Help Joy help you. On the unusability of internal systems.


I am out here for you. You don’t know what it’s like to be ME out here for YOU. It is an up-at-dawn, pride-swallowing siege that I will never fully tell you about, ok? Help me… help you. Help me, help you. – Jerry Macguire


This is Joy’s notebook.

At the airport earlier today I had to switch my ticket from one flight to another. Joy was the customer service person who helped me do this.

Joy’s notebook is about two inches thick, she’s created an A-Z index for it, it is packed full of handwritten notes about how to do different tasks in the various system she uses – steps that need following, codes that need inputting. It sits beside her every day, beautifully decorated (with stickers) evidence of the horrendous usability of the software she uses to get her job done.

Joy has been working for this airline for years. She told me that some of the stuff that is in her notebook she doesn’t need anymore – either because they’ve upgraded to a new system or that, after years, she’s finally managed to memorise it.

She told me that each time they upgrade the system it seems to get harder, not easier, to use. Joy told me that all the customer service reps have a notebook like this. You can’t use the systems without one. Joy is digitally literate and confident with the computer, but it is impossible to use without the notebook.

Joy is frontline staff for a major international airline. She is delightful and doing her best to do great work and look after her customers, but this is what she’s got to work with. I wonder if I’d be so cheerful if I was in her seat. No wonder so many others are not.

Internal systems are the tools we give our frontline staff, the people who are in charge of the customer experience for the face to face and telephone channels. If you pay attention to people using these systems (either out of general professional interest or because you’re fortunate enough to work with the on a project), you’ll find that notebooks like Joy’s are not uncommon. They’re everywhere.

They are everywhere because the people who bought or made the system didn’t even think about the experience for internal staff. The internal staff who are stuck using it are so far away from the people who bought that expensive crap that they’ll never know how awful it is (or their jobs are in peril so they don’t dare complain).

Internal systems allow an organisation to deliver great customer experience throughout the customer journey. These systems let people like Joy be fast (or not), accurate (or not), joined up to the rest of the organisation (or not).

And yet, all the time, we say ‘It does’t matter, we’ll sort that out with training’, ‘Call the tech writers, we’ll make a manual for this system’,  ‘Don’t worry, we’ll inflict this piece of crap on our employees, unlike our customers they’re stuck with us’. Except they’re not really, are they.

This might have worked with Joy but as our employees begin to join our workforces as digital natives, familiar with the well designed exteriors of organisations, how well do you think they’ll take to the tools we offer them to book the tickets, create the content, manage the accounts.

I kind of fancy that they’re going to start telling us to lift our game, to stick our crappy internal systems up our jumpers, and to give them so decent tools so that they can be as efficient as we want them to be. So that they can offer the kind of customer service everyone wants to experience.

I really hope they do. I hope that they will demand that we do allow time to work on the usability of the content management system, not just the website. That a company will be able to win on customer service because they actually bothered to hire design team that lets the customer service people offer faster, better service. That the news company that optimises the content management interface wins because their journalists can write more, better content rather than battle the content management system for hours a day (true story).

And I really hope that one day Joy will be able to stop battling the interfaces she uses to give such great customer service and leave her notebook at home.

If you’re going to do this user experience thing properly, you’ve got to look at all the angles. If you respect for your employees and your customers you need to care about the user experience of internal systems. Challenge yourself to solve the often more difficult design problems of internal systems, and know that by doing that, you’re creating a better user experience for all.

Strategy is being on message.

If you’re trying to implement strategy I reckon you need to spend a good 30% of your effort on communications. Probably more. You need to think more like someone who is trying to sell expensive trainers and less time making power points, spreadsheets and gantt charts, or doing whatever the thing is you’re officially paid to do.

This is the most important thing you can do to help, I’ve said to teams at GDS and people in other government departments just this week, the most important thing you can do to help is to say the same things that we say to anyone you get the chance to say them to. Of course, I am taking as a given that people will always do the best work they’re able to do in any situation, we need that too.

If you want to implement a strategy, do what the marketing people and the political advisors say – get on message and stay there.

This requires two things:

  • working out what your messages are (the fewer the better)
  • expressing those messages clearly (choose your words carefully)

Achieving both of these things takes time, effort and attention. It doesn’t tend to happen organically, without consideration.

Work out what your messages are

There might be lots of behaviours that you want to change, but you’ll only ever be able to get a couple of messages out to people – and only then if you say them over and over and over again.

Work out the one or two key messages that you can focus on – look for behaviour changes that are relatively easy to achieve (or that sound like they might be). Bonus points for finding behaviours that, when adopted, will naturally lead towards other behaviours you would like to see.

