I’ve heard from a number of user experience teams over the years where things aren’t quite going to plan.

These teams regularly carry out user experience activities like creating personas, identifying red routes and running usability tests. But the teams — and their customers — are often disappointed by the final result.

The user experience of the released product — whether it’s a web app, a mobile app or a desktop app — is still sub-par, despite the fact that the team applied various UX tools and techniques.

And then there are other organisations (Apple, anyone?) where design teams engage in similar work yet seem to hit bulls-eye after bulls-eye.

Why do UX techniques make a difference in some organisations but not in others?

What’s going on?

For an answer, we can turn to a sketch created by legendary comedy duo Morecambe and Wise for their television Christmas special in 1973. If you have 12 minutes, it’s worth watching the sketch on YouTube. It will make your day.

Eric Morecambe's lesson

For those of you who skipped the video, the sketch features the conductor André Previn. Previn believes he will be conducting Yehudi Menuhin in Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, but Ernie Wise informs him that there has been a change of plan and instead he will be conducting Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto — with Eric Morecambe on piano. André Previn (or 'Andrew Preview' as the pair refer to him) tries to leave but gets arm-twisted into conducting the session, with predictably hilarious results. After Morecambe’s inept piano playing, Previn stops conducting the orchestra and asks him, “What were you playing just then?”

“The Grieg piano concerto,” replies Morecambe, who then plays some more, before Previn stops him.

“But you’re playing all the wrong notes!” exclaims Previn.

Morecambe grabs Previn by the lapels and responds: “I’m playing all the right notes. But not necessarily in the right order.”

As with much humour, there’s something more profound going on here and it’s a lesson that user experience teams should heed.

It’s easy to pay lip service to user experience

“Let’s run a usability test,” is a commonly heard refrain. But a usability test will never make a product easier to use. It’s what happens as a result of the usability test that will make or break the design. In some cases the test is run too late for any meaningful changes to find their way into the system. In other cases, the management team may value time-to-release over over usability, and discount the usability test results.

Similar things happen with persona research. I’ve seen organisations invest considerable time and money in creating strong, research-based personas but then the work stops: as if the persona — the printed artifact — will suddenly make a design usable on its own. But personas need to be made practical, publicised and embedded to have any kind of business impact.

In cases like these, what’s missing isn’t a new tool, technique or methodology.

What’s missing is an organisational culture that values the principles of user experience.

Principles before tools

To take Eric Morecambe’s metaphor, tools on their own are like the notes. It’s easy to play the right notes — but if you don’t understand the principles it’s unlikely you’ll play the notes in the right order.

In order to adapt to rapid change yet remain firmly user centred, organisations need leadership that is not driven by tools, techniques or methodologies. They need leadership — design leadership — driven by principles.

Three of the best UX principles I know are:

Early and continual focus on users and their tasks
You must understand your users and what they want to do with the system. This understanding is arrived at by directly studying their behaviour and attitudes, and by studying the nature of the goals you expect them to accomplish.
Empirical measurement of user behaviour
Early in the development process, intended users should actually use simulations and prototypes to carry out real tasks, and their performance and reactions should be observed, recorded and analysed.
Iterative design
When problems are found in user testing (as they will be) they must be fixed. This means design must be iterative: there must be a cycle of design, test and measure, and redesign, repeated until the usability objectives are met.

First articulated by John Gould, Stephen Boies and Jacob Ukelson in 1997 these principles later became enshrined in the usability standard, ISO 9241-210. I think they’re so important I wrote a book about them: The Fable of the User Centred Designer.

Playing the notes in the right order

If you’re finding that user experience work isn’t having the impact in your organisation that it should, try this.

Step back from tools, techniques and methodologies.

Examine your organisation’s principles.

If they don’t gel with the principles I’ve listed above, no amount of usability testing will help. In that case, expose your senior management team to the principles of user experience and not simply the tools of the trade. Provide them with war stories they can use to support a clear vision of why user experience matters. Find people who share your vision and form multi-disciplinary teams.

And finally, listen: you’ll hear the right notes played in the right order.

About the author

David Travis

Dr. David Travis (@userfocus) has been carrying out ethnographic field research and running product usability tests since 1989. He has published three books on user experience including Think Like a UX Researcher. If you like his articles, you might enjoy his free online user experience course.

Foundation Certificate in UX

Gain hands-on practice in all the key areas of UX while you prepare for the BCS Foundation Certificate in User Experience. More details

Download the best of Userfocus. For free.

100s of pages of practical advice on user experience, in handy portable form. 'Bright Ideas' eBooks.

Related articles & resources

This article is tagged strategy.

Our services

Let us help you create great customer experiences.

Training courses

Join our community of UX professionals who get their user experience training from Userfocus. See our curriculum.

David Travis Dr. David Travis (@userfocus) has been carrying out ethnographic field research and running product usability tests since 1989. He has published three books on user experience including Think Like a UX Researcher.

Get help with…

If you liked this, try…

Get our newsletter (And a free guide to usability test moderation)
No thanks