Interview: Paul Boag on the “User Experience Revolution”
On 15th March 2018, UserZoom hosted Better UX London 2018, a day-long conference bringing some of the brightest UX talent and dazzling UX innovators together in one room.
Headlining the event was Paul Boag, a leader in Digital Strategy and User Experience Design, who brought his manifesto on ‘How to Start a User Experience Revolution’ and inspired our audience to ‘light a fire’ under their efforts to get stakeholders more invested in UX.
With more than 20 years experience, Paul has worked with hundreds of organisations. Through consultancy, mentorship, and training he promotes digital best practice. Paul is a prolific writer having written Digital Adaptation and Website Owners Manual. He’s also soon to release User Experience Revolution and runs the award winning user experience blog and podcast Boagworld.
I met up with Paul before the event to discuss the details of his talk, as well as diving into where UX meets both marketing and digital transformation, how UX is integral to business survival and how bitterness and anger towards negative experiences drives Paul’s passion for UX.
What inspired your talk on ‘How to Start a User Experience Revolution’?
Paul: This came about because I became increasingly frustrated with organisations who didn’t seem to be taking user experience designers seriously. We now live in a world where one disgruntled customer can really screw-up and damage a brand, and so we need to be taken seriously. There’s more competition than ever before, so customers can be more demanding than ever before, and so it goes on.
I wrote a book called ‘The User Experience Revolution‘. It isn’t to teach people how to do good user experience design because there are enough great books out there to do it already. But what it’s really about is how to embed a user-centric culture within organisations. A lot of it, to be honest, is how to sell user experience design. Not sell it as in the ‘agency sense’ of selling it to clients, but rather how to get colleagues to care about user experience design.
And out of the book came a set of cards. I produced 52 cards, with each one having a tip on how to get user-centric thinking up the agenda internally within an organisation. So the talk is all about how to encourage people to ‘give a shit’.
What one piece of advice would you give to a ‘UX team of one’; that lonely UXer trying to make the case for usability in their organisation?
Paul: My favourite piece of advice actually isn’t mine at all. It’s from Jared Spool – another great figure in the usability community. He wrote a really great article a while back called ‘Why I can’t convince executives to invest in UX (and neither can you)’, which was a rather depressing title. But what it basically boiled down to is that we need to stop talking about user experience. We need to stop talking about “Why don’t you care about the user?” and nagging people over it. But instead, we need to appeal to the selfish gene. That every executive, every colleague in an organisation has things that they care about, things that they want to achieve; whether it be increasing shareholder value, getting their end-of-year bonus, increasing sales, whatever it be. In almost all of those cases, improving the user experience can actually help.
So the best thing to do if you want to get people to care about user experience is show that user experience can help them personally.
How long before UX truly takes a central position within organisations? Do you think it’s a winnable battle?
Paul: Oh, absolutely. We are almost at the point now where the first generation – the big boys, the grown-ups – are beginning to get this. So it goes in waves, doesn’t it? Like any adoption curve. So you’ve got the early adopters, which are your Silicon Valley companies. Apple very much led the way when it came to caring about every aspect of the user experience, and that got picked up by the Valley and you now see a greater attention to user experience. Then there’s some great case studies, things like Zappos and their 365-day return policy and all this kind of stuff.
And then it started to creep into more traditional, big organisations. IBM were investing heavily in designers. General Electric have spent a lot of money on user experience. And then it even got into government. You’ve got the British government with the Government Digital Service, who have invested heavily in user experience. I think it’s inevitable now that it’s going to percolate into pretty much every sector.
Now, how quickly it hits your sector, whatever your sector may be, will be dependent upon that sector and various other factors. But I think it’s going to be inevitable pretty much everywhere. Even in the B2B sector, where a lot of times people go, “This makes sense with B2C, but it doesn’t make sense to B2B,” but that’s actually wrong because the truth is the same people who are buying and using consumer apps are also B2B purchasers.
When we talk about the companies making great strides in UX, there are certain obvious tech giants who we hear about all the time, but is there anyone we should be talking about who we’re not really hearing about yet?
Paul: The people who I am most interested in are a sector that on the surface probably doesn’t look like they’re making much headway with user experience, and that’s the higher education sector.