An example. Over the past year or so, we have tried to achieve a pretty significant change to the way that people in government use user research in digital projects. Mostly we wanted research to become a discipline that was as agile as the developers, product owners, designers and was able to be involved throughout the product lifecycle so that we could be more effective. We wanted to stop  people outsourcing a bit of research at the beginning and end of the project and complaining that it wasn’t very useful. We wanted user researchers to be able to be effective contributors to the success of the projects.

You have to do a lot of things differently to achieve that, but we’ve focussed on three main behaviour changes:

  1. project teams to do research more regularly throughout the project lifecycle
  2. researchers to be able to work in way that required less documentation and more light weight and regular communication with the team
  3. everyone in the team to participate more in the user research, for more people to actually see end users interacting with the service we’re making.

If we can achieve those three big things, then we can start to worry about the detail of exactly what happens in the team, who does what, when and how. Those will be good problems to have, and we’ll worry about having a clear position on those when we need to.

These are three very noble goals, but they don’t feel easy to implement and achieve.  So, we needed to look at our messaging.

Express your messages clearly

User research is a team sport poster

We’ve taken those three objectives and crunched them down into three soundbites that you hear more and more people starting to say around GDS and across government. They are:

  1. User Research is  team sport (often followed with, ‘we don’t do this for us (researchers) we do this for you (the team)). This doesn’t really tell you exactly what to do, but it tells you a lot about the new philosophy of user research. That it requires participation and it is open and collaborative.
  2. Do research in every sprint (often followed by, you need a user researcher in the team for at least 3 days every week). Making the call to action very specific is both motivating and rewarding. It helps teams know what they should be doing and for those who are doing it, confirms they’re on the right track.
  3. Everyone in the team should watch user research for at least 2 hours every 6 weeks. We make a lot of use of the UIE research around Exposure Hours. It continues the ‘team sport’ message, validates the need to do research each sprint, and is another clearly measurable goal.

We’ve learned that making your goals attainable is important, and that using specific measures (every sprint, 2hrs every 6wks) seems to be very powerful. This is a big change for people who are used to answering most question with the preface ‘it depends’.

By reducing our overall goals down into three simple soundbites it makes it easier for everyone in the user research team to say these things over and over again, but it also makes it easier for people who are less familiar with user research but who are integral in organising budgets, people, timeframes – the things that are critical to us being able to achieve this – to know what we want them to do and to ask for the same things without feeling they need research expertise.

Although we know that these three requests aren’t necessarily the best way to do research in every project, we think they are the best way to get an empowered researcher into a project – once we’ve achieved that, tweaking the program to better suit the project is relatively simple.

These are the words that will be adopted throughout the organisation and, as we know, words are powerful, so you should think carefully about the ones you choose.

This example that focusses on user research, but you can apply this to any area of your business or project where you are looking to get a strategy implemented.

Be on message every chance you get

Of course, once you work out your key messages, you then need to take every opportunity you get to repeat them. This is where ‘saying the same thing’ really kicks into action. Really, literally, say the same words. Use your soundbites.

After a while, you will start to feel a bit silly saying the same thing over and over again. Remind yourself that no one (except you) hears you say it every time, and use your key messages in conversations, presentations, blog posts… we’ve even made posters for ours and post them around GDS and government departments when we visit.

What success sounds like

One day, you’ll hear someone you’ve never spoken to say it back to you. Or even better, they’ll say it to a large crowd of important people in your organisation. You’ll only know that if you’ve carefully chosen your words.

When that happens, have a quiet celebration because, unlike many other strategies before it, yours is now making progress.


This is the seventh post in a series of rambles around the topic of strategy in the general vicinity of user experience which I’m posting as a kind of obituary to the book I almost finished writing then realised was pretty much completely wrong.

I’ve been writing this instead:

  1. Everyone is doing strategy right now
  2. Strategy doesn’t live in a silo (or there is no such thing as UX Strategy)
  3. Strategy fast and slow (or strategy is culture for breakfast, lunch and tea)
  4. Strategy is a team sport
  5. Good strategy is modular
  6. Why words matter (more on the relationship between culture and strategy)

Can there be too much empathy?

It is exciting to be the person on the team who is responsible for bringing the end user to life in a project team. To be the person who is advocating on behalf of the end user, to be fighting in their corner, to be trying to build an empathetic sense of who the end user is within your project team. It’s a fun job and it feels like a valuable contribution. It’s something I spend a lot of my time doing.

It’s important we don’t oversimplify our responsibilities when it comes to empathy.

Empathy goes rogue if you empathise with one party only. If your fervour for empathising with your end user affects your ability to empathise with the needs of the people in your project team, things will go badly. Your ability to be effective for the end user will be diminished or neutralised if that is the only perspective with which you can truly empathise.

That’s not to say that the needs of the developer or the delivery manager should outweigh the needs of the end user – user needs come first*. It is to say that in the way that you involve the rest of the team in experiencing empathy with the end user you are also seeking to understand what is important to the people in your team.

