Gavin Lew (EVP, User Experience) has spent over 20 years shaping the user experience field. We recently sat down with Lew to not only capture his insight and expertise, but dig underneath the surface to juicier topics: client expectations, the economy and the risks he’s taken that have made him so successful.
Q. In your experience, what’s the biggest challenge a company faces after user experience research results are delivered?
Gavin Lew: Execution. It’s always about affecting change. A very common challenge in our field is that we can identify issues but tend not to have actionable recommendations. The field is well aware of this problem. One thing we’ve done to try to change that, and we think it goes a long way, is maintaining transparency. When I first started out in the usability field, I was trained at a consulting company to—I’ll be honest—withhold information. The thought was that when you delivered your insight, you wanted to be the smartest person in the room so that the client hires you. My team strives to be the experts that we would’ve hired, so we discuss actionable recommendations from our findings as they occur. We’re transparent from the very beginning of a project and we’ve been able witness success from two stand points: a corporate perspective, where we’ve researched the product development life cycle and we observe how tasks actually get done, as well as the consulting perspective, where we observe tasks that must really get done. We make sure that we’re transparent throughout the entire process and companies are able to see user trends and the possibility of change.
Q. What must a company be willing to do in order to consider their end-users?
GL: We try our best to understand what should happen in the user experience, and what is practically feasible and technically possible based on what elements are already in place. An engineer, a coder, nobody wants to build a bad product, but sometimes designers are just unaware. There are fifteen ways to make sure a customer can see a number of items on an interface, but designers don’t always have the context of the user process. Our job is not to sway the engineering or IT department. I’ve found that IT is pretty smart and creative. We prefer to leverage their creativity and strive to involve designers earlier in the process—anything we design, anything we research, they see it. What that does, in some ways, makes us the liaison and let the design team become a part of the changes. I hear designers say, “Wow I never thought the user would do these things.” So all of a sudden they’re added to the process of change. This is what we call “expanding the sweet spot:” user needs, business needs and taking a bigger slice of creativity by getting IT involved earlier.
Q. How does an established corporation implement user-centric design, while maintaining the traditions and culture that have made it so successful? How does your team (UX) help its clients achieve this balance?
GL: Sometimes, companies truly believe that their way is the only way to do things. So, yes, sometimes C-level personalities impact the success of usability testing. But I think it’s a simple matter of recognizing that any effort is a team effort. Having my team a part of that process can change a company’s perspective on their users. We do our best to partner with our clients to help them achieve better insight and use other methodologies to give them smarter views into necessary product or service changes. I’d prefer to assume a company has a particular attitude towards their users because they’re naive to the user experience they offer, and help change that attitude by actually showing them their users. The thing about user research, the qualitative aspect, is that usability testing will uncover big problems early on in the data collection. When we provide participants with an unbiased context, a reasonable task and we observe how well they perform that task, we invite the clients to watch the actual session. We’re not inviting them to watch someone fail. Sometimes, we’ll wait until the client observing can finally see that the participants aren’t stupid and it’s a bad design. Often the research is able to shift not only an understanding of the user’s interaction with a product of or service, but influence an entire company-wide perspective.
Q. How is the UX industry evolving?
GL: We’re booming. The great thing about our UX team is our product and service diversity. We can work on a mobile device, on a consumer device like a camera or TV, or hand-held units inside a car for navigation or entertainment systems. We work on health products for patients, as well as observe hospitals and pharmacies to determine operational efficiency. We design call centers, web applications, and point-of-sale programs for restaurants. When I think of what we can do, I think that our own diversity is what keeps us evolving.
Q. What about corporate awareness for user experience research?
GL: Even 10 years ago, strategists were starting to bullet point “make sure the product is usable.” After a while of seeing those things, people started to ask “How do I measure usefulness?” But I don’t spend my time institutionalizing the user experience. I focus on delivering, rather than evangelizing, because honestly it’s about results. We are only as good as what we deliver.
Q. What do your clients expect from you that you deliver?
GL: A company who has never worked with us wants us to answer their user experience question. That’s what we do. We set up an approach to answer their question. We will set it up so it doesn’t have bias but an applicable context; we ensure the data is as clean as possible. We do this to truly understand what the data say to deliver the insight and answer their question. That’s what new clients expect from us. They are looking for that insight.
Returning clients ask us for something different. The best thing a returning client told me was, “Just so you know, we pay you to tell us when we’re stupid.” Sometimes clients overlook their own research question and it’s our job to say “Hold on, you need to be asking this first.” We put on a few different hats when we work with an organization—let’s say 100 times—which is pretty cool since we’re project-based. The most interesting thing is when we work with a client long enough we start to really know their experience points. This is understandable because the people who are researching how to develop and how to design the device interface are focused on the device itself—they don’t know all of the components that go into the customer experience and the customer’s expectations prior to purchasing that device. Because of the nature of our work and our exposure to the industry, sometimes we know more about a device’s reputation and what’s packaged with a device than the designers who actually work on the device. Sometimes, we even know more about how that device is purchased through the website and the store and what expectations and fulfillment materials come with that experience. This gets us into an area I think is very important for the usability field, and that is service delivery. It’s all of the touch points: the person a user calls for help, the person or information the user read that sold them the device and gave them expectations; all of those places are part of the experience. Experience points aren’t just a product interface. So if we can have a better understanding and have a more consistent delivery of a service or product, then that product has a better chance of being successful and has a longer lifespan. It’s about the entire user experience, from the moment of introduction. That’s what a lot of our existing clients are asking us to do now.
Q. You claim your team has literally “seen it all.” Which experiences do you draw on most?
GL: I began my career in experimental psychology, and I monitored electrodes and their various memory and cognitive components. As a student at UCSF, I tested the cognitive processing of AIDS and Alzheimer’s patients. An AIDS patient said to me, “I really hope this is going to find a cure.” This was in the early 90s’, when AIDS was at a huge epidemic level in terms of fear. The technology and drugs just weren’t there. I shook his hand and thought to myself, wow this guy might not be here in 10 years. I knew that the work I was doing was really interesting, but it was basic research and wasn’t going to find a cure. Fast forwarding to what I do now. A year ago, I researched a product to evaluate if the design was ready for home use. At the end if the session, the patient hugged me and said, “You don’t get it yet, do you? This is going to change the way my child looks at me in the morning. Instead of mixing chemicals on the kitchen table, and watch her mother shoot up, I can take this in the bathroom and be done in less than two minutes. It makes my life a lot less stressful. It makes my child see me less dependent.”
My whole career, I have been driven to fix a problem, whether it’s affecting 80 million people or 100,000 people. What we do—usability testing—matters. How can we transform experiences into a patient, customer and ultimately user experience? Sometimes it’s incremental. Sometimes it’s evolutionary. Even the ones that are just incremental, we find the silver lining, and recognize that we make a difference.