Which version of the ‘suspended account’ dashboard page do you prefer?
Perhaps you don’t really care. Each one gets the job done in a clear and obvious way.
However, as the UX architect of the ‘overview’ page for a huge telecom leader, it was my job to tell the team which treatment we’d be using.
I was a freelancer with only four months tenure on this job, and in a company as large, diverse, and complex as this one, four months isn’t a very long time. There are a ton of things to learn—how their teams work, the latest visual standards, expected fidelity of wireframes, and most of all, selecting the ‘current’ interaction standards from a site with thousands of pages, many of which were culled from different companies following acquisitions or created at different points in time. Since I worked off-site, I had limited access to subject matter experts.
Time with the Telecom Giant’s UX leads is scarce, but Nick, my lead on this project , was a great guy with five years at the company, much of it on the Overview page and similar efforts. He and I had spent a lot of phone time going over this effort’s various challenges.
Version A, the yellow note treatment, had been created to highlight the suspended location if the “Home Phone” account covered more than one address. After much team discussion, we realized that this scenario could not occur, but since the new design placed what seemed like the proper emphasis on the ‘Account Suspended’ situation, I was confident that we’d be moving forward with version A.
So, why was I surprised when Nick said we’d “obviously” go with version B?
Whenever I start with a new company, I try to do a mind meld with co-workers to understand their approach, why they made certain decisions, and learn their priorities. Unless I’m certain there is a better way, I don’t want to go in with my UX guns blazing—I want to know whether they’d already considered other solutions, and if so, why they were rejected. This is especially true in a company like Telecom Giant, which takes user experience seriously.
I’d worked so closely with Nick on this project that I thought I knew his reasoning inside out. And when he came to a different conclusion, I wondered whether I’d ever be able to understand the company’s driving forces. If I wasn’t on the same page with someone who had the same job and a similar perspective, with whom I’d spent hours discussing the project, what chance did I have of seeing eye-to-eye with a business owner on the other side of the country or a developer halfway across the world?
Version A (the yellow note treatment) was created by Ken, a visual designer who had an intimate knowledge of the telco’s design standards. This adhered to other instances where the yellow note was used to highlight an important situation.
Version B was the existing model, which had worked well in a section of the site that had been redesigned a year ago following significant user testing. Because of its success, this section–“Home Usage”–was earmarked as the model for future redesigns.
Once I had a bit of distance from the situation, I realized what the problem was. Although I had worked very closely with Nick, I didn’t have the same understanding of the company’s priorities.
My priorities were:
- Consistency across the site
- Using the most up to date and compelling interaction and design patterns
- Modeling redesign efforts on “Home Usage” where possible
Because Nick had a background in visual design, I thought that he would want to use Ken’s design pattern, which seemed both more visually distinct and a better match for the situation. But Nick preferred the Home Usage pattern and may have had good reasons to think so.
First, Home Usage had been thoroughly tested, and since this was an ecommerce site with many hard-to-disentangle components, testing could have provided insight into its success factors, especially if individual components had been tested separately.
Second, by following the existing pattern, we wouldn’t wind up with two different treatments for the same situation. Even though the yellow note treatment might be more prominent, was it significant enough to shoulder the cost of changing the pattern in the existing Home Usage flow?
Now that I knew at least one piece of the puzzle, I wondered how I might have achieved a more complete ‘mind meld’ with Nick, so that we were more closely in sync.
Know your priorities—and check them out
Just being aware of the priorities I was following would have offered me the chance to discuss them directly with Nick. With so much information to take in, I hadn’t thought to clarify my priorities and compare them with my co-workers, but this would have made it easier to sync up.
Other barriers to knowledge transfer
Gabriel Szulanski1 identified three major barriers to internal knowledge transfer within a business. Although these are aimed at firm-wide knowledge, they seem relevant here for individuals as well:
Recipient’s lack of absorptive capacity
Absorptive capacity is defined as a firm’s “ability to recognize the value of new information, assimilate it, and apply it to commercial ends.”2 To encourage this, companies are urged to embrace the value of R&D and continually evaluate new information.
Szulanski notes that such capacity is “largely a function of (the recipient’s) preexisting stock of knowledge.”3 If existing knowledge might help or hinder gathering new information, how might we apply this to an individual?
- As information load increases, it lessens your ability to understand it and properly place it within a mental framework.
- While the new company may have hired you for your experience and knowledge, you might need to reevaluate some of that knowledge. For instance, it may be difficult to shed and reframe your priorities to be in sync with the new firm.
Causal ambiguity refers to an inability to precisely articulate the reasons behind a process or capability. According to Szulanski, this exists “when the precise reasons for success or failure in replicating a capability in a new setting cannot be determined.”
How did causal ambiguity affect this transfer? While the site’s Home Usage section was promoted because of its successful testing and rollout, the reasons behind its success were never clear. Success of an ecommerce site depends on many factors, among them navigation, length and content of copy and labels, information density, and the site’s interaction design. Since Home Usage’s advantages had never been broken down into its components, and I hadn’t been there when usability tests were conducted, I could only see it as a black box.
To truly assimilate new knowledge, you need context. If none is provided, you need to know how to go out and get it. Ask about the reasons behind a model site. If possible, read any test reports. Keep asking until you understand and validate your conclusions.
An arduous relationship between the source and the recipient
Finally, knowledge transfer depends on the ease of communication and ‘intimacy’ between the source and recipient. Although my relationship with Nick was close, I worked off-site, which eliminated many informal opportunities for knowledge sharing. I couldn’t ask questions during a chance meeting or ‘ambush’ a manager by waiting for her to emerge from a meeting. Since I didn’t have access to Telecom Giant’s internal messaging system, I was limited to more formal methods such as email or phone calls.
A model for knowledge transfer
Thomas Jones offered this approach to knowledge transfer in a Quora post: “As they say in the Army: ‘an explanation, a demonstration, and a practical application.’ Storytelling, modeling, and task assignment … share your stories, model the behaviors you want to see and assign the tasks required to build competency.”4
Keeping “Home Usage” in mind, the story could be “how we came to follow this model,” the demonstration could be the research paper, and a practical application could be your work, evaluated by your lead.
Your ability to retain new information is essential to your success at a new company. However, your ability to understand the reasons behind the information and place these within a framework are even more important. Some techniques to help you do so are:
- Be aware of your own design priorities and how they match with the firm’s. Treat the company’s priorities like any user research problem and check them out with your leads and co-workers.
- To increase your absorptive capacity, evaluate your preconceptions and be prepared to change them.
- Ask for the reasons behind a ‘model’ design. Read research reports if available.
- Maximize your contact points. Follow-up emails can target ambiguous responses. If time with the UX leads is scarce, ask your co-workers about their view of priorities, patterns and the reasons behind them.
1 Szulanski, G 1996, ‘Exploring Internal Stickiness: Impediments to the Transfer of Best Practice within the Firm’, Strategic Management Journal, vol. 17, pp. 27-43.
2 Absorptive capacity. Wikipedia entry.
3 Dierickx, Ingemar and Karel Cool. 1989. “Asset stock accumulation and sustainability of competitive advantage.” Management Science. 35 (December): 1504-1511.