User experience – do we really believe in it?

11 Jul 2015

Charles Blondin walked across the Niagara Falls on a tightrope

The great chasm remains between the popularity of the term UX and the quality of websites we endure on a daily basis. How can it be that many agencies evangelise UX as part of their pitch, yet the standard of websites remains so, well, so-so?

I wonder if we don’t believe in experience-design as much as we claim. Or perhaps we only believe in it to the point where it doesn’t suit us to believe in it anymore.

Charles Blondin was born in France in 1824 and, after exhibiting an extraordinary skill for balance as an infant, was sent at the age of five to Lyon’s École de Gymnase to hone his acrobatic skills. After just six months training, he made his acrobatic debut as “the boy wonder”, specialising in acrobatics and tightrope walking. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, he quickly became hugely popular in his native France.

Aged 30, he travelled to the US and started to perform in New York, where the idea struck him to tightrope walk the 350m across the Niagara Falls. This became a feat he completed many times and in every conceivable permutation: blindfolded, in a sack, trundling a wheelbarrow, on stilts, and eventually carrying his manager on his back and stopping halfway and eating a meal. The crowds would go wild for him and he repaid them richly by embarking on more and more dangerous variations on the already pretty treacherous theme.

His popularity was such that, for a period of time, he was to tightrope-walking what Hoover is to vacuum cleaning – he owned the word. Anyone involved in the profession was simply referred to as a “Blondin”.

As he finished each crossing and got back onto terra firma, the crowd would go wild for him, chanting his name “Blondin, Blondin, Blondin”. Occasionally, in response, Blondin would tease them by asking who in the crowd wanted to make the return trip on his back or in the wheelbarrow.

Blondin understood that there was a difference between the crowd believing he could do it and the crowd believing he could do it.

As a user experience professional, I observe that there is a difference between businesses believing experience design can improve their bottom line and businesses believing experience design can improve their bottom line.

It seems that it is easy to buy into it when the principles are conceptual. Stakeholder engagement? Check. User surveying and testing? Check. Customer journey planning? Check. Content strategy and desired outcomes? Check. Wire-framing, creative design, interaction design? Check. Submitting to the resultant evidence to make informed user-driven design decisions? Sound of tyres screeching to a halt…

It seems that the theory is straightforward, and research achievable with good project planning, but the implementation not so easy, as it means not having our own way. We have to give up that little feature, or content, or page element that we liked. It might be a focus on our division’s product or service a beloved carousel, a design expectation, an embedded Twitter feed, adding “something that moves”, including unnecessary content that we like, or any number of completely arbitrary design decisions.

One of the reasons that we ask our clients to buy into process at the start of our projects is because we can’t know where the evidence might lead us, and we must leave our expectations and biases at the door if we are to truly serve the user. It feels counter-intuitive to cede control of our website experience to our users, but when you think about why they visit our website in the first place, it’s impossible to imagine designing it any other way.

So, who’s getting into the wheelbarrow?


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 user-testing, usability and customer journey planning, web accessibility and integrated online marketing. Clients include Three, Ordnance Survey Ireland, PSNI, Permanent TSB and Independent News and Media. Visit Fathom online.