Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Empathy, Humility, and Moxie

It starts with empathy.

Every journey to a great user experience starts when someone somewhere empathizes with a user in a way that is authentic, human, and compelling. It starts when someone realizes that the most important person to pay attention to is not the person paying for the project or implementing the software, though these folks are certainly important. It starts when someone really, truly, deeply pays attention to the person who will end up using what's being created. User experience starts when someone starts caring about the user.

Next comes humility.

Anyone who has watched usability testing or ethnography or a focus group knows the feeling. I remember my first usability test - I had spent weeks with a talented team designing a great user interface. All we needed to do was validate the design with some end users and possibly make some tweaks. An evening of usability testing provided a huge heap of humility. Labels that were intuitive to me were enigmas to the users. Buttons that were totally obvious to me were invisible to users. Most of the people I showed it to couldn't even figure out what it was supposed to be.

Sometimes we argue with the first few people who have trouble with a design:
"This first test participant is an outlier."
"The second test participant isn't a good representative of our customer base."
"The third test participant must just be stupid."
But by the time we get to the 4th user who can't find their way through our design, we start to realize, maybe the problem isn't with the users. Do this enough times with enough designs and we learn a very healthy sense of humility. Two quotations that help keep me humble:

Several years ago we were testing a new home page design. We brought in several users and gave them what we thought were a handful of simple tasks to complete. By the time we got to the third user I was already starting to hear the humility music playing, and it came to a crescendo when the moderator asked, "so where would you click?" and the user responded, "I'd click over here on 'careers' so a could get a job with these bozos and fix their damn web site!"

And I remember Haim Hirsch, my first user experience mentor, who had conducted hundreds or thousands of usability tests, tell me, "I've never conducted a test where I wasn't surprised by something." So that's my goal - to be humble enough to assume that my design has major problems, and to be grateful to the users who will help me find those flaws.
Empathy, humility, and...


From the dictionary:
1. vigor; verve; pep.
2. courage and aggressiveness; nerve.
3. skill; know-how.

Empathy is about caring. Humlity is about knowing that I don't know everything. And moxie is about knowing that I do know some very important things, and in some cases I know more than my users do. Moxie means that I sometimes contradict the users. It means I have the expertise and the larger vision to create something they hadn't thought of or to do something in a way they would not suggest. We need to conjure up some moxie, because users are great at identifying problems, but not necessarily always great at identifying solutions. User needs should drive all key decisions; user design suggestions should get added to the list of possibilities.

Moxie in the absence of empathy and humility is a recipe for disaster. But in combination with them, moxie enables us to break paradigms, innovate, and create solutions that meet our users' needs and desires better than anything they could have designed themselves.

Empathy - I care
Humility - I don't know everything
Moxie - I know something

1 comment:

Mary said...

Tim, I enjoyed reading this article, particularly the empathy/humility/moxie framework. Thanks for your insightful musings.