, the business analyst defines requirements and runs research for the project, then hands off the results to a UX professional, whose role is to either further validate the requirements or accept them as is and create the design. Both roles provide deliverables that are based on these activities.

But to prevent a project from turning into a circular tale of constant user requests, it would be far better for the business analysis and UX architect to work together on both the research and design for the project. Each has unique skills and abilities that together would safeguard a project from foundering under the weight of a continuous cycle of user requests that never get validated.

Don’t We Need to Demonstrate the Value of Something Before Building It?

Not always. Think of the story I mentioned earlier. In that story, the little boy gives the mouse exactly what it asks for, showing the mouse exactly what the cookie looks like, so it knows what it is. But, after consuming a bit of the cookie, the mouse realizes something is missing and asks for something complementary. In the story, it is a glass of milk. In enterprise-software design, such requests often take a form similar to this: “It’s great that I can now see all my work on one page, but could I also just transfer my work to another team member with a single click?” Or “Wow! This dashboard looks so clean and modern. Can I change all the colors to personalize it?”

Unfortunately, this happens all the time in enterprise-software design and implementation. If the people asking for something are important business stakeholders, their concerns often become requirements that get injected into the project plan with little to no validation. Why is that a problem? This becomes a serious issue when those requests get translated into features or functions that address only edge cases and, thus, don’t add real business value. Without the team’s properly validating such requirements, as part of a typical UX design process, they result in very much the same issue that was lightly handled in the “When you give a mouse a cookie…” children’s story.

Part of our role, as UX professionals, is to ensure that we do not just give the users whatever they want. Nor should we show things to users just because we dismissively feel that they cannot tell us what they want. No, our role is to understand the business goals for the systems we are designing and also to listen to users’ desires, but then frame them within the bounds of those goals.

If we find that users’ needs, wants, or wishes do not align with business goals and we grant them anyway, we end up giving users license that encourages them to continually ask for more and more features and nice-to-haves that undermine the very business outcomes we desired in the first place. In the end, we really don’t want to give the mouse that cookie, because satisfying that desire is a tactical error that will ultimately be frustrating to both the user and the UX designer. 

Vice President, Client Innovation, at Pegasystems

Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA

Baruch SachsAt Pegasystems, Baruch helps global clients develop new ways of streamlining their operations, improving their customer experience, and creating real transformations—digital or otherwise. Previously, during his 12 years at Pegasystems, Baruch led their global User Experience team and served as the principal end-user advocate for the Pegasystems Services organization in their delivery of user-interface design and user experience to customers and partners. He has led and participated in successful efforts to improve user experience across various industries. Baruch earned his Bachelor of Arts in Professional and Technical Writing and Philosophy at the University of Hartford and his Master’s of Science in Human Factors in Information Design from Bentley University’s McCallum Graduate School of Business.  Read More

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