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Look at it Another Way

Remember the first time you saw the vase / two faces image? Remember staring until your perspective shifted and you saw the “other thing” in the picture? You probably felt a thrill accomplishing it. Did you show your friends how easy it was, showing off your ability to see both images? Remember how it felt? It felt powerful—a revelation.

What would it be like to experience that same powerful feeling at work? Seeing the same thing from different perspectives is much praised but little practiced. We don’t often realize what we can gain by seeing another scene in the picture.

Step out of your role

Whether we’re improving what we make, how we make it, or how we share it, we normally take the perspective of the creator. We can’t help it. We’re drawn into decisions about all sorts of details. We love the minutia — solving problems, finding a way around a limitation. We don’t try to see past our own role in the process.

User experience examines the everyday lives of the people we endeavor to help. One of the best illustration of this: A ad executive showed a catalog picture of a mountain bike next to a picture of a guy careening through a stream with water splashing everywhere. You couldn’t even see much of the bike in the second picture. He said, “You don’t buy a bike. You buy the right to scare yourself to death.” This is exactly it!

The people who designed the bike talk about what the bike can do, but the rider wants to find out what he can do. In the designer's vocabulary: “We give you 20 gears.” In the user's vocabulary: “I’ve decided to bike to work twice a week, but I fear the pain of getting up that steep hill on the way there.”

Pretend your company doesn’t exist

Thinking from the customer’s perspective is a Zen-like exercise. It requires you to drop your role completely, and spend time engrossed in the world of this person. Stop thinking of them as a “user” of the thing you provide. Think about how and why they accomplish what they want to get done, not how or why they might use your stuff. Pretend you and your organization do not exist, and study what this person does with all the resources available in his life.

For example, what does a citizen need from his government? He needs a way to get from his house to the grocery store, the post office, his workplace, etc. These could be roads, bike paths, public transit, and sidewalks. He needs utilities like water and electricity to be delivered to his property. He needs assurance that his property will be defended from fire, protected from floods, and accessible during a disaster. He wants to feel safe from assault, whether by a human, an animal, pollution, noise, or disease. This list goes on. When you look at how this person would approach the government, he is faced with a list of departments:

  • Parking Services
  • Public Works
  • Redevelopment Agency
  • Emergency Services
  • Community Development

To whom would he turn if he wanted to report a strong pesticide smell? If the list contained titles such as the following, he might find the right person a little faster:

  • Getting Around Town
  • Water, Sewer & Utility Infrastructure
  • Fire/Flood/Disaster Preparation
  • Concerns About Feeling Exposed/Invaded
  • Changing Your Property

Harness this for a wider perspective

When you understand what drives people’s behavior, you can imagine new ideas pretty easily. When doing this, turn off your internal problem-solver and just listen to people. Allow patterns of behavior and motivation to reveal themselves to you. Work from the bottom up, rather than designating several behavior areas and trying to fit people’s actions into them. Make sure you’ve asked questions that dig into a person’s soul. Find out what makes them tick. For example, you’ll find that many health patients go to a doctor not to “remove pain” but to “get back to my old life.” Removing pain is just one underlying root motivator.

When your company redefines the way you see and support customers, you take a step toward a more mature design approach. Instead of simply making existing solutions work better or applying stylish cosmetics, you open up new perspectives that allow you to see something that wasn’t apparent before.

Focus first on what it’s like to be these people, and then focus on what you have to give them. With this vision, creativity tumbles forth.


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