I do a lot of work in higher education in the UK, and universities are facing a perfect storm where suddenly, all of their customers are empowered and have got more choice than ever before. But then they’re also facing the fact that suddenly, their customers are consumers; they’re actually spending a lot of money. It’s one of the biggest purchases people will make in their life, which wasn’t the case when I went to university. You know, I came out of university debt-free. So things have changed radically in that sector.
They’re very devolved organisations. They’re not at all customer-focused. They’re having to go through this huge transition in thinking. And they’ve been massively under-resourced in digital for years. But there are people in these organisations who are undertaking the gargantuan challenge of trying to turn a devolved organisation full of academics, who are very opinionated, to start taking customer service and customer experience seriously. They’re doing really good stuff and it’s worth following a few of them. A lot of them blog and you can follow what they’re doing… St. Andrews University is one that springs to mind instantly. Dundee University is another one. Hull is another.
So there are a lot of things going on behind the scenes that hasn’t necessarily yet trickled down to a new website, but there’s a lot of cultural change going on.
Do you see parallels between the higher education sector and what they’re doing with UX with the not-for-profit sector, which I know you do a lot of work for?
Paul: I actually think there are more parallels between higher education and government. Both are massively devolved, with everybody running their own silos, which if you’re trying to create a consistent experience across those silos it can be quite challenging. With the charity sector, they’re a little bit more focused, because obviously encouraging donations and encouraging giving is their primary aim. And they’re very clear on that in most cases. Yes, there’s volunteering. Yes, there’s fundraising and a few other things, but it’s a little bit more focused. So, maybe not as many connections as you think there would be, but both are undergoing radical changes in different ways, and that’s interesting to observe.
Was there a light bulb moment for you personally, when you suddenly realised the value of UX?
Paul: If I’m honest, there wasn’t. I was a user interface designer and I got into broader user experience purely out of frustration, bitterness and anger. So, I got fed up with designing beautiful interfaces that were let down because 28 different people across the organisation were all writing copy in different styles and different tones, or having to build interfaces just to get around some internal process problem. A classic example I had with one particular client was, “Oh, we can’t show pricing on our side because each franchisee across the country can set their own pricing.” So before anybody could get into their own website they had to enter their postcode. And of course, that’s a real barrier to entry because it killed conversion rates dead on the spot.
So over time, I started to get increasingly frustrated and started to interfere in things that weren’t really my job. Things like, “Perhaps your pricing model needs to change for the organisation then?” Or, “Perhaps you need to set up a cross-disciplinary working group that produces content together or create some content style guides?” So really being a busybody and interfering in things that were none of my business, is how it all came about.
What other soft skills do you think you need in order to be a UXer?
Paul: You need a very broad skill-base. You need to have a little understanding of everything. I can write code. I can do interface design. I understand marketing. I’ve got a business understanding. I mean, none of this is very deep, but you need to understand everything because your primary job is getting different disciplines that don’t normally work together very well to work together very well. So you need to understand and be able to speak the language of lots of different people.
And then, as I said earlier, you need to be a salesman really. That’s a big part of it. You need to be able to sell ideas. And a lot of that comes down to skills that most UX people have naturally, which is the ability to empathise.
We’re very good at empathising with users and thinking about how users feel in a situation. And we produce personas and empathy maps and customer journey maps, so we can really get in the heads of our users. But we tend to be much worse at applying that to our stakeholders. And actually, we need to empathise with them and understand them if we’re going to get them to do what we need them to do.
Where do you feel that marketing and UX meet? Is modern marketing thoroughly entwined with UX or do you feel like we’re just at the beginning of the journey?
Paul: I think they’ve still got a bit of a way to go, if I’m honest. I think modern marketing is absolutely entwined with UX. And the reason is because there is a realisation that actually, in the world we live in, it’s pretty much impossible to define your own brand identity. Your customers define your brand identity. They decide what you are like through their social media updates, through reviews, through all of the different channels they’ve got – they decide how your brand is perceived. If I say United Airlines to you, I bet you don’t think of how marketing wants you to think of United Airlines. You think of that one passenger being dragged off a plane, bloody and beaten.
So the customers have defined the brand identity there. And as a result, producing an outstanding experience is one of the best ways of ensuring a positive brand identity. And I think really switched-on marketing people get that, but unfortunately, there are very few of those. I think there’s still a lot of people trying to control the brand and control the message. And all that’s happened when they digitally transform is that they’ve replaced the billboard ad with a Facebook ad, and that’s not digitally transforming. That’s not taking into account how the world has actually changed, and I think there’s still a lot of realisation to go there.
