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Deep Awareness of the Current Experience

by Jared M. Spool

“Oh my, we DO make it difficult for our users, don’t we?” That’s what the Vice President of the team’s business division said as soon as the user research session ended.

The VP was stunned by how difficult it was for the user to on-board their product. It was the usual gamut of frustrating user experience issues.

The on-boarding process was complex. The user needed to enter information that they couldn’t easily get at that moment. There was jargon they didn’t understand. They were asked to make choices about features and options that weren’t explained.

What the VP expected to take about 5 minutes took more than 30 minutes. The user was completely frustrated and didn’t even want to try out the product once it was set up. “This is not a good experience!” the VP declared.

It was the first time the VP had ever sat and watched a user go through the on-boarding process. They had no idea it was like this for users. When the team told the VP that they’d seen many other users have similar problems, the VP sank into the chair.

The team then reported the product’s analytics showed most new users spent 30 or more minutes on-boarding. “This has to be our top priority for the next release!” the VP insisted.

The VP was now deeply aware of the current experience. And that changed everything.

The buildup of experience insulation.

UX professionals often complain that others in their organization don’t have empathy for the users and what the users go through. But how could they? When do they get exposed to the users’ current experience with the product or service? If they aren’t exposed, they can’t possibly form any empathy for those users.

When an organization is very small—I mean VERY small, as in 2 or 3 people—the executive team is very aware of their customers’ experiences. That’s because the executive team has direct contact with the customers every day. They have to just to survive.

If the customer is frustrated by something in the product or service, the executives know it right away. They make it a priority to fix, because survival depends on it. They have empathy for their users, because they are deeply aware of those users’ experiences.

It would be great if that could continue forever, but if the organization is successful, they’ll need to grow. They’ll add more people.

Some of those people will form the sales team. Others will handle customer support issues. Some will become developers and product managers. Others will become additional executives and key stakeholders.

With all these people, the original executive team is now distanced from their users. It’s as if, with every new employee, a thin layer of insulation forms between those executives and the customers. (And if the users aren’t the customer, there are layers of insulation forming there too.)

Once the organization has become an enterprise, the insulation is thick. And like good insulation, it prevents any awareness from penetrating. The executives, senior leadership, and the product team are now comfortably insulated from the users’ experience.

It’s not that our peers don’t have empathy for users. It’s the insulation that prevents them from exercising any potential empathy.

Busting through the insulation.

The first job of a UX leader becomes straightforward: Punch a hole through the insulation. Deliver a deep awareness of the current user experience. Let the executives, stakeholders, product managers, developers, and anyone else making key decisions experience what it’s like to be a user and build up their empathy.

Teams need to be aware of weak signals. These happen when customers complain to their salesperson or they ask for a new feature. Reports of customer calls to support are also weak signals.

Weak signals look like awareness. Unfortunately, they are shallow awareness at best. Design leaders do best when they direct research to explore these signals in more depth. If they can identify the underlying experience that triggered the complaints or requests, they can turn the weak signals into deep awareness.

It all starts with a serious user research program.

We’ve seen UX leaders fill their organizations with deep customer awareness that drives change. It’s not a fast process. It takes time.

They’ve all done it with a similar approach. They started by upgrading their user research capability. They got people into the field to see what their customers’ experience is like first hand.

And they couldn’t do this with only a select group of UX researchers. They had to bring product managers, developers, stakeholders, and even executives with them. These leaders had to make exposure to users a priority.

That all took time. Every UX leader we’ve met has told us they wanted to move that process much faster. They said it truly tested their patience.

That patience paid off, because, with a series of baby steps, more people were exposed to users. They were gaining deep customer awareness that drives change.

Making deep awareness a habit.

After upgrading the organization’s research capability, the next phase is to keep the awareness constant. It’s not easy in large organizations, where there’s a new crisis happening every minute that captures everyone’s attention.

To keep everyone aware of the experiences users were having, the UX leaders took several approaches. One common approach was to build customer awareness habits throughout the life cycle of team projects.

The beginning of new projects was a good place to start introducing these habits. Using a discovery phase that brought the entire team face-to-face with users sent a strong message about what their experiences were. Other techniques, such as starting projects with design sprints kept design and participating users in the forefront of people’s minds.

To build awareness habits throughout the duration of the project, UX leaders integrated advanced user research techniques, such as regular field visits for all team members, into the design and development process. They would show how teams who took the initiative to do this were producing better outcomes.

As they were learning about users experiences, the UX leaders would have teams build out journey maps and put together detailed scenarios. They’d make it habit to refer to these artifacts during any discussions of features or designs.

Deep awareness is the secret to growing design capability.

Everyone has empathy. (Well, except for sociopaths.) Which means the problem teams face isn’t developing empathy in their peers. The problem is how we can provide exposure opportunities to build that empathy.

We need to burst through the insulation that naturally builds up in our organizations. We need to create a deep awareness of what the current user experience is.

Once we have that, we can start painting a picture of what the future ideal experience could be. We can use experience visions to share the story of the experience we aspire to deliver. Executives, stakeholders, and product teams can compare that ideal experience to their deep awareness of the current experience. Here they build empathy and understanding, here is where the real magic happens.

It’s that difference that drives real change in the organization. The desire to improve frustrations and to make the product or service experience represent the real value we can bring to our customers and users. That’s how we drive our organizations to deliver better-designed products and services.


Lead your organization’s UX strategy.

To drive change in your organization, create a deep level of customer awareness to all levels of decision makers. The best way to do that is through a customized playbook strategy you make alongside your team during our 2-day Creating a UX Strategy Playbook workshop.

We offer this workshop in cities all over the world. Visit our website at Playbook.UIE.com for more details. We can also bring it to your organization. Contact us to learn how.

About the Author

Jared M. Spool is a co-founder of Center Centre and the founder of UIE. In 2016, with Dr. Leslie Jensen-Inman, he opened Center Centre, a new design school in Chattanooga, TN to create the next generation of industry-ready UX Designers. They created a revolutionary approach to vocational training, infusing Jared’s decades of UX experience with Leslie’s mastery of experience-based learning methodologies.