Unconsciously Killing User Experience in the Enterprise

After ~18 moths in a large organization, I’d be hard pressed to find a statement that fills me with dread more than: “Oh, we’ve got this great new system that you can enter your request in now” – No sooner have those words left someone’s mouth and I know that I’ve just lost hours of my life and in short order, will likely start sympathizing with those people who snap in the workplace.

It happens easily enough – A team within a department are tasked with cleaning up their processes and building or configuring a system to automate all that tedious data collection and information submission. It’s a task that is approached with the best intentions but often goes horribly astray at some point along the way. The reason? The Subject Matter Experts (SME’s) begin thinking of themselves as the ‘users’ and when that happens, all hope is lost.

Heck, if it’s a system that only the SMEs need to use then go for it, knock yourself out. Unfortunately though, more often than not, the intentions of these systems is to get users from outside a department or work group to submit information to the SMEs in a consistent, organized fashion. The problem? They’re not SME’s – they don’t know what you know. Actually, the problem in these cases is that YOU don’t know what you know.

You Don’t Know What You Know

There’s a concept known as the “Conscious Competence Learning Model” , attributed to Noel Burch of Gordon Training International. It breaks down the process of learning into four stages:

We all start off at “Unconscious Incompetence” – we don’t even know the skill exists, so we can’t know we don’t have it. As our familiarity increases we move on to “Conscious Incompetence” (we know what we don’t know) and then on to “Conscious Competence” (we know what we know) – And many people would assume that’s where it ends.

But there’s that fourth stage “Unconscious Competence” – where you get so  good at a given skill that you aren’t even really aware of it any more. You do it almost instinctively, not really aware of how, or even that you’re doing it.

Think about riding a bike – sure you can easily explain how to peddle it, but have you ever tried to explain to someone how to balance on it? Even with peddling, on your first crack you can recite the basic premise (‘push down on pedal, bike moves’) but you probably leave out all the other key bits of information. Which part of the foot do you put on the pedal? How do you move your back foot that’s on the upswing? What about that awkward moment when your back foot comes over the top and begins the down stroke?

The more you really stop and think about it, become conscious of the process, you start to see how many little bits of knowledge you hold about the process of riding your bike. Yet when you get on it, you just go – without a thought of what the actual process is.

Unconscious Competence Kills User Experience

This instinctive capability is exactly what kills user experience in these types of projects. You take a bunch of SMEs and ask them to specify and test an application for a topic or function they’re unconsciously competent and then turn around and ask the ‘incompetent’ (both conscious and unconscious) to use it.

In short: if the SMEs love the interfaces that you’ll be asking non-SMEs to use you’re probably doomed.

So What To Do?

  • Know who the user is for a given interface and test with them early & often.
    It’s critical to remember that you have to design for ‘incompetence’ in these systems. Often the mindset is “They don’t know the process so what do they have to offer us?” but that’s really the exact reason you SHOULD ask them for feedback. This is not to say SMEs shouldn’t have a seat at the table in this process, certainly they are the actual users for parts of the application, you just need to be aware of who will be using the interface, and understand what level of competence.
  • Shoshin: The Beginner’s Mind
    There’s a concept in Zen Buddhism called ‘Shoshin‘ or ‘Beginner’s Mind’ that refers to approaching things with the attitude of a beginner – shedding what you know or think about a topic and approaching it like a novice again. Reflect on the process or function you’re trying to address and learn to uncover what those unconsciously competent elements are by coming at it with a beginner’s mind.
  • Bring in the Pros (& not necessarily the vendor)
    User experience is a specialized discipline that often gets forgotten about completely – and can be very hard to argue for budget to bring them in, especially on internal facing projects but it’s really the best thing you can do for your users. With applications from external vendors, the other trap that many companies fall into is the belief that the application vendors can guide them towards creating a great user experience but I think ultimately they’re led astray because many vendors have deep knowledge of their own systems and what you really end up with is a compounded unconscious competence effect. What you really want is that third party that specializes in designing user experiences and ideally you should brng them in BEFORE you even choose an application so you can then be sure you’re choosing the application that suits the user experience you want to create, rather than trying to shoe horn your experience into an application.

Creating a better user experience for your end users doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive – Even just being conscious of who the users are & what level of competence they’ll have will go a long ways to improving the state of many applications. If you want true success, consider making room in the budget & process for some outside help and be sure to get them involved as early as possible.