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Designing the digital equivalent of a Ford Fiesta

20th Jan, 2021

What do you consider to be your ideal car? Hold that thought, as I will come back to it in a moment.

One of the accepted tenets of digital transformation is that the end user (often the customer) should be at the heart of our thinking, from beginning to end. Every stage of designing, building, testing, delivering, and the continuous improvement of a digital service should be with reference to the user.

Most digital strategies have this as their number one principle1, and an entire industry of User Experience (UX) has grown around involving actual users. Including the user perspective, and objectively measuring how users interact with our services, is crucial to our success.

Having worked in the realm of technology enabled change for much of my professional life, I have seen a shift over the years. Design is no longer in the sole control of the techies – the architects, the software engineers, and the technical designers. “Design thinking”2 may feel like another buzzword, but it is a serious attempt to enshrine empathy with the user into the way we approach problem solving.

Yet there persists a tendency to say one thing and do another. I have witnessed the equivalent of, on the one hand, a vigorous nodding of heads at the idea that the customer comes first, followed by one of several reactions:

There is no need to involve actual users, because we understand what our users want.

This is frequently reinforced when we ourselves are users of our own services. An interesting question to ask is, exactly who are our users, our customers? The answers can be illuminating, and sometimes it is only when we explore this that we realise certain segments of our user community are not being considered at all. It becomes apparent that what we really mean is “we understand some of the needs of some of our users”.

Involving users takes time, which could be spent delivering better services early.

This can be driven by a fear that we will be late to market; if we waste time with UX, our competitors will steal a march on us. Another driver is the perception that our current service offering is so poor that anything will be an improvement. At best, we may raise the bar and deliver short term relief for our users, but it is more likely we will deliver disappointment that we will struggle to recover from.

We are agile and can launch with a Minimum Viable Product (MVP).

If we are in the realm of delivering little and delivering often, then we can collect user feedback on what is working and what isn’t. This iterative approach can only work by capturing this data objectively, and it needs to be built into the design of our services. All too often, the MVP becomes too feature rich, the iteration becomes a more traditional release cycle, the usage data is not captured. And the result? We do not involve our users as much as we need to.

It is clear this new technology will deliver real value, and users will want to use it.

This is the classic “build it and they will come”3 approach to service delivery. We intend to deliver something fantastic, and users will realise that this is what they needed all along. Sometimes this can be hugely successful, especially where we are genuinely innovating, and delivering something so ground-breaking in its scope that our users have not considered it even possible. But much as we may like to think we are involved in innovative projects, very few are likely to be true game changers, or disruptive innovation as it is usually termed.

Each of these points to the idea that we know best. The clear fallacy is that each brings our preconceptions, biases, and subjective views into the design process. And the more technical the individual, the more these biases are likely to be toward technical wizardry rather than what the user really needs. In short, we are still in the realm of technology enabled change rather than true digital change. This is short-termism, and defers what are likely to be costly changes to unpick an initial misdirected design.

Back to the car. What is your ideal? I am hazarding a guess that few people said a Ford Fiesta4. When I’ve asked the question of others, with no context given, it never is. Those who like performance cars may debate between a Lamborghini and a Bugatti. For more luxury and elegance, it is a Bentley, a Mercedes, or a Jaguar. Perhaps a Land Rover for carrying the dogs, or the more environmentally enlightened will choose a Tesla. Personally, I’d go with an Aston Martin, as it’s the closest I’ll get to being James Bond. Even fans of the supermini class of car are more likely to choose a Mini rather than a Fiesta.

And yet the Ford Fiesta is the biggest selling car in the UK5, and has been since 20096. As measures go, few are more objective than actual sales. In other words, car users prefer Ford Fiestas. Not all of them, obviously. But if we take into account the full remit of user requirements; passenger space, luggage space, comfort, reliability, affordability, ongoing cost of ownership, the list goes on, and we put these into the melting pot of what makes an ideal car for most people, the Ford Fiesta comes out on top.

What can this teach us about digital transformation and our engagement with users?

My point, if you haven’t guessed it already, is that if we were designing a car, from scratch, based on our own interpretation of what matters to our users, how many of us can say we would have designed a Ford Fiesta? Again, I’ll hazard a guess that it is a similar number to those who answered Ford Fiesta to the first question. Few, if any.

In the architecture and design of digital services, if we want to make sure we are designing for our users, and we want to be inclusive of all our users, then there is no substitute for engaging with them extensively to determine what it is they actually need. What we consider important is not an effective substitute for this.

To some, this may miss the key element of innovation, especially disruptive innovation. For a period, there was a popular quote in the field of digital transformation: The electric light did not come from the continuous improvement of candles7. You might similarly argue that the Tesla Model S did not come about from the continuous improvement of the Fiesta, or the Ford Model T through trying to build a faster horse! The Tesla and the Model T are examples of disruptive innovation in the car market; though the Tesla Model S, like the electric light bulb before it, can also be viewed as continuous improvement of several different and emerging technologies8.

Innovation and user involvement are not mutually exclusive, and I am not trying to argue against innovation in favour of refinement, or that we should limit the ambition of what we do. Rather the opposite, and that we should involve our users’ views to inform our decisions, and we should return to our users regularly to make sure we’ve got it right. This has never been more important than it is now. The after-effects of 2020 on the way we consume digital services will be far reaching. Gartner has published its technology trends for 20219, with many relating to how changing behaviours can be managed in the face of COVID-19. The theme is still that people remain absolutely central to the delivery of good services.

Without proper consideration for our users, the risk is we will design the digital equivalent of an Aston Martin. This may be perfect for the employees of Her Majesty’s Secret Service, but perhaps not so good if you mainly do the school run or want to pick up some compost from the garden centre. To reach as many of our users as possible, our job is to design a Ford Fiesta, and to make sure it is the very best Ford Fiesta it can be.

 

References:

1 https://digitalprinciples.org/principle/design-with-the-user/ and https://www.gov.uk/guidance/government-design-principles#start-with-user-needs are examples

2 https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/article/5-stages-in-the-design-thinking-process

3 From the film Field of Dreams, and misquoted as it often is in this context.

4 I do realise that by referring to the Ford Fiesta in the title you that will have read moments earlier, this is not a fair test.

5 https://www.autocar.co.uk/car-news/industry/best-selling-cars-uk

6 This obviously depends on the source. But if it is not top of a particular list, it is seldom far off.

7 This is attributed to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oren_Harari.

8 https://medium.com/@gpeuc/debunking-bad-design-memes-part-2-candles-and-electric-light-quote-3f9990784cfe

9 https://www.gartner.com/smarterwithgartner/gartner-top-strategic-technology-trends-for-2021/

Authors

Edward Williams

Head of Digital Services

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