The User is Not Broken

Imagine this: You need to attend a conference, so you fill out the paperwork and send it off.

A few days later, the envelope returns, but instead of an approval, it contains your paperwork bandaged with a pre-printed post-it note with a list of mistakes you were likely to make.

Sure enough, several of those boxes are bleeding check marks.

The implicit message that official looking post-it note sends is that you and all the other people filling out forms are so broken  the accounting department had to order up those post-it notes to make it easier to send your mistakes back to you.

Are you that broken?

I don’t think so.

The post-it note is a well-intentioned effort to fix something that’s broken, but it’s not you.

If someone has to pre-print sticky notes to tell people not to do the same thing over and over, it’s not the users who are broken, it’s the system that’s broken.

User experience is a tech term that’s emerging in customer service conversations, and thank goodness.

From thinking about online experiences like going to the grocery store to redesigning library experiences based on observing patrons (bending over to find your holds? maybe we’ll move the shelves!), putting yourself in the user’s mind brings a new dynamic to your systems thinking.

What’s on your post-it note?

Think of a situation you feel you live over and over. Telling people the same thing? Trying to get them to bend to your expectations or to understand what you’re asking of them.

Instead of guessing what they need to do it right, ask them how *they* think your system works (or doesn’t)?

Do people not know what your expectations are?

Is the information you’ve put out up-to-date?

Is information easy to find or are conflicting instructions drifting around in old desk drawers, shelves, and online?

What’s getting in their way?

What will it take to fix the problem?

It’s easy to let systems linger in a state of half-brokenness because it takes time and attention to fix them and fixing is often seen as “extra” work. We’ve all got a lot to do, so we put these systems projects on the back burner.

But consider this: it takes time to print up the notes, fill them out, send the paperwork back, and you probably still have to explain the “right” way to do things because the reason they weren’t done properly in the first place is that the user doesn’t have all the information.

Plus, each negative interaction is not making your customers feel like they should do better; it’s making them mad. At you. Because they know it’s your system that’s broken, not them.

Catch yourself in that moment of thinking “why don’t they just do this right?” and you’ve found the gateway into thinking about fixing your system from the user’s perspective.

How do you find the time?

There’s no silver bullet for this one. You just have to decide it’s a priority. The funny thing is, once you identify a priority and scope it out, it becomes more manageable.

Ask for help. Do you need resources? Is there someone in your group who would love to take this one (maybe the person who was frustrated enough to order those pre-printed post-it notes?)

Free them up. Give them a deadline. Help them figure out how to work with the users.

Work your calendar.

Don’t let the perfect solution hold you back.

Try things.

It would be lovely to have an automatic online system that handles everything for you and completely meets your users’ needs. But by the time you go through that process, you’ve probably invested a year (or more) and continued to frustrate your users. And what if it’s not what your users need?

Instead of investing in the big-fix, begin with your users.

Ask them: what can you do now? Breaking mega-problems into smaller pieces (update the manual and put it online for everyone) can yield the incremental improvements that generate some energy and momentum for the longer-term projects. And you may discover that what you thought was the answer wasn’t. For some detailed examples of how this works in real-life, check out the Chapel Hill Public Library‘s user design experience page here.

Remember: it’s the system that needs to change. 

The user? They’re fine. No fixing necessary.