15 May 2014

Useful BCS talk on Differentiation by Design

It is ironic that working away from London for much of the last few years has kept me away from many of my Continuing Professional Development (CPD) activities and I had not been to a British Computer Society (BCS) talk since the one on Data Quality in May 2011.

I returned this time to hear about Differentiation by Design - The art and science of a great user experience from Dug Falby of Avanade.

Dug started by asking a few questions to find out who is audience was an what they wanted. It always helps to meet expectations to know what they are. Not too surprisingly, most of the people there were techies and were looking for something on the science of User Interface design.

We got some science immediately with a formula:
Adoption = Alignment x Value / Context (of use)

The function of the thing being designed is important but it is just a basic requirement. Softer things like beauty, emotion and meaning all matter. Ask any iPhone user why they bought one to see this.

Dug showed a clip of the famous case where a set of stairs was changed in to a keyboard to encourage people to use that rather than the escalator next to it. This is a good example of how good design led to behavioural change.

A good design starts with understanding what behaviour change we are trying to create. Dug gave quick descriptions of tools available to make these changes, e.g. Social Proof, Curiosity, Pattern Recognition, Peak-End Results, Recognition over Recall, Gifting, Delighters and Anchoring & Adjustment. Some of these tools also come under the category of Gamification which has had much publicity in recent years though it still seems to be much more of an art than a science.

An example of Recognition over Recall is Google's prompts for search terms where it tries to recognise what you are looking for based on what you and others have searched for previously.

Anchoring & Adjustment is about setting expectations (anchor) and then moving from this (adjustment). We did an exercise on this where we had to guess the value of two objects and on the card we had to put our answers on we also had to write down a price given to us individually. Overall, those that had to write the higher prices guessed higher values for the objects.

A more common example of this is a restaurant wine lists where more people by a wine that is around the third least expensive. Knowing this, restaurants compose their lists accordingly, e.g. by putting higher priced wines on that they do not expect to sell many of but it makes the rest of us feel as though we have not been that extravagant when we have paid £30 for a bottle.

In response to a question at the end, Dug said that the Business Analysis tool Use Case (which shows which tasks each set of user will want to perform) is insufficient as it misses Context (see formula above). It is not enough to know what task the user wishes to perform, the design also needs to take account of their motivation and mood. For example, do they care if the job is done well or not?

In the networking session after the talk and Q&A I had a quick word with Dug to follow up on some of this. I was interested in designing for two customers, e.g. a supermarket is designed for the shoppers' benefit in that it is easy to navigate, find the things that they want and to pay for them, but it is also designed for the supermarket's benefit by encouraging shoppers to buy more things and more profitable things.

This conversation leads to the Dark Side of confusing food labels and special offers that prove to be more expensive than the basic price. Here the good design is wholly in the supermarket's favour at the expense of shoppers.

The networking session was fuelled by the usual generous selection of sandwiches and wine. For some reason the BCS still advertise this part of the evening with a picture of me searching for the vegetarian option.

The session was not quite what I expected as I thought we were going to get something specific on, for example, fonts, buttons, colours and dialogue flows. I suspect that most of the techies there were hoping for something like this too.

As an aside, this gives me an excuse to reprint one of my favourite cartoons on design. (Sadly the Stuff That Happens blog is no longer available and I had to pull the picture from another site).

However, what we got was more about behaviour and motivation and so was perfect for a Business Consultant like myself.

I found it to be an informative, entertaining and provocative session and that is exactly the sort of thing that I like.

It helped that Dug had a lot of experience of the subject and was able to pepper his talk with real-world examples to help to make his point. I would much rather hear about how things did work in the past than how people anticipate they will work in the future.

Design is a vital component of every business solution, whether it involves IT or not, and this was a useful introduction to that fuzzy realm.


  1. Thanks kindly for putting a summary up of this topic which I was unable to attend in person.

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