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Users vs Systems – what do you _really_ need to understand?

Users vs Systems - what do you really need to understand?

Monday 11th May 2020

I like to solve problems from a human-centred perspective. I'm curious about who has the problem, why it's a problem for them, how much pain does it cause them and when. That's why user experience research is a great starting point. I can dig deep into underlying concerns, probe needs at the key moments that matter most to them and explore the ideal scenarios that would improve their lives.

So why the interest in systems thinking?


When you apply user-focused, think deep dive. User-centred research is like putting a magnifying glass on a particular user (or user type). You can probe, observe and analyse and really 'get under the skin' of a set of users to gain deep understanding of their needs, attitudes, moods and motivational drivers and behaviours.

A systemic approach is more wide-angle; you can gain a good grasp of the broader context, rather than being a specialist in a specific user group. It's not either-or, rather the right approach is dependent the type of problem you are trying to solve. (And if you have the resources you may want to apply both!)

Let's look at the definition of a system


A system is defined as a set of rules, an arrangement of things or people, or a group of related things or people that work towards a common goal. It is a set of principles or procedures according to which something is done - an organised scheme or method.

A team is an example of a system, an organisation is a more complex system, a supply chain, with multiple organisations or groups connected to achieve a common goal, is an even more complex system. When we understand who the individuals are within these systems, how they work together, their values and behaviours, we have a much richer picture of what needs to change, for whom, to have the desired impact. We have greater transparency of the interdependencies between people and within activities across the system and may be able to anticipate the wider consequences of planned changes.

Take an example of a user-led approach to improving customer support and speed of resolution for heavy users of an online subscription service. Research found that users wanted to resolve basic service issues online, ideally within product, and only speak with an adviser for more challenging issues. The business saw an opportunity to invest in an online self-serve delivery model while reducing the number of front-line customer support people and off-shore tier two support to optimize cost efficiencies. With a user-lens it was possible to pin-point where within the workflow (or on the journey) to offer self-serve, online chat or an escalation to a customer support specialist. The intended overall impact? Enhanced productivity for users and improved satisfaction while saving operational costs in the medium to longer-term.

Let's take a closer look at the impact of the change


You've successfully moved well-defined transactions online - tick. There are some escalations which are dealt with by in-product chat - tick. Escalation points are clearly sign-posted for users - tick. Customer support is now streamlined and there is already evidence of cost savings. Win/Win.

And the overall business impact? When you change one part of the system, it usually impacts another. Looking broader helps us understand the ripple effect or unintended consequences.

More Sales people in the UK start to receive calls from their customers to help resolve issues. Instead of using the centralised support team which is now located in a different country and time-zone, some users prefer to go direct to their Account Manager because they know they can 'trust' them. The Account Managers in turn need to escalate queries to the customer support team, which are now staffed by people they don't know. This is frustrating for them as it takes them away from sales activities, as they 'waste' their time on non-core sales activities. Furthermore, they're finding the remote teams just don't know the products as well as the previous team. They don't know the customers as intimately and tend to be more transactional and take less interest in building customer relationships.

Across in the product teams, usability issues are not being escalated as frequently. When Product, Sales and Customer Support were co-located they heard about issues as they arose. Now product developers have to rely on monthly reports of user queries and resolutions and this makes is harder to iteratively improve the user experience for in-market products. There are growing blind spots in the overall user experience and subsequently how this may impact subscription renewals at year end.

These are the unintended, and sometimes invisible, consequences - change one part of a system and it's likely that there'll be unintended consequences in other part of the system. With a user rather than a systems approach to developing an understanding of the as-is context and potential impact of a future design, consequences are all the harder to predict.

Some of the consequences of these changes happen as a result of informal relationships, the trusted relationships that develop over time and how this influences how people work together, what they choose to share or how they help each other out. On the surface they seem like small or inconsequential activities, but when you recognise the relationships, exchanges and commitments you can get a sense of the value creation; how the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Secondly, it takes a while for the level of impact to be felt. There's a natural time-lag between successful implementation, feeling the benefits of enhanced productivity as well as the impact of lost knowledge or relationships incurred.

So how can a systems approach improve overall business results


Understanding users and their journeys is a good starting point; mapping the journey end-to-end and uncovering the pivot moments that drive decisions and behaviours. Go even further and map front-to-back interactions (sometimes referred to as a service map) to get a grasp of the whole; who's doing what, when and how. But don't stop there. You also need to understand the value created at the critical steps along the way. These are sometimes broken down and referred to as the system capitals and include capitals such as knowledge, trusted relationships and the ways people relate with each other; in short the elements that drive creativity and productivity.

Financial capital is very often the primary focus of businesses and the more obvious ways to measure this is by tracking bottom- and top-line revenues - balancing costs and sales to deliver profit. Other capitals are often less visible but can nonetheless have a significant impact on organisational effectiveness.

Knowledge capital is that deep tacit insight teams have about products, users and user problems. You need to quantity this knowledge held by front-line teams for example and evaluate what this adds to customers and the business, before putting it at risk. The harder the knowledge is to develop the harder it is to replace.

This in turn often has an impact on human capital, such as rapport between people, trusted relationships with both clients as well as colleagues in Sales and Product. Trust-based relationships are critical in any situation, take time to develop and are inherently difficult to measure and quantify.

And then there's the social capital - how people organise themselves, work together and are productive and creative, either formally or informally. Processes are the starting point, but relationships and culture are often the glue that underpin the social order.

Concluding comments


In reality you never truly have full transparency of any given system, or a user group for that matter. Systems, people, behaviours and relationships within them are continuously evolving. Deep user insight when applied effectively corresponds with enriched user experiences (forgive the bias here please!). Like I indicated earlier, it's not either-or, but rather the type of problem you're trying to solve. Gaining an understanding of the richness and complexity of relationships, commitments, joys and breakdowns, direct and indirect, opens the possibility to understand the complex nature of the lives we're trying to influence. This in turn helps us to be more conscious of complexities and more intent with our designs. By understanding the interdependent nature of current activities our designs can be inclusive of inter-dependent activities and deliver a more balanced impact overall.

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