The other day our friend Whitney Hess innocently tweeted:
"I find mental models really trying. Does that make me a less skilled UXer?"
I know how she feels. I have dozens of books on my shelves describing different processes for doing design, from mental models to personas to content audits to user testing to you-name-it, and I follow almost none of them. I use bits and pieces, of course, but cannot follow any one of them faithfully. In fact, it would be impossible to follow all of them, even if you allowed yourself a different process for each project you work on.
Part of the doubt that Whitney displayed is the result of that unseen enemy called the “Process Police”, or people who go around espousing their preferred process as the right way to design…as if those who aren’t doing the process are designing complete rubbish. Even worse are the police who say "Oh yeah you think you’re following the process but you’re doing it all wrong"…that their version of personas is the One True Way and by implication you’re a less-skilled UXer.
The Process Police do their rounds on email lists, where they give out subtle digs that you’re doing it wrong. Unfortunately, these attacks serve to make curious people go elsewhere and shut down conversation between people who might otherwise learn from each other. This has happened on all the email lists I’ve ever been on.
Here’s the secret: the Process Police are secretly worried they’re doing it wrong. They’re much more worried than Whitney is. Their ridicule of other people’s process is actually a manifestation of their fear of doing it wrong themselves. They don’t know what the right answer is any better than you do, so they’re hoping their process will get them there. Process is their crutch. The Process Police believe that if they follow the process to the letter, then they’ll be more successful than if they don’t. They use process as a benchmark for success.
The good thing about benchmarks is that you can to optimize for them. The bad thing about benchmarks is that you often have the wrong one.
- If process is your benchmark, then you’ll follow each step faithfully and come to the end of your process with a feeling of satisfaction that you did what you intended to do.
- If pleasing your aesthetic-minded boss is your benchmark, then you’ll be sure to make something beautiful and visually satisfying.
- If speed is your benchmark, you’ll have one of the fastest web sites around.
- If click-through is your benchmark, then you’ll likely end up with users who tend to click through more than anyone else. (a common result of people who optimize for click-through is having an audience of 13-15 year old girls)
But here’s an obvious question: shouldn’t the benchmark of a UX professional be happy users? Shouldn’t some metric of positive user experience be our benchmark instead of following some process exactly? What if we start optimizing for happy users over everything else? (we must make sure that happy users = happy business…but let’s for a moment assume that our business model is correct)
In my experience if you optimize for happy users then all those other optimizations go out the window. You won’t have a clean process, you won’t have the most beautiful web site, it won’t be the quickest on the block, and you won’t have the highest click-through in the world.
In fact, all of these things will constantly be in question. Your process will be in flux, the visual design will change over time, your site’s speed will fluctuate, and your conversion will change as well.
But we’re fine. Those things don’t matter if you’re making your users happy. If you’re optimizing on the right thing…the happiness of your users…then by definition you have to let other things fall by the wayside.
So the next time you see the Process Police in action ask them: “Does this process guarantee happy users?”. And while they’re making something up you should ask yourself: “Is this person using evidence that their process was the key to success or are they relying on an air of confidence instead?”.
No process guarantees success. If there were a process that guaranteed happy users everyone would be using it. But design doesn’t work like that: it’s iterative, responsive, ever-changing. You have to react as much as plan. You have to change your process on the fly to react to the marketplace. That’s why we need to optimize for what’s most important, a happy user, and do whatever it takes to make it happen, process be damned.