Messy Success and Ambiguous Failures, Part 1

February 24, 2020

Too often, UX professionals and our stakeholders and multidisciplinary colleagues think of project outcomes in binary terms. The work is either a success or a failure. We judge its merit by how well it aligns with whatever metrics our team put in place at a project’s outset. More subjectively, we might deem a project a success or a failure depending on our emotional response to what the project accomplished or failed to achieve.

I’ve worked with federal agencies, nonprofit organizations, and a Fortune-500 retailer. My experience in all of these sectors has taught me that most projects actually fall somewhere in the middle. Few projects are complete failures. Equally few are unequivocal successes. UX work can be messy because human beings are messy.

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Human beings are complex, highly contextual in our behavior, and much of the time, unknowingly irrational in making our decisions. People are often loath to change what we are accustomed to doing, even when an alternative approach is demonstrably better, faster, or cheaper. Neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky, behavioral economists Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler, and consumer-behavior expert Colin Shaw have all touched on these ideas in their respective disciplines—as has Steve Krug in his usability classic Don’t Make Me Think.

I’m not suggesting that, as UX designers, we should rid ourselves of metrics, success signals, and other indicators that tell us we are, indeed, moving the needle. We can and should implement both quantitative and qualitative ways of gauging our work’s impact on a project’s desired outcome.

UX professionals should also be smarter in helping to set the strategy that determines what a project’s outcome should be. Many organizations—regardless of their size, industry, or maturity—experience common pitfalls when it comes to defining strategic outcomes, then measuring results against them. This often compromises our ability to gauge a project’s level of success accurately.

Let’s look at four of these pitfalls and some tactics for mitigating them. Of course, no two companies and no two projects are exactly alike. It is important to understand and leverage your organization’s unique strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities.

1. Uncertain Impacts: How Bad Is It Now?

Sometimes people just have a hunch that something has gone off the rails, but what exactly needs fixing is murky at best. Maybe they’ve seen a drop in revenue, and customers aren’t purchasing as much or as often as they used to. Or rank-and-file employees might raise concerns about operational practices they believe have gone awry. Perhaps executives pass ideas and anecdotes down about products or services that someone thinks their company should develop. Or management might engage a team of consultants to provide a predetermined solution.

Often, organizations are correct in acknowledging that something needs a solution, but knowing just what to address can be challenging. Problems might clamor for our attention. There are often many of them that seem to demand immediate and simultaneous attention. But the most obvious problems—or those with the loudest voices advocating that we focus on them—are not always the most critically important problems.

For example, applying resources toward achieving something your competitors are already doing—and doing well—might help to even the playing field, but might not be enough to give your organization market dominance. Missing data, incomplete data, or data that doesn’t provide meaningful insights further muddies the waters.

Without clearly understanding the current state, it is impossible to know what would be most valuable to reach for. Plus, since gaining an accurate understanding of the current state could be time consuming and difficult to achieve, many organizations take shortcuts, attacking the symptoms of a problem rather than its root causes.

To mitigate this fairly common response, UX researchers, data analysts, and others should combine forces to dig more deeply into what is contributing to undesirable trends. Once you have a better understanding of both what is happening and why it might be happening, your organization is in a much stronger position to develop impactful strategies for becoming more successful.

2. Uncertain Outcomes: Where Do We Want to Go?

Business priorities change. Projects shift their focus. Skilled UX professionals are flexible and adaptive and can move in a new direction when necessary. Changing priorities, in and of itself, is not harmful. In fact, it might be highly desirable if the reasons for doing so are compelling enough.

However, organizations often make shifts in their priorities that are driven by reactive rather than strategic thinking. Decision-makers often choose to respond to what they perceive as an urgent and acute situation rather than set visionary goals.

When this occurs, companies may prematurely and needlessly abandon opportunities to create lasting value. Perhaps a project is already up and running, but it has not been long enough to ascertain accurately whether it’s a success or failure—or even to learn important information that could make future work more efficient and impactful.

