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As a designer, I find I have an uncontrollable urge to deconstruct things – to reverse engineer both things that work poorly and those that work extremely well. The stuff that falls in the middle usually escapes my scrutiny. This could be due, in part, to genetics since I come from a long line of German engineers on my father’s side of the family. It could also be the result of working in a factory for nearly 5 years where I became extremely interested in how things were assembled. How machines went together and, in many instances, how they did not go together filled my work hours and fueled my curiosity the years I worked there and for many years after.

I saw machines as a challenge and am admittedly not very good with mechanical components to this day. I still occasionally look at something mechanical and wonder how it was put together – how it comes apart or can be repaired. It always fascinated me at how the smallest component in an engine or machine could create a catastrophic failure or damage (i.e. scuffed bearings or faulty piston rings). Sometimes defects could be oblivious to the naked eye they were so small. As I have grown older, I have found a lot of design is this way as well. Its success hinges on the details – the little things.

I stopped working in a factory a little over a decade ago. But I carried a lot of what I learned about assembly, designs and systems away with me. Most of my deconstruction and reverse engineering today pertains more to interfaces and often the experiences they provide. I’ll often do this deconstruction a lot with an entire product experience – everything from the branding of a product, to its use and the ultimate taste left in my mouth after my interaction with both brand and product.

I wonder how all of this – this experience that companies create – works as well. Is there some person who sits in an office somewhere, well-paid and dressed to the nines, who thinks up the customer journey? One might assume this would be the UX staff at an organization – people responsible for the customer experience and journey. But as a UX staff member, I have never seen that happen. More often, it seems organizations fumble their way through the design of the customer experience using teams that rarely communicate, something like an organizational relay race where the baton is dropped and thrown like a hot potato from one group to the next. The result: A product that doesn’t really fit well together or has problems along the customer’s journey.

This topic came to mind the other day as I was paying the ComEd bill for the month. You see ComEd doesn’t give you a return envelope when they send out the bill. It is the only bill I have that is like this. So each month, I silently curse ComEd and trek over to where we keep the envelopes, dig for one and then address it myself. Not much of a big deal, right? I could even set up an automated payment system and avoid all this. I agree with these counterpoints. But, there is a subtle point to be made here and that is I shouldn’t have to go out of my way or be forced into an automated payment simply because ComEd does not do what every other utility company does – and that is simply pay a penny or few more and send me a return envelope making it easy for me to pay them what I owe.

Each month, when it comes time to pay ComEd, I get this picture in my mind of some CIO or marketing executive or some other person making a decision to not send return envelopes because they could save X amount each year and pay their investors more (rather than funneling those savings back to the customer). Now, this may very well be a ridiculous thought nowhere nearing the truth. But, it is the picture that comes up in my mind. As a result of this little thing, I have a very negative opinion of ComEd as a brand. And given the opportunity, I would gladly switch who I get my power from. Just that little thing – the exclusion of a return envelope – is enough to keep me from having any loyalty to the brand. But to me, it isn’t really a little thing. Every month for the last 4 years I have to dig around for an envelope (wherever my wife put them last) just to complete a task that isn’t exactly joyful. I don’t get a rage of joy from paying any bill. I am especially pissed when a company makes it a pain in my ass to do something that is already a pain in my ass. And, it irks me when it is clearly a decision made to save them money at my expense. ComEd essentially added two extra steps to my bill paying process each month – find an envelope and put their address on it. Both of those steps are covered with most companies I have to pay bills for. So there is also a comparative factor at work here.

But it’s not just ComEd. Many companies make similar mistakes. Sometimes a corporation will implement something new that – on the outside – seems as though it is purely altruistic. For example, CVS has their automated refill program and reminder system. They love to automatically sign you up for this and automate your refills. But automating the refills isn’t really helpful if the medication just sits on their shelves in a bag. They have to remind you and do so in quite an annoying fashion with call after call. This isn’t a system meant to help you so much as it is a system to ensure they maximize their profits. CVS loses millions each year because of non-compliant (and forgetful) patients. Let’s suppose you forget to refill your medicine by a day every other month of the year – a conservative estimate. That is 6 pills. Suppose the profit margin on those pills is a dollar – another conservative estimate. That’s six dollars each year they lose simply because you forget to refill a prescription by a single day every other month. The Mayo Clinic reports 7 out of 10 Americans take a prescription medication. Let’s suppose 10 percent are non-compliant. That’s 19.6 million Americans multiplied by six dollars each year. You see where I am going with this?

CVS has been routinely non-compliant in ensuring my prescriptions are excluded from their automated refill system resulting in annoying calls from the guy with a computer voice who sounds like a creepy robot. Every time I get a new script, I have to go through this. If Walgreen’s were any better, I’d use them. But they have, I am sure, the same creepy robot who will call me relentlessly. I’ve decided to go to a mail prescription service just because of all this. So one little thing made me leave. And my impression of the CVS brand is of some greedy executives sitting in a board room making decisions that are not mutually beneficial.

The little things often add up.

  • Companies that attempt to get me to donate to their favorite charity;
  • Businesses that purvey themselves as being green when they are really just trying to cut costs;
  • Websites that throw insignificant advertisements at me in the form of popups;
  • Charging a “restocking fee” for an online sale when I return it;
  • Overselling;
  • Telling me how important my call is while I am on hold for 30 minutes.

All of these little things are enough to ruin my relationship with a brand. Perhaps I am different (which is better than being indifferent). Perhaps I am simply an angry consumer tired of corporations who don’t seem to care because they think I have nowhere else to go. But, I suspect there are others out there like me. And I suspect those other people are a part of what is prompting the small mom and pop shops to thrive once again. But amazingly, there are some large companies and corporations that thrive on their relationships with their customers. Amazon, Starbucks and Apple immediately come to mind. It seems no matter how large they get, their service only continues to improve or stay steady. Or maybe I am prone to overlook the little things with these brands since I am so loyal – sort of like having a real good friend whose faults you don’t see the way others do. Nonetheless, what does any of this have to do with UX?

Someday, you will be sitting in a boardroom with a group of executives and will realize the new feature they are proposing to shoehorn into your design is entirely motivated by monetary gain. It might seem to be a little thing at the time, which will make your argument against it even more of a challenge. But ultimately, the conclusion will be clear: This is not a change that will positively affect the user experience. If you haven’t already been in one of these meetings, I can assure you, eventually you will be. This entire situation leads to an ethical dilemma. Who signs your paycheck and whose interest should you be most concerned with? Allow me to propose a golden rule in user experience design:

Your first and foremost obligation is always to the user. As such you are charged with always placing their best interest first. And in so doing, you will inevitably place the best interest of your employer foremost as well since the foremost interest of any business is meeting its customers’ needs.

It is, of course, naive to assume we can always do this and preserve our jobs. Politics will often prevail. But the customer experience is delicate – like a finely tuned engine rolling off the assembly line. Just as one minor scuff on a bearing or pinhole in a gasket can compromise the entire machine, a single flaw in the user experience is often the difference between a loyal customer and one who will gladly switch to the competition. So get rid of the popups, the unrelated advertisements, the creepy robots talking to your customers and for the sake of Christ, put a return envelope in the bill when you send it to me.


Image Courtesy of edam isparku