The Microeconomics of UX
I was sitting with some friends recently and the topic of UX and enterprise software came up. While the conversation started on the nature of UX it quickly descended into stories of terrible software updates and features that were lacking or poorly executed. These are UX blunders for sure but it occurred to me that we were discussing business software outside of the office, outside of work-hours and outside of the usual professional context. We were friends, eating dinner and catching up on a weekend. Why were we discussing work at such a strange time and why did the various software experiences have such a lasting and negative effect on my friends?
Then it hit me. The work might stay in the office but the emotional impact that it has on our users is carried with them.
Our work goes home with them. It goes out to dinner with them. It is there when they wake up and when they go to sleep. As UXers our tools are potentially occupying far more mental real estate than we pay for. In economic terms we are incurring an opportunity cost. Opportunity cost is the loss of potential gain from other alternatives when one alternative is chosen. It is an accounting for the selection of options given that resources are not infinite. For example at a fork in the road I can only go one way at a given time. Monetarily speaking if I choose to spend a dollar on a soda I can no longer save that dollar and put it towards a new set of shoes. Everything has a cost associated with it be it intellectual (the thoughts a user has), temporal (how a user spends their time) or emotional (how a user feels). Users can only hold so many thoughts and emotional states at a given time and can only accomplish so many tasks in a scarce amount of time. The tools we create incur a cost on our users that we as the architects and designers need to be responsible for. This is especially true for those of us operating in an enterprise environment.
These sorts of emotional costs are easily avoided in many consumer products. If a consumer doesn’t like a product or feels its opportunity costs are too high they will abandon the product and move on to something else. In this aspect those of us engaged with enterprise level initiatives and experiences are in a unique position. Tools that we build may be the only option for our users. We are not required to compete in the open market. We are the only market. Because of this narrow scope of alternatives we must be extra careful of the opportunity costs we demand in exchange for our user’s engagement.
So what does an oppportunity cost look like and why should I care? Lets look at the emotional cost of an enterprise user experience. A user works with our tool all day filing reports. This system replaced a legacy system on a tight deadline and saved the company thousands of dollars in old contracts. The business team knows that there are bugs but “The user doesn’t have a choice so go ahead and ship it. We’ll make it usable later” (yes, I have had this conversation). The user becomes frustrated with the new tools and after an eight hour day shuts down their machine and heads home. In a rational world they would pop out of work mode and shift into house mode but unlike the computer they operate they can’t be deactivated so easily. They spend the drive home feeling frustrated and trying to relax. Opportunity cost #1 they could have spend the time driving home thinking about the fishing trip they are taking with their aging father on Saturday. They could have spent the time planning a surprise night-out with their significant other. They could have spent the car-ride jamming out to their favorite songs and enjoying life. They arrive home 30 minutes later still feeling wound tight as a spring. Opportunity cost #2 time with family and emotional investment in their immediate sphere. The explicit cost of bad software is money and time. The implicit costs are emotion and the things that make life worth living. When I realized this i began to have a very different perspective on the human side of UX.
I know for many UX professionals the more emotional and human aspects of the job feel like second nature. Relating to others and understanding their needs is a core component for anyone in a user centered design practice. For some of us though this trait can feel unprofessional or at least slightly disingenuous. If I’m really honest, for the longest time I’ve rolled my eyes when UX research contains emotional stories about. I don’t usually care that users are sad. Its not typically at the top of my list that they are frustrated. I care that this hurts the teams goals and deadlines. I care that this is going to sky-rocket turnover and training/hiring costs. For the longest time this sort of emotional distance has felt like the professional and objective way to approach UX. However, after considering the hidden costs of bad design I think I’m starting to reconsider.