Feb 15

Nothing’s Your Fault*

Guilty as charged

I’ve been working as a user experience consultant for large clients for about eighteen months. One thing bugs me more than anything else.

So much of the time, nothing gets done.

You start user experience consulting with lofty ideas about matching business goals against user needs to uncover a holy grail for your clients. And it feels like that at the start - doing research, interviewing stakeholders, sketching ideas, writing scenarios, creating prototypes, testing with real users, iterating, and packaging it up ready to build.

The kind of user experience design you read about in books.

But as the projects stacked up I couldn’t avoid noticing how much of my work went nowhere - or worse, limped along with pieces getting hacked off along the way. At first I shrugged it off. Probably blamed the client. Then I wondered whether my work was good enough. But I slowly saw that I hadn’t yet grasped the true nature of my job.

Which is that even the best user experience design is totally irrelevant if your client does nothing with it. 

It’s Always Easy to Do Nothing

There’s all sorts of reasons why clients do nothing. Here are a few.

Sometimes their priorities change. Mike Monteiro says never work on a project that isn’t the organisation’s top priority. That’s golden advice. 

Sometimes they can’t do what you propose - maybe they’re shackled to legacy IT systems, maybe they’re so heavily regulated your suggestions are illegal, maybe the employees simply don’t have the skills to make your plans real. 

An awful lot of the time, they do nothing because they don’t know what to do next. The project sounds fine when you’re presenting, but when you leave there’s a lot of head scratching. No one wants to admit they didn’t understand what the consultant said.

It may sound like I’m blaming clients. But I’m not.

Nothing Is My Responsibility

These days, when nothing happens, I take the blame. (Yes, sometimes clients may be at fault, but this is a more productive starting point).

Easy to say. But what does this really mean for a UX consultant?

It’s your responsibility to decide whether or not the client is serious about the project. Don’t take it on if they’re not (OK, this is totally impractical for me right now but a man can dream!).

It’s your responsibility to assess what capacities and appetites the client has before designing anything - if they’re using Sharepoint, it better work in Sharepoint; if they’re heavily regulated, run every iteration past the legal guys; if they lack core skills, convince them to hire or avoid that area entirely; and if they have no appetite to do new things, don’t do new things!

But most of all it’s your responsibility to make sure your client ‘gets’ your work. This kind of communication is really hard. We’re so close to projects we forget how complex they are. It means involving clients at every step. Continuing to explain things way past the point when you are bored with your own ideas. And spending more time on communicating the design than you expect to. Much, much more.

Since taking responsibility for nothing happening has everything gone smoothly? No, of course not. But several projects that once seemed doomed are now on the verge of success. And I sleep better.

This Is Not a Universal Truth of UX

This side of UX design - consulting for large organisations - is not for everyone. User experience design is a broad church. This verges on organisational change and the pace can be glacial.

More specialist designers and Agile UXers will be rolling their eyes right now. That’s fine. It’s a big world. You have your problems, I have mine. (In fact, we need each other, but that’s another story).

And many consultants don’t care. They get paid whether the project gets implemented or not, and there’s plenty more fish in the barrel.

I do care though. Partly because I’m selfish and I hate wasting my time. But mostly because I remember what it was like to be a client, baffled and confused by consultants. And I remember looking at their bills, and then at their work, and wondering why nothing was happening…

Say hello on @myddelton. A huge thank you to all my clients who’ve helped me understand what this job is all about. And the same to Leisa Reichelt and Mike Monteiro who basically said all of this already…

* Or is it?