Monday, June 18, 2001
The Hidden Stage of User Experience Projects: Why is user experience
work so difficult, time-consuming, and rarely as successful as we
might like? Finally, someone has written a candid explanation. My
business partner Phil Terry pointed me to a paper written by the
Communication Research Institute of Australia (CRIA), a non-profit
research group that helps organizations improve the user experience.
Their recent paper Experiences in Co-designing gives an insightful
summary of their research process -- scoping, benchmarking,
prototyping, refinement, production. Even more interesting was one
particular chart that shows how much time each of the five stages
takes in a typical project. (http://www.communication.org.au/assets/images/diagram8.gif)
Added together, all five stages take up less than 50% of the time in
the project. What is the "hidden stage" of their user experience
work, the work that consumes more time than everything else put
One word: Politics.
The paper explains:
- The remaining 50% of the time is spent on the politics.
Superficially one can look at the diagram of the information
design process and imagine it to be rational, even scientific.
But it is in fact profoundly political -- people's interests,
people's power relationships, and so on -- are an intrinsic part
of any information design project.
- Often, I hear designers say at the end of a project, "It would
have been a great project but for the politics." My view is that
"the politics" is no excuse. Dealing with the politics involves a
great range of issues.
The paper goes on to explain that usability testing is a form of
*politics* -- and that much of improving the user experience comes
down to the transfer of political power:
To create real change in the experience (online or otherwise) that a
company creates for its customers, realize that politics is what the
work is mostly about. This is why I believe that the "customer
experience" viewpoint is more effective than, say, more academic
usability treatments, or more data-focused information architecture
projects. Customer experience work gets "down and dirty," in the
organization, to get the organization to empathize with the needs of
people - customers - who happen to be outside the walls of the
- When you go out [for a usability test] and consult people about
something that they're going to have to put up with in the
future, and these people have never been asked for their opinion
or their advice before, you are engaging in politics. When you
bring their opinions back into the decision-making process, what
you're actually doing is bringing in a formerly unrepresented
constituency to be represented around the table in the
- That is not an act of usability testing or research, it's a
political act, because you are saying, "Those who have exercised
power in this area for some time must now give some of that power
to someone else." And of course these things do not happen
easily. Power is not something that is relinquished easily.
Control is not something that people like to abandon.
CRIA's paper, "Experiences in Co-designing":
Related Good Experience column: About Information Architecture
(April 3, 2000)