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Adopting a No-Left-Turn Approach to UX Design

Selling UX

A unique perspective on service UX

A column by Baruch Sachs
April 9, 2018

Recently, in a customer workshop, I was listening to business users talking about the issues they were facing with their current system. This was not an academic exercise, as so many often can be, but rather a very interactive session with a highly engaged and enabled customer. My team had helped this customer with user research, design, and development for the application. Since the application had been in production for a few years, there was a ton of data about how people were really using it and how their usage could be expanded. The customer wanted to leverage that knowledge to make incremental design changes. While that sounds exactly like how things should work, anyone in the profession of designing and building user experiences knows that this was actually a rare opportunity—especially in the world of enterprise software.

Even though they had identified a lot of tactical fixes to design and implement, one of the main strategic initiatives they brought up derived from the fact that users did not really know the most expeditious route to follow in completing their tasks. They also alluded to the concepts of speed and accuracy throughout the presentation of the application.

There was a lack of clarity around the data in the application. Was it enough? Should there be more? What didn’t they know? Users were asking all of these questions as they became more savvy with the application.

Clearly, the customer was looking to my team to provide a level of leadership that transcended “making the user interface look pretty” or “making it sexy.” To be honest, the task of making a user interface look good is pretty easy these days. Pretty design is simple, but good design is not. As I started thinking about the main issue that the customer had identified, I realized that what this customer was really looking for was a no-left-turn approach to UX design. For those who are unfamiliar with this concept, it is the approach the United Parcel Service (UPS) has implemented to save fuel, improve on-time performance and safety, and ultimately, deliver more packages. All of this makes UPS a more profitable company.

Turning Data into Design

After conducting much research, UPS figured out that, by eliminating left turns and sending its drivers on routes on which they would only make right turns, they could meet all of these goals. Left turns are more dangerous and require drivers to wait longer to make their turn, thus wasting fuel and time. So they sent drivers on routes that may appear longer on a map, but are actually much more highly performant.

I started thinking about this in terms of UX design and the overall user experience. How do we allow something to happen? How do we make something happen? What could be our own no-left-turn mantra that would deliver multiple benefits? I believe part of the answer to these questions has to do with data. What data we display, how we display it, and what is necessary to complete a process or task. All of this could contribute greatly to the success of an application or experience.

These days, if you ask any data scientist about how they feel about all the data that is now available, you will hear a common theme. Overall, it’s a great thing that we now have access to the data we need. However, this data is completely useless unless we are able to gain insights from the data and transform those insights into something actionable. To be fair, as the wealth of available data increases, even the best data scientist needs help discovering these insights. Software that can identify or help predict trends or the next, best action someone will or should take elevates the role of data to something truly powerful. With that capability comes a critical need to inject design thinking into your analytics capabilities. UPS had the data about the routes their drivers actually took, and they needed to design the most highly performant routes. Without that design effort, the data was meaningless.

Leveraging the Right Data for Elegant Experiences

Having access to the right data and turning that data into insightful action is not enough—although many think it is. Many others feel lucky to have even that much data. However, being able to turn data into an amazing experience is critical if you want people to take the actions that you desire them to take.

Let’s look at a site like Amazon for a minute. If you choose a high-end blender and add it to your shopping cart, other related items instantly appear on the site—a set of cocktail glasses; a book about making tasty, nutritious smoothies in a blender; a special cleaning tool for blenders that gets to those hard-to-reach parts, and so on. This is data being put to work not only for the company, but if designed right, for the user as well. Ensuring that the site displays the right related things is the first step, especially if you can tie that data to previous purchasing trends. Enabling people to add products to their cart with a one-click process turns your insightful data into a pleasant experience.

Business users continually demand access to all sorts of data. Some data is necessary to execute tasks, most is just nice to have. So it’s not about presenting all the data all the time in a user interface, it’s about recognizing the intent of the user within a given context, and presenting the right data at the right time. This is key to the success of the best companies out there, and it is what enables a user interface to look so clean, simple, and elegant.

Excessive data is the enemy of elegant design. Conveying complex ideas and processes in a simple way is not at all simple to do and requires the freedom for the designer to decide when and how to display what data. Organizational issues often come into play here. Very few organizations have the flexibility to integrate with backend systems, present data, and provide rich interactions in a design. Indeed, most enterprise software applications lack this flexibility and often end up revealing the inadequacies of a back-end data model. If this is the case, you’ll never achieve the design or experience outcomes you seek.

In Conclusion

The concept of no left turns as it applies to UX design is multifaceted. You have to take the time to learn about needs—and not just users’ needs. Learn about the needs of the organization and what its goals are. For UPS, the base-level goal that translated into a no-left-turn mantra was to save money, while at the same time making more of it. They also had the environmentally friendly goal of using less fuel. So being able to come up with the concept of eliminating all left turns from a route had wide-ranging effects that addressed several business goals—if not fully, at least partially.

At this point, I don’t know for sure whether we can come up with a similar approach to solve the issues that came up during that customer workshop. We are still in the research stage, which, in and of itself, is an incredible first step for most enterprises. However, if we are going to be able to successfully develop experiences that eliminate roadblocks for users while addressing underlying business goals, I can’t think of a better first step to take than ensuring we’re not making them take any more left turns. 

Reference

Shontell, Alyson. “Why UPS Is So Efficient: ‘Our Trucks Never Turn Left.’Business Insider, March 24, 2011. Retrieved April 8, 2018.

Senior Director, Technical Solutions and Global Design, at Pegasystems

Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA

Baruch SachsWith over 12 years of experience leading and participating in successful efforts to improve user experience across various industries, Baruch has a developed a wide range of skills in the areas of interaction design, user interface development, and product management. For the past 5 years, he has developed and led the global user experience team at Pegasystems and serves as the principal end-user advocate for the Pegasystems Services organization in the delivery of user interface design and user experience to customers and partners.  Read More

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