Why Great UX Goes Beyond Just Listening To The User

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Our Head of UX, Iain Hinchliffe, spoke to Little Black Book about some of the fundamental challenges of User Experience, how they have endured since the early days of the internet, and why Homer Simpson is not a great UX designer.


Having emerged from a straight-up web design career in 1999 to become user experience director at DigitasLBi, Iain Hinchliffe’s lived through the digital experience explosion and navigated it deftly. Since being with MullenLowe Profero, Iain has worked on transforming the way we interact with some heavyweight brands over the years. 

Projects he’s worked on range from leading the UX engagement direction and requirements workshops for a redesign of all digital services for Turkey’s fastest growing Participation Bank, navigating the interest-free banking landscape structured in accordance with Islamic law, to heading up a major redesign project that resulted in British retailer M&S being ranked by Webcredible as the UK’s most usable retail website, and generating a significant revenue uplift.

Iain caught up with LBB’s Alex Reeves on how the last 20 years in UX have shaped his philosophical approach to the field.


LBB> You’ve been in UX since the turn of the millennium. How would you describe the discipline as it was emerging back then?

Iain> UX has been around for a while and has gone through different waves. When it started in the early ‘00s it was a lot of just simple drawing boxes, doing navigation and the discipline of coding information architecture. A lot of people treated it as if it was like architects’ diagrams, and perhaps it was difficult to understand. It was a science originally called ergonomics, where a lot of the big texts for UX came from experts like Jakob Nielsen. Books around the time focused on usability, how things were designed and how things could be used, and how you measured that. Then the UX people’s jobs were about trying to create websites that represented parts of that.

And it was difficult. At the time, if you looked at websites or apps, you didn’t know where you were on them. The main screen was really the main thing you looked at. And apart from doing things like buying books or maybe going on to clothing websites, it was just either a marketing brochure or a catalogue online.


LBB> If a brand has a certain experience already, what’s the key to translating that well into good UX overall?

Iain> It’s often been quite painful. I led the UX team that designed an early version of one of M&S’ sites back in the ’00s. Over the lifecycle of that site, it made a 444 million increase in revenue for them. They paid for everything on that site – the UX and design, the technologies for hosting and the CMS etc. – on a marketing budget. Effectively, a tiny amount of a tiny budget was used to develop the website. And the website actually performed better than any of their physical stores because it was easier for people to engage with.

For me, that’s still a problem. So I think solving the issue of what the challenge really is is key. If a brief is ‘we just want to sell more products’. The problem is going back to the client and saying to do that we need to develop more insight into the problems your customers are having and into the opportunities for your customers, and we need to do research to do that. We need to look at your brand guidelines which are typically not digital specific – they tend to be marketing specific or developed for print – and look at what the cost and effort would be to translate that into a digital-specific kind of thing. We then need to look at whether we need to create new tools so that you can do this sustainably. Then we need to train the team to use those tools because there’s no point in developing a website that can be updated five times a day if the people updating the site have been plucked from a marketing department and know how to do traditional marketing roles but not necessarily how to evoke a brand experience in digital.

So I think one of the key challenges is, when given a brief that ignores the insight and understanding, to be able to create something, then helping to educate. It’s challenging the brief and still winning the work, because the easiest thing to do is to go “I don’t really like this brief”, and for a client to go “well, fine. I’ve got this agency over here that will do it for half the cost.” It’s challenging it in a way that gives enough information to a client to explain why the challenge that they think is just simple is more complicated.


LBB> Can you give me an example of how a brief that seems simple needs to be expanded like that?

Iain> We’ve been working on an education brand that has independent schools around the world. We had a question from them: “how can we be the best at online education?”

We said they could buy all of the tools that they liked, but they needed to understand what the kids want and what the teachers want. You need to understand the whole day, and the whole education lifecycle that you’re going to be supporting. Zoom is a brilliant tool for teaching online. But no matter what happens in Zoom, you don’t really have a long term record or insight, beyond just the teacher-pupil relationship. You don’t have some of these exam scores in a lot of the digital tools, or if you use one digital tool for an exam score you don’t necessarily have that available for an entire record.

We came to it and kind of challenged the brief, told them we needed to develop more insight into the audience, and more specifically to answer their question. We brought some of the end users of the services into the strategy, concepting and ideation. We did interviews, then we had pupils, parents and teachers involved in designing the tools. From my perspective, it’s a really good way to go from an initial brief, to try and understand what people want.


LBB> So it’s a kind of collaborative UX design, where you get the end users in there telling you exactly what they need because it would take much longer for you to work out what the problems and the obstacles are otherwise?

Iain> Yes. The team on my side – the designers, UX people, strategists – understand that there’s more to do beyond just listening though.


they asked Homer Simpson how he would design a car, and he gives them a terrible car that couldn’t be sold to anybody because he just designed it for himself.

There’s a Simpsons cartoon where they asked Homer Simpson how he would design a car, and he gives them a terrible car that couldn’t be sold to anybody because he just designed it for himself. So the skill is a version of ethnography, like social anthropology – you ask people what they want and how they use services, but you then process that through a team of experts.

For example on Nord, one of the most important things to one of the people we interviewed who was involved in the design process was the live bus arrival timetable because where he was, he wanted it to update on his phone when he was at his breakfast, so he knew when the bus was coming. If we’d built the whole thing around that we wouldn’t really be solving any education objectives. It’s a tiny part of the puzzle. So you need to ask people what they want, develop insight, and then process it through a skill set like a strategist, designer or UX person. Having the right people involved – a lot of domain experts rather than account managers, who tend to be the sort of non skilled check on everything. You’ve got to be very careful about listening too much to an account manager.