Do you feel like the rise of digital transformation has run parallel to the rise in importance of UX, or is one helping the other across the finishing line?
Paul: I actually think they are almost the same thing. It’s no coincidence that I wrote a book on digital transformation and then followed up with a book on user experience, because I actually think they’re pretty much the same. They’re just different angles of the same thing. Different people define digital transformation in different ways, but most of the definitions of digital transformation are about organisational change and adopting new technologies to better support changes in customer behaviour.
So ultimately, it all comes down to the fact that, in my opinion, the power has shifted. The power has shifted away from companies that used to be able to use their big budgets to say what they wanted, and grab our attention and make us believe whatever they wanted, to a situation now where the consumer has control – because they’ve got unlimited choice and the ability to bad mouth us if they want to. And this shift in behaviour that came along with the realisation that customers have the power, has led to the need to digitally transform, which basically boils down to providing better customer service.
What keeps you interested in talking about UX? What’s sparking your passion for it?
Paul: If I’m honest, I see negative experiences everywhere. Basically, my passion is driven out of being a grumpy, middle-aged man. And that wherever I go, I see things that annoy me. And then, like any proper grumpy old man, I have to rant uncontrollably about those things. There a so many little things where you just think, “It could be so much better than that. It doesn’t need to be that rubbish!” My latest one is my banking app. On my iPhone it’s great, but you log into their website and it’s a train crash. And that makes me really mad, and before I know it, I’m ranting online about it and writing blog posts and giving talks and that kind of thing. So it’s all driven out of bitterness and anger really, which is not the best motivation, but it kind of works for me.
When looking under the hood and trying to work out why a mobile experience is so good and a desktop experience is so bad from the same company, what do you think is going wrong there?
Paul: A great example of this is when you log-in to a mobile app, you’ve created a password and it asks you for the first, third and fifth letter of the password, right? On the app, what they do is they show blank boxes for all the letters and you just fill in the ones they’re asking for. On the web, it doesn’t do that. And you think, “Well, why does something like that happen?” A lot of it is down to the way that organisations are run and operated. The chances are that a different group of people run the website from the one that runs the mobile app, and they’re not talking with one another. That’s one of the biggest problems for user experience, it’s a lack of a joined-up experience across platforms.
Added to that, you’ve got a senior management team that has a tendency of being out of their depth with digital and user experience. They don’t understand it and they tend to come from a generation of management style where you don’t accept your weaknesses. You don’t come out and say, “Look, I know nothing about this. You go and make a decision.” They believe that because they’re senior management, they have to provide leadership. So what they start doing is they hear that ‘mobile apps are the big thing these days’ and so they’ll pour money into that and then they’ll neglect the most important thing like the website. So often, it’s a knee jerk reaction that’s going on. There’s no overall strategy in place. And the very structure of the organisation undermines it.
Now, you compare that to my experience with my business banking, it’s a totally different experience. With that, you’ve got great features. For example, if I log into my mobile app and I discover a transaction that looks dodgy and I want to talk to a person, I can just press a button in the app and it automatically connects me without the need for me to log-in again or identify myself to the person at the end of the phone. It knows that I’ve logged in to the app and that’s enough. That’s a joined-up experience where they’ve removed obstacles for me because different parts of the organisation and different systems are talking to one another.
What’s the best piece of professional advice you’ve ever been given?
Paul: Do you know that the best piece of professional advice I have ever been given was given to me by Winston Churchill, which is quite powerful as he’s dead. But he’s got a quote that I’ve built my life around, not just my business, which is, “Success is going from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.” And I think that, especially for something like UX and trying to embed UX culture in an organisation, you’ve got to keep going. It’s a marathon and not a sprint. You’re not gonna change culture overnight and you need to keep going even when you fail or a stakeholder ignores your advice. Just keep plodding on.
Christopher is the Content Marketing Manager, which basically means the skipper of the good ship ‘UserZoom blog’. So far his requests for changing its name to the ‘USS-erzoom Blog’ have been rightfully denied. In his spare time, Christopher is a filmmaker and the editor of wayward pop culture site Methods Unsound. He used to be the deputy editor of Econsultancy, editor of Search Engine Watch, staff writer for ClickZ and features editor of CMO.com.