• Venkat Srinivasan, Sr. Director

A Personal Perspective on UX – Then and Now

Anyone that knows me well, knows that I tend to complain a lot about my experiences as a product or service user. I often call out companies and people about the quality of my user experience (UX), with suggestions for improvement – as I see them – galore. Co-workers have often been fed up of my ‘well-meant’ ideas, though a few have appreciated where I come from.

Some of the recipients of my ire have been large organizations such as Vodafone, Volvo, Mercedes-Benz, Cathay Pacific, British Airways, Time Magazine, Uber, and HDFC Bank. My tone (and god knows I try to be pleasant) has always been to the effect of ‘How on earth is this wording/flow/process of confirmation/footer/instruction for next steps/more okay by you?!’ This is followed by a helpful ‘Here’s what you should do…’ from me.

Responses have ranged from ‘here’s why’, ‘thank you, we’ll look into it’ (that means nothing will happen), ‘here, we’ve fixed it – thank you’ (wow – company, you listened!), and hostility – ‘if you don’t like it, go someplace else’. The last reaction is similar to certain establishments in the city where I currently live. Yes, bakeries and restaurants come under UX – a close cousin of customer experience (CX)! Think of all your Chinese/Thai restaurant experiences in the United States, if you’ve ever been to some.

Magazine/newspaper/book covers, advertisements, DVD covers, music album covers with that ‘hidden meaning’ all come under UX.

Let’s go back to the past, shall we?

Where it started for me with UX was a soap wrapper when I was 12-years-old. The spelling of the soap’s name was different from the televised ad, and worse – the spelling once the wrapper was opened was something else! Sure, I wrote them with pen and paper, and couriered my letter to the address on the wrapper.

To my wonder, they actually fixed the names on the ad and the product in a week, and also called to thank me. From the pitch of my voice back then, they likely wondered if they were talking to the actual complainer.

Then on, it was ‘catch stuff and tell’em all’ from me, for years and years – through present day.

That UX lab

In 2000 – just after graduation – I joined an internet media company, which was big and well-known back then. This was just years after the term ‘UX’ (just two letters) was coined. I was deputed to the team that was building this grand shopping portal. These were the days when .coms were generally clueless on how to get potential customers to buy, despite sitting on pots of investors’ money.

Terms like ‘Fly to’ and fancier, than a simple ‘Buy now’. Well-hidden shopping carts. Deals on the home page that could never be found. No clues to check out. Strange right to left Arabic-style layouts to appear cool. Circling back to the same page that you thought you’d left. And the first all-mute chat-bots. It was lovely.

So we created this ‘UX Lab’ if you will, to figure out how to get products to sell. After all, we’d aggregated some of the largest brands of the day – J. Crew, The GAP, and the now defunct Toys R’ Us among many others. Very obviously they wanted some bang for their buck on this fancy new online mall.

Our modus operandi was we’d grab people off the street, and promise them a tad more than minimum wage for their time. Then, we’d fix a fancy ‘eye-ball’ movement sensor on them, and display the shopping portal to them. Their task was to try and buy XYZ product. Yes, really ‘try and buy’ was the instruction.

Where were they looking to find, say, a Gucci bag? They were looking at ‘fashion and accessories’, when we wanted ‘travel and leisure’. Back to the UX drawing board.

Rise of the chat-bots

I’d mentioned silent chat-bots above. Man, were they a considered a fancy user experience then – never mind they did nothing! Then they started to respond, and were still useless through the aughts. In the next decade they got smarter, but continued to give clueless answers for the most part for shoppers and service users. Companies are like ‘They have a chat-bot? Gimme one too!’. This is not about voice-assistants on your phone, by the way.

What’s happening now? ‘Hi, I’m Laura. Can I help you?’ seems to save money for her employers for she’s not a human being. But she doesn’t really help me much. Yet. From my experience, these bots can be conned for refunds and other things. Ask me how.

There’s a long way to go here.

Simple takeaways

Yes, some of this is nothing new here, but:

  • Offer an intuitive user experience – do not confuse, and throw away the fancy. Things have improved a lot now.

  • There is no need to copy, and go ‘I want that, for they have it’. No.

  • If someone like I can be thrown by bad UX, imagine others like my grandma.

  • Design for people. Ordinary people.

  • Yanking people – all kinds – off the street to test is not a bad idea. It worked in 2000.

  • Customer survey forms about your recent user experience generally do not work, but fill in the short ones. Most of them have bad UX in the form anyway.

  • Importantly, customers – feel free to complain to product and service providers. Write in, tweet, or call to offer suggestions. Some of them will listen, and you’re helping others this way.

Disclaimer – one is no UX designer.

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