LBB> And what about listening to the user? It sounds like you’re saying UX is more than just solving the users’ problems.

Iain> It is. I think one of the problems with research and involving users is sometimes it’s a box-ticking activity, and you can do your usability research and say “the thing we have shown to people is usable, people understand how to use it,” but it may not be the best product or service.

That relates to accessible UX. There are certain boxes that you can take for accessibility, there are standards and guidelines, and you can utilise those and actually one of the problems with those standards and guidelines is historically, a lot of the testing and the guidelines themselves are not there to create the best product for a brand’s customer. They’re there to ensure that you’re taking certain things into account in that process. And with accessibility you can measure “have I got the contrast and colours correct”, or “is the font big enough to be read by people”, or “have I used the right coding techniques so that a screen reader can read this out to somebody”. If you design with those things in mind, it makes the product better. But are you designing for the right customers?

We’ve moved beyond that at Profero to something called inclusive design rather than simply accessibility. From our perspective, that’s including the physical and cultural circumstances of somebody, taking an audience, and looking at how you need to design to increase understanding, cognition, and brand connection with people. Because there’s no point that a brand works in a very small territory, for example Shoreditch. It might not work if you try to use the same techniques to engage people in Newcastle or in Edinburgh. So we’re taking accessibility as part of inclusive design, where we’re looking at who the entire audience is, what they all need, what kind of insights from the culture around the world apply.


LBB> What considerations might you apply that sort of thinking to?

Iain> We’ve done a lot of projects where if we just designed for a UK audience we would be getting it wrong. For example, in the United Arab Emirates, translating things into Arabic is all done by a particular standard of Arabic and if you try and use the same standard in Saudi Arabia, for example, they’ll laugh at it. It’s similar to an American trying to sound British – there are cultural differences. So if you just said the challenge of creating an Arabic version of a website is just translation, you don’t really understand the audience.

There’s lots of cultural things that mean if you look at something inclusively, you’re looking at the disability concerns of the audience, at dyslexia, non-physical disabilities. Really good examples of things like that are the quiet hours in supermarkets, where they’ve had requests from their audience that people can’t bring their kids with autism or other concerns into these places because they’re too noisy or chaotic with the music that they play or the announcements. So those supermarkets all have quiet hours. And it’s part of inclusive design, not necessarily accessibility, that means they’re able to look after that audience.


LBB> There are so many aspects of uniqueness in culture and individuals. It sounds like it could be a never ending task to know everything about everywhere and how we all differ. Where do you draw that line?

Iain> Universal design’s ethos is you design once and everybody uses the same thing. If you think about a McDonald’s restaurant for example there are parts of that experience that are universal, whether you are in a Muslim populated country or a majority Buddhist country, even if the menu is different and the way you pay might be different. So universal design doesn’t have to be everything. Universal design can be what is the core of the brand experience, what is the thing that every territory should get. But then beyond that, the inclusive design part is now we’re going to understand the differences in these territories and the cultural attitudes that people have.

If you think about traditional advertising, they’ve always done that. Only in things like Super Bowl ads is it one ad for everybody. You employ a company in France for French adverts and a company elsewhere for other markets. That is essentially a form of inclusive design – you’re picking people that understand the market. If there are cultural differences in the French market, how should it influence design thinking? Right at the beginning of a project, so that we’re getting the right insights, we’re not just relying on third parties, or it’s not just a sprinkle of fairy dust at the end – it’s inherently part of what we’re doing from the beginning, so that we’re making the right changes to the strategy at the foundation. We’re creating something that’s flexible enough so that it’s not just being translated in different territories.


LBB> Beyond the UX design people working on this, what would you say are the biggest considerations that other parties, from the client to strategists or account managers, can make to ensure that UX is inclusive?

Iain> In a commercial context it’s all about the impact that it’s going to have on the businesses that we’re doing the job for. There’s a really nice example from years ago, something that woke me up. I always thought in UX, you make things more usable and that’s always better. How can that ever be a bad thing if a service is easier for customers to use?

Then at one point many years back, doing work for HSBC for a previous agency, we were able to get a bit of insight into the lifetime value of customers that just had a general HSBC account, and a First Direct account.

First Direct, when they started, was all about the customer. It was great quality telephone banking, it was personalised. It then turned into services that tonnes of UX time had been devoted to. And ultimately, it was a better product, but it had lower adoption, it cost more to operate, and the average lifetime value of those customers was lower because of the amount of extra investment that a company had put into it. So, I learned that just making things better for the customer isn’t always the right thing for a business.

Having an understanding of how you impact the bottom line justifies all of the efforts right the way up. For digital experiences and similar I like to be able to establish the value of what we do through how many more people converted or how many more people bought things. What actual engagement did we get through the brand? The data is there all of the time and it’s building up and generating more value. It’s not worth making something more usable if ultimately that doesn’t drive the business objectives effectively.

I’ve learned more and more that a lot of the work that I see in digital is done by brilliant practitioners that are poorly structured, poorly organised, poorly briefed. Ultimately they’re trying to make a difference, but they’re frustrated because they’re trying to apply their skills and expertise, against a brief that isn’t going to make any impact to the customer. Knowing that you can bring brilliant people together but then organise them in a way that everybody knows the work they’re doing is going to have an impact – that’s a really good thing.