This is from 2012 | 8 minute read

Can you Change Behavior Without Having an Opinion?

One of my favorite talks at UX London yesterday was from Bill DeRouchey, who spoke of his experience as Creative Director at Simple. He described how the service—aimed at "disrupting" banking, by changing everything that's awful about a bank—has 100,000 people on the waiting list, and has grown by about one person every ten minutes for the last two years. That's a huge number of users who want to use a system that they haven't seen in any great detail yet, and it prompts the question: why are all of these people so interested, and where is the speculative success coming from?

The conclusion is misleadingly obvious. The company has an opinion on what it's doing, why it's doing it, and what it stands for. The value of the opinion: every employee at Simple can articulate why the company exists, every product decision can be vetted through a simple lens of consistency to the opinion, and—most importantly, as Bill says—an opinion makes your customers stop and think. And in this reflection is power, because it leads to engagement.

I think "Have an opinion" is another way of saying both "Create a provocative statement of truth" and "Leverage a theory of change." Simple's opinion is that Banking Sucks; the corollary is that Banking Doesn't Have to Suck. Each employee at the company can articulate why the company exists, and what the purpose of the company is for people. This is really different than articulating the business model, and this is why it's so similar to a theory of change, driven by design insights. Additionally, the opinion acts as a design constraint for product features and functions, that can work alongside of typical design parameters like "usable", "useful", and "desirable." As an example, Bill described how a bank that doesn't suck should let you treat your money like your data. In Simple, this translates to things like natural language searching across transactions ("food last seven days" actually returns what you would expect it to; try that at your current bank).

While the product interactions may be delightful, the larger premise of an opinion acts as a probe to "make your customers think. They're smart people. And if you do, they'll probably engage more with you." This is a dramatic shift from the normal rhetoric of product design, typically cast in the language of usability related to removing cognitive friction. The unfortunately overly simplistic view of "Don't make me think" has become a rallying cry for a generation of designers aimed at making the world so smooth that we never acknowledge or consider the larger purpose of the tools we're engaging with.

I think this is most fundamental in dealing with large-scale social problems, because it reaffirms the humanistic underpinnings of co-design, "design with", and the notion of empowerment. More importantly, it treats the user of a system on a level intellectual playing field as the product and product team, which is made obvious to the user.

Bill closed with an elegant articulation of his point, and I'll let it speak for itself: "Everything you are working on, there's a reason why you are working on it. Find out the core opinion, and let it shine through in the end product. Let people know that this is some kind of representation, and let it shine through in the actual product. People will realize that a human is thinking about it."

My full notes of Bill's talk are below.


Bill DeRouchey

Design With An Opinion

What I have for you today is one point, one lesson that I've learned over the last year. It involves customer engagement—how can we engage with customers? We're all making things, and ideally, you want them to use it. So, how can we better engage with customers?

Your opinions help engage the customer better.

Simple; I was there for about 18 months ago. It's a financial startup, and it's trying to be an alternative to banks and credit unions. It's trying to tackle the problem that banks suck.

One of the most phenomenal stats: 100,000 people have requested an invite to use the product. There's 150-200 with an account. It only takes 10,000 customers to be the size of a small community bank. It's such a huge number, that one person every ten minutes for 2 years in a row have wanted to get in. It's almost becoming one of these weird comedies. It's fascinating: we have very few people express anger about waiting for two years. They are still extremely excited. Two years in the web world is forever.

I kept asking: How did they garner so much interest? Why was this working? Why did they want to get in, having never seen product videos, seeing a small quantity of screenshots, and just a discussion of promise? Where was the success?

The conclusion is that the company has opinions about what it was doing, why it was doing it, and the approach it was taking. This was set from day one; the CEO set the tone by stating very strong opinions about the banking industry. Banking sucks. It's a massive david and goliath issue. The industry is broken. People just want a simple solution. The corollary opinion is that it doesn't have to suck. It's a 50 year old infrastructure. It creates a spaghetti of hell, making it extremely hard to be nimble. The theory was that they could do it better.

People reacted to the opinions. People identify with opinions. Banking Sucks, and Banking Doesn't Have to Suck. There's someone like me, behind the curtain that recognizes the problem and is trying to do something about it. That's enormous; it allows people to identify and engage with us. This stand got us a natural audience.

We can look at how companies try to engage with people. There are other ways. I want to look at the progression of a company engaging with people, and see how we are.

The old way. The tried and true approach: show features and benefits. Classic marketing way of explaining what it is, why it benefits you. It's a cross-your-fingers hope that you take the next step. Present the product; make people react.

The recent way. Tone, informality, and humor: trying to be more personal. Break down the barriers between a customer and a company, and try to make more informal connections, just like human beings. A lot of cutesy stuff, informal language. It's about surprise and delight. Moo does a great job of putting personality into the product, and gives it a bit more life. It's funny, informal, and it's about making people smile.

Surprise and delight throws people off; it's unexpected, and hopefully, delightful. People pause and reconsider what they're doing. But the challenge is that it doesn't create a conversation. The notion of delight, it makes people smile, but it's like a conversation from hello to hello, and that's where the conversation ends.

The better way. Have an opinion. Get ready to leave your bank. It's a little antagonistic. It slightly references the Occupy stuff. It says "your bank sucks" in an undertoned way. A funny side note: I went through so many iterations. Legally, we can't say we were a bank, and we can't reference your account.

It presents an opinion, and the cool part of this is that it makes people think. And that's the key to engagement. Thinking actually creates engagement with a customer. Be it in a product decision, a core essence of the product—a strong opinion behind it forces people to think about it. Imagine a conversation where we say Hello, and then I say an opinionated thing like "Evil people run wall street," that forces you to stop and think. It forces you to react to the opinion, and your reaction means I've engaged with you. I've got you thinking about the problem I'm trying to present to you. It's a strong, strong, strong, strong thing.

For example: "You are bad at math." One of our main products is "safe to spend"; it's a really simple equation of how much you can spend, or your spending cushion. This is the interesting number. If you have 8000 dollars, and 1000 earmarked towards rent, it does that math, and tells you how much you have spare.

For example: "Your money is your data." Spending your money represents an aspect of your life; we wanted to make search powerful. You need good data to make search useful. We search "food last 7 days". There's no way your current bank can do that. It requires getting categories correct, time stamping them, etc. Lunch last month? The keyword lunch means anything between 11-1, in the time zone, and in the food category.

Path is really interesting; it's a social network for sharing, but what's fascinating is that when they launched, they limited it to a max of 50 people. That's a serious product decision. It could be 75, or 200. It's an opinion about the product; It's your tiny network. It's immediate. Product designers making the decision with an artificial max. Their opinion is that your true network is a very special, small thing.

One last example is Nest. It's a thermostat. It's for heating and cooling your home. It does everything for you; there's no timers. It learns. What's fascinating about this is that you should never have to adjust the temperature of your home. It should be automatic. You can sense their opinions as product designers, while doing this.

Everything you are working on, there's a reason why you are working on it. Find out the core opinion, and let it shine through in the end product. Let people know that this is some kind of representation, and let it shine through in the actual product. People will realize that a human is thinking about it.

Make your customers think. They're smart people. And if you do, they'll probably engage more with you.

Originally posted on Thu, 19 Apr 2012

Want to read some more? Try Collateral Damage: The Ethics of Lean UX.