Evacuate the digital building – this is not a drill

15 Oct 2016

Business leaders need to step outside their own environment and see what’s happening in the real world. Image: Photocreo Michal Bednarek/Shutterstock

Digital leaders must climb down from their ivory towers in order to understand what consumers really need. Gareth Dunlop tells us how to create a user-led environment in the workplace.

Elite-level sports managers frequently reference “the environment” during media appearances and post-match interviews.  They aren’t referring to the “natural world, as a whole or in a particular geographical area, especially as affected by human activity” but rather, the very specific ecosystem which they create for the players under their charge.

The logic is sound – the manager makes sure the players have access to the best nutrition, training techniques, pitches and facilities, weights rooms, medical staff, and competitive insight – and in return, the sportspeople perform to the very best of their potential.

Such managers believe in the truism that it is the top 1% in elite sport that makes the difference between success and failure and they respond with fastidious detail.

When the top-class managers do this (such as Ireland’s Joe Schmidt), the players talk about the mindset this helps to inculcate, and the responsibility upon them to respond to the resources they have access to.

Ireland captain Rory Best frequently refers to a “player-led environment”, where the players acknowledge that, bluntly, there are no excuses left for anything other than consistent high performance, week-on-week, match-on-match.

It’s not just in elite sports that managers and leaders aim to get the environment right.  Business owners and leaders (this author included) see their role as providing their team with all the best tools and environment to help them do their job.  As a result, our current raft of digital leaders quite rightly do their best to give their teams the best hardware, the fastest internet access, the latest monitors and screens, the easiest software, and even artisan coffee.

When you include into the mix that these team members also spend eight or 10 hours every day either designing digital, thinking digital or talking digital, the picture is starting to build about the gap between those designing and those experiencing digital products.

Subsequently for the very best of motives, many agencies have inadvertently created digital ivory towers.  The dangers of such towers are subtle but very real.

The app looks beautiful on the 90-inch 4k plasma screen on the wall of the agency board room and gets immediate sign-off from the client drinking sparkling water and enjoying expensive sandwiches.  However, none of its users will ever experience the app in this way.

The website appears bold, confident and clear on the latest 27-inch iMac, but when rendered on a 13-inch laptop, looks much too big and squeezed into the viewport.

The homepage downloads instantly when loaded onto the leased line and gets the immediate approval of all of the stakeholders. Meanwhile, the smartphone experience on 3G is terrible and Google is penalising the site for its slow download on mobile.

The innovative idea, which appears so smart as top executives drink cappuccino and get emotional about brand values around the whiteboard, stinks when users see it.

All of these scenarios remind us that it is more important than ever to GOOB – Get Out Of the Building.

The claim that no good design decisions happen in the building may be a slight exaggeration, however, when you consider how different the environment of those who design and those who experience digital products is, it’s a claim we need to take seriously and mitigate against.

The first step on this road is acknowledging the gap.

The second step is the designer getting their hands dirty in the real world; with users, on their older devices, slower connections, smaller monitors, and – heaven forbid – cheaper coffee.  A daily mantra of starting each morning with the company song “We are not our users” sung ten times might help to reinforce this.

Joe Schmidt invests his time seeking to create a player-led environment; digital leaders must ensure their project processes compel their teams to create a user-led environment.

By Gareth Dunlop

Gareth Dunlop owns and runs Fathom, a user-experience consultancy which helps ambitious organisations get the most from their website and internet marketing by viewing the world from the perspective of their customers. Specialist areas include UX strategy, usability testing and customer journey planning, web accessibility, and integrated online marketing.  Clients include Three, Ordnance Survey Ireland, PSNI, Permanent TSB and Tesco Mobile.  

Gareth Dunlop runs Fathom, a UX consultancy that helps organisations get the most from their digital products.