So, no, there probably can’t be too much empathy, just make sure you spread it around.

* this, of course, assumes that you’re working on something that you should be working on – if you’re in government, something that only government can do. If you’re in a business, something that is going to, if successful, help build a sustainable business.

Why words matter (more on the relationship between culture and strategy)


Sketchnotes by @YahnyInLondon of Gill Ereaut’s talk at Design of Understanding 2012

Words are pegs to hang ideas on – Henry Ward Beecher

It is not unusual for me to be involved in a debate about words. Words I am frequently pedantic about include user research, user testing, user experience and user centred design. I think that the words we use matter. They do more than just define what we see and do, they help us understand what we think about those practices.

It’s always interesting to me to see who finds these discussions useful and who doesn’t. I’ve found that people I’m working with who are less familiar with design, research, user experience find the definitions useful. Within our teams we have to correct ourselves often, change what we called things before, get rid of previous habits of language, but that’s a good thing – every time we remember, we remind ourselves of why we use the language we use (because we’re testing ourselves and not our users, for example).

Interesting, the people who get stroppy about the definitions and say that it doesn’t really matter tend to be people who have been involved in the ‘user experience’ community for at least five years. I guess they have a vested interest in not being seen to be wrong. Or, perhaps more generously, they are just so close to the subject that any word will always be an oversimplification of all the beliefs, attitudes and practices of their work.

If you want to know what an organisation really believes in, look at the language they use in their day to day work – in their meetings, in their documents, in what they call things.

There are people, like Gill Ereaut, who do this as their full time job – they do linguistic analysis to help companies try to join up what they ‘officially’ say they are trying to do (their official language) with what people actually say as they go about their day to day work (the surface language).

Language is the medium through which culture is enacted – Gill Ereaut

A mismatch between surface and official language is a signal of ineffectiveness in an organisation. There can also be lots of different surface languages in different parts of the organisation that makes it even more difficult for communication across the functions and increases the impact of silos (for example marketing speaks a totally different language to the tech team).

Organisations who are thoughtful about the words they use repeatedly are more able to have a more consistent culture that allows their strategies to come to life in the products and services they create and the way they interact with their audience (this works even if those words might appear artless, like ‘show the thing’, something people at GDS say all the time and even have a poster for)

Show the thing poster

Changing the words on the hymn sheet won’t create a whole new religion, but, as Gill says,

‘linguistic change at the surface level affects the assumptions held by the organisation’.

Especially when it comes to customers, making sure that the words we use in the organisation are empathetic to the people the organisation is serving and that it reflects the type of experience and interaction that the organisation wants to have with those people sends daily micro signals widely through the organisation that this is something with which it is genuinely concerned.

In her talk at Design of Understanding conference in 2012, Gill (yes, I am a bit of a fan) talked about an organisation where she’d done some linguistic analysis. This was an organisation that believed that they cared about good quality customer service, but analysis of the way the organisation communicated showed that actually, they were afraid of their customers – they were distant from and lacked empathy for their customers, making it almost impossible for them to really deliver great customer experience.

Every day, in the words that organisation used, in the names of their processes and documents, in the way they communicated with each other, they were entrenching this fear of the customer that made it impossible for any corporate level ‘Customer Experience’ strategy to be effective.

Words can remind us many times a day what we all care about and what we believe in.

Changing the words we use can help us to change our culture in tiny moments every day and help us to be more able to implement strategy effectively.

Calling it user research instead of user testing won’t change the way the moderator runs the session or the experience of the research participant. As the person who is running the sessions, it probably makes no difference to your competence what you call it. But deliberately deciding to call it user research even though your reflex is to call it user testing means that every time you choose to use the words we’ve agreed on, you are also agreeing, once again, to the reason we chose those words – because we’re testing ourselves, our work, our design, our services and not our users. Because we are in service to our users and if they don’t understand, that reflects poorly on us and not them.

Being thoughtful about words seems to be one of the simplest and least confrontational yet most powerful ways to transform organisations in tiny moments every day. Teeny, tiny moments of strategy everyone in the organisation can implement every day.

Thus, words being symbols of ideas, we can collect ideas by collecting words. The fellow who said he tried reading the dictionary but couldn’t get the hang of the story simply missed the point: namely, that it is a collection of short stories. – James Webb Young, A Technique for Producing Ideas

This is the sixth post in a series of rambles around the topic of strategy in the general vicinity of user experience which I’m posting as a kind of obituary to the book I almost finished writing then realised was pretty much completely wrong.

I’ve been writing this instead:

  1. Everyone is doing strategy right now
  2. Strategy doesn’t live in a silo (or there is no such thing as UX Strategy)
  3. Strategy fast and slow (or strategy is culture for breakfast, lunch and tea)
  4. Strategy is a team sport
  5. Good strategy is modular