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UX - What do you expect?

Publication Date: Jul 25, 2019

UX Article -1 .jpg

Written by Wayne Zammit

Zammit Wayne 233079M.jpgIt is said that “there is more than one way to skin a cat”.  Whenever I hear this expression, I cannot help picturing whoever is saying it, wielding some sort of sharp instrument, tapping their index finger on their chin as they ponder which one of those many ways to pick; whilst looking down at the poor feline as it lies sedated in front of them.  At least I hope it’s sedated because I am pretty certain you would get your face mauled by the cat as soon as it glimpses the evil glint in your eye and reads your intentions.  Now, whilst no animal was harmed to write this article, it is uncanny how good an analogy this popular expression is when it comes to services and user experience (UX).

Allow me to explain whilst you regain control of your rapidly lifting eyebrows.  Putting it simply, user experience relates to how “good” or “bad” a service makes people feel as they make use of it.  The reality however is that it’s not really that simple.  In fact, this definition of user experience is at such a high level, that it’s not even a bird’s eye view, unless that bird was on the moon.  It is equivalent to defining the universe as simply being a collection of stars, planets, dust and random pockets of life.  The subject of user experience is just as vast, complex and unforgiving as the universe.  Get it wrong and the user, just like a cornered cat, will quickly and viciously reconfigure your face – metaphorically speaking of course.  Call centre agents will bear the brunt of the backlash and more and more end- users are turning to social media to air your dirty laundry - so to speak.  Your application or service could be the most innovative, useful, awesome thing to happen since the discovery of the wheel but present it or package it the wrong way and it will quickly follow the way of the Dodo. 

People engage with a service to attain a specific goal, and they do so with a lot of expectations on how they will go about attaining it.  Now, whilst the goal itself is constant, i.e. all users will share that goal: “I want to put the ball in the opponents’ net”, “I want to declare my taxes online”; the expectations of how to go about it on the other hand vary wildly.   This is because expectations are very personal, based on what the individual knows, past experiences, context, background, even mood!  Bottom line is that the the cocktail of expectations can be quite unique to the individual.  

One can quickly appreciate what a challenge this presents to service designers as they try to figure out the best way to skin the metaphorical cat.  Head scratching and chin tapping alone will not cut it.  Without the proper resources, services end up being built just to fulfil goals with almost complete disregard for meeting user expectations, and this is where several services miss their mark in terms of user experience.  This however is not the only challenge, there is an even bigger, albeit subtler problem to deal with.  Services owe their existence to a business need or goal and therefore the primary concern of any service is to attain that business goal.  Pretty logical, but – and this may come as a surprise – the goals of the business and those of the end-user are as similar as two twins from different mothers.

Let me elaborate.  I earn my living from designing systems for the Office of the Commissioner for Revenue – in other words the business of collecting taxes.   Straight from the off, the UX challenge is even steeper than usual because no-one in his right mind finds pleasure in anything remotely associated with tax collection.  Still, let’s take the example of providing a service that will allow taxpayers to submit their tax information online.  The goal of the business is to cut costs and collect revenue more efficiently.  Printing paper tax returns, sending them out to taxpayers, collecting them back again and manually keying in all the information that is received back, costs a lot of time and money.  This is time and money that can be better invested in other, value-adding work.  This business need breathes life into an electronic service that will allow taxpayers to submit their taxes online.  But the goal of the taxpayer is very different.  Filling out tax forms is…well…taxing, even for the honest Joe who wants to pay his dues.  So, the goal of the taxpayer is to be able to fill out the forms as quickly and as accurately as possible, to get it over and done with, ideally without having to pay someone else to do it.

UX Article - 2.jpgThe easiest way to implement this service is to dump the tax form on a website, link that to some back-office process and stop printing paper tax returns.  Job done, the business goal is met, time and money are saved, onto the next project.  That’s like saying I would like to save time feeding my cat so I’ll just stick a needle into it and do it intravenously from now on.  So, you approach the cat with the needle and you can visualise what happens next.  Now, the odd cat will be docile enough to let you do that, but it does not mean that experience is a pleasant one; for either party.

The success of a service can be measured by its take-up and take-up is heavily influenced by user experience.  Positive experience leads to better and quicker take-up, while a negative experience will all but kill it.  Businesses know that, and in the private sector millions are spent in market research, innovation and design thinking to provide a user experience that will give their service the edge on their competitors.  Government does not have to compete with anyone but ironically service take-up has always been a challenge, and a lot of times it’s because of negative user experience.  Up to ten or fifteen years ago, the taxpayer demographic did not include many tech-savvy people.  Expectations were very different to those today and people were very happy filling in forms and sending things by post.  It was what they knew, what they were comfortable with for years, it was their expectation.  Fast forward to today and Government services are struggling to keep up with expectations that are now on the opposite side of the scale.   The information age has made everything available, anytime anywhere at the tip of your finger.  We are now used to doing things digitally and remotely and many of the services we use offer excellent user experiences.  This means that government needs to invest heavily in its services to start delivering these positive user experiences, even if the goals are inherently unpleasant like taxes. 

Government is in fact investing heavily in modernising systems and services that have continued to serve their purpose well past their sell-by date.  On the forefront of this modernisation effort are the Taxation and Social Security project teams at MITA, who together with their partners, are working hard to move these old monoliths to the Cloud, providing the potential for unprecedented levels of service provision and integration.   However, it is not just about the technology, User Experience is also high on the agenda and a lot is being done in this respect and again, expectations are high.  It’s a challenging and exciting time, and I for one can’t wait to see what’s in store.  The teams are actively working side-by-side with end-users to see what their expectations are and designing experiences around that feedback. 

Sometimes the goals can be unpleasant, but that makes it even more important to design a positive user experience.  Personally, I would rather explain to the cat why the skinning is necessary and ask it how it would like to proceed rather than making the decision myself and hope for the best.  When it comes to UX, hoping for the best generally means expecting the worst.