In addition to lost opportunities, reactive shifts can also counter the expertise of UX professionals and others whose responsibility is to develop deep, foundational knowledge around a particular problem space. Organizations may discount their insights in favor of pursuing an option that offers a quick fix, but does little to improve systemic problems.

Better, more comprehensive information allows better decision-making. Including User Experience as part of the conversation around setting or shifting priorities—and taking learnings from UX research and discovery into account—can help guide a company’s work and ensure that it adds meaningful value.

3. Mixed Signals: When Outcomes Compete or Conflict

In an ideal world, all departments within an organization would be aware of the key initiatives each department is undertaking. They would also understand the reasons for the multidirectional impacts those initiatives could potentially have. In the real world, the barriers to this type of understanding that exist within siloed organizations can make gaining a holistic perspective very challenging.

Wanting Outcome A, but instead getting Outcome B is often the result of failing to understand the association and relationship between the two outcomes. For example, retailers from Home Depot to Ann Taylor offer customers the option of purchasing merchandise online, then picking it up at a physical store. Their intent is to offer customers speed and convenience—and perhaps drive some foot traffic to bricks-and-mortar stores.

However, the actual outcome could be the opposite of what these retailers intended if customers are unsure of where to go to collect their merchandise after arriving at the store, their online order isn’t ready for pickup, or their order wasn’t fulfilled because the merchandise wasn’t actually in stock. Instead of speed and convenience, customers experience confusion and frustration. Plus, store associates may be unprepared for delivering this new service offering.

UX designers have an important role to play in eliciting the ways in which the impacts of various intended outcomes could affect the overall user experience. Design workshops that involve perspectives from many different departments can be very useful for this type of discovery work. In one recent workshop session that I co-facilitated, senior directors and vice presidents from multiple departments within the organization came to recognize that attaining success in one area might create customer experiences that were less than optimal in another. They mutually agreed to hold follow-up conversations to more closely examine these issues.

Sometime an intentional trade-off is worth the potential costs. But if it’s not, take the time to revisit what’s behind undesirable outcomes and consider creating strategies to address their root causes.

4. The Success Fallacy: Reaching the Finish Line

Just as redirecting a project’s priorities without a strong rationale can be damaging, so too can remaining static. With business competition happening at a global scale and barriers to entry becoming looser, change is occurring at an accelerated pace. In the past, companies might have been able to maintain market dominance for 20 years or more. Today, that time has shrunk to an average of less than five years, as a recent Harvard Business Review article noted. Products age, needs evolve, and what worked yesterday may no longer be satisfactory today.

Amidst these rapid shifts, organizations can no longer afford to operate according to the status quo. Rita McGrath of Columbia Business School calls the world we live in today “;a world of transient advantage.” To remain successful, organizations, UX designers, and the teams with whom they work must remain flexible.

As UX designers, we must often iterate upon our work. Therefore, we are well placed to identify and advocate for new opportunities. Success is not an outcome; it’s an evolution.

What’s Next?

In Part 2 of this series, I’ll be writing about ways in which UX designers and their organizations can collaborate for maximum impact. Please share your thoughts on Messy Success and Ambiguous Failures, Part 1 in the comments—and stop back for Part 2! 

Independent Consultant

Pittsburgh, Pensylvania, USA

Amy ArdenAmy loves working with organizations to solve complicated problems. She believes that every day is a chance to use design to make something a little bit—or a lot!—better. Over her career, she’s worked with nonprofits, federal agencies, professional-services firms, and Fortune 500 retailers. Her favorite projects include designing a chatbot to help provide information to the public about opioid abuse and creating an exhibition Web site and social-media channels for the world’s largest collection of Shakespeare materials. Amy enjoys talking shop and learning from other UX professionals. In addition to writing for UXmatters, she has presented at several conferences, including Customer Contact Week 2019, IA Summit 2018, and UXPA DC 2017.  Read More

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