Keeping up and fighting back

(Reading time: 2m, 11s)

Yesterday I wrote about adopting a flattened worldview. It’s not quite the right phrase — something feels off about it — but, in my mind, adopting a flattened perspective means finding ways to evaluate an organization's communications, culture, habits, and systems through the eyes of its various constituents. Their perspective is flattened.

The audience doesn’t care all that much about the organization’s hierarchies or even, to some extent, the value systems of those within the organization. For example, museum staff value educational impact, while visitors may view an experience more in terms of entertainment; For staff, the experience of buying tickets may seem relatively inconsequential, while some visitors may mostly remember having to wait in line for seven minutes to buy tickets while keeping their three small children entertained.

It's not really practical for decision-makers to maintain that flattened perspective continually. Organization’s hierarchies are there for a reason — they help the organization function with some degree of efficiency; They give employees a path for growth, which can help motivate them to follow a certain order … I’m sure there are other reasons why organizational hierarchies exist. I’m more used to thinking about ways to flatten those hierarchies, at least temporarily.

Design research is a flattening device. It’s a tool for systematically feeding outsiders’ perspectives into an organization's decision-making.

Let’s find a concrete example — information architecture.

The more complex a website becomes, the more likely it is that decision-makers will begin structuring the navigation to reflect the org chart or the mental models of the people who run the organization.

But the public doesn’t care about the org chart or decision-makers’ mental models.

That becomes clear when, for example, you run a user test or tree test or conduct card sorting exercises and find that visitors don’t think of membership as a way to support the organization (“Support Us”) but rather as a benefit that might align more closely with visiting regularly (“Visit”). Each side thinks of membership in terms of their own benefit, so the organization that makes design decisions without a steady diet of user research makes it ever more difficult for the user to complete the task that benefits everyone.

Unprecedented access to information is what has really flattened the world — user research is just a way for organizations to keep up or perhaps fight back a little. The internet has made it easier than ever for people to turn to their peers and individuals as authorities and trusted advisors, which undermines trust in institutions. Stock photos of smiling customers on a website will not persuade people — they already checked Yelp and Google and found a 3-star rating with the angriest reviews featured first.

Without research, it’s all too easy for decision-makers to forget that the power dynamic has shifted. Interviews, analytics, testing … Whatever the method or tool, research is a reality-check and a bridge to the audience's world.

I find this tension between organizational hierarchies and the flattened perspective of users fascinating. What about you?

As always, hit reply and let me know.

Thanks for reading,


Kyle Bowen