Finding truth in experience design

The Foundation, an organisation I’ve collaborated with on several occasions, hosted a discussion last night on truth. It focused primarily on what happens when historical truth is confronted or revealed, illuminating the subject through the experiences of Brian Heyworth, a banker, Andrew Mitchell MP, former Secretary of State for International Development, and Matthew Gwyther, editor of Management Today.

My interest was in a rather nebulous dimension of truth: its future creation. An initiative like MEX is concerned with helping companies make new truth from uncertainty. For instance, we use the MEX Pathway process to define best practice in novel areas of technology, where there is no pre-existing truth.

The discussion, catalysed by personal experiences shared by Heyworth, Mitchell and Gwyther, seemed to lean towards truth as a concept more likely to be respected or exposed by individuals. The collective, be it private company, industry or government, emerged as an environment in which truth was obscured or subverted.

Gwyther recounted the experiences of Michael Woodford, briefly CEO of Japanese technology company Olympus, before he uncovered systemic accounting fraud, dating back many years, and lost his job. Heyworth talked of exemplary individuals he has worked with over the years, yet freely acknowledged that as an industry – a collection of organisations – banking had been out of control in the lead up to the financial crisis of 2007.

Mitchell, as a government minister, found himself forced to resign in the face of sustained allegations across the media and accusations by a police officer, who was supported by his colleagues in the force, but later deemed to be inaccurate.

In all three instances, individuals were seen to be capable of representing truth, but organisations were places where lies flourished.

I couldn’t help but wonder how large a group must be convinced before a lie becomes accepted as the new truth?

In my work with MEX, I often hear companies enviously aspiring to the ‘reality distortion field’ attributed to Apple, particularly the ability of the late Steve Jobs to convince users his interpretation of truth was right for them. How, frustrated competitors ask me, does Apple make customers believe products technologically inferior to their own are actually the top of the range?

The answer lies with the users themselves. Apple, for all the hyperbole of its product launches, is no more able to convince users of lies than any other company in a competitive market. Instead, it has shown itself capable of better understanding what is truly important to customers. This, of course, is rarely technology for technology’s sake, but rather features which relate more closely to the reality of customer’s lives.

Good customer experience comes not from the ability to distort truth, but rather to recognise it in your users and respond to it. Often this means pushing beyond stated truth – what customers tell you when asked – and instead observing the truth for yourself. It is why technology companies which shape strategy from the results of focus groups and user interviews rarely make significant breakthroughs. Success favours those brave enough to hear what they are not being told and with the capacity to see the cause rather than the symptoms of user experience problems.

Defining best practice approaches to future digital experiences would seem, therefore, to be an exercise in championing the truths we see easily as individuals, but find so hard to preserve in the noisy distortion large organisations.

Thanks to Charlie Dawson (a former MEX speaker, September 2005), James Alexander (MEX, September 2012) and their team at The Foundation for a thought provoking evening.

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