During World War II, allied forces used beneficially located Pacific islands as strategic bases, arriving in large cargo planes, building airstrips and towers, and deploying vehicles and materiel. This brought unknown riches to islands like Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea.
When the war ended, the white men disappeared, and the crates of goods stopped arriving. In an attempt to coax the supplies into returning to their homelands, the locals begun imitating what they had seen the soldiers do, building replicas of aircraft and control towers out of bamboo and donning coconut headphones. Such attempts form a core belief of Pacific cargo cults.
In 2008, Agile development thought leader James Shore wrote an article called Cargo Cult Agile, in which he posited that the Agile movement had turned into just such a cult. Its adherents went through the motions of Agile, calling their morning meetings scrums, their phases sprints, and their project managers scrum masters, expecting that the result would be an agile way of creating products, but failing at it. The underlying assumption is, of course, that it isn’t the gestures of a methodology that make it successful, it is the intent behind them.
And this relates to UX how?
Applied to UX, we could ask the same. Have we become a cargo cult of user experience adherents that interviews users, creates personas, draws wireframes, and thinks that going through these motions and generating those artefacts will result in effective user experiences? The success of many UX projects makes it obvious that not all practitioners fall into this trap. How can you tell when it goes wrong, then?
The risks of slipping into cult
The risk of sliding into going-through-the-motions behaviour is highest when we stop asking “why are we doing this”. On one hand, we’re all prone to taking the easy route, and just like it’s easier to copy an earlier report and change bits than to start from a blank template, we recycle techniques and approaches that have worked before.
On the other hand, particularly in an agency environment, commercial pressures may be at play too. The organisation, particularly if it is growing, must involve junior staff in projects above what they might competently lead at the time. Projects need to be kept moving and completed in a timely fashion, not least for cash flow reasons. Agencies playing catch-up with the more established competition may also feel like they need to copy what their peers did.
Defining the problem
The greatest risk to remaining creative and flexible in the application of UX methods is our tendency to jump into “solution mode” as soon as we encounter a challenge. Problem solving is what we do best, so jumping right in is natural to design professionals.
The trouble with this is, of course, that we base the definition of the problem on assumptions. We hear a brief and fill in the gaps based on our experience and what we think needs fixing. Instead, we should spend at least some time defining the problem. Asking the right questions is a good start. You should question every element of the brief with a succession of “why” questions. There is little sense in trying to solve a pure UX problem. It has to be a business problem, a customer problem, or both. If you find that the problem definition contains “UX language”, be sceptical and continue asking under you find the underlying issues.
How do we avoid the trap of cargo cult UX?
Convincing a client or senior management of spending time first to define the problem can be an uphill battle. If you’re in an agency-client relationship, it may be necessary to do some of this work above the agreed scope in order to gain experience and the trust of the client. In subsequent engagements it’s more likely you’ll be able to build this into your proposal from the start. Take small steps to demonstrate value, then scale up.
Whether in an agency situation or client-side, it can help to let the client produce the first draft of the problem description. You could then put two designers with different personalities onto the problem to refine its definition and pick the solution approach and techniques. Define the goal to reach and let them find their own way to it. A synthesis of their approaches is likely to be a better path than each individually would have been.
Is Singapore shielded from becoming a UX cargo cult?
It appears that markets with a longer tradition of UX design have had more time to codify methods, tools and artefacts, have larger teams with clearer senior/junior separation, and thus have calcified more. This puts them at higher risk of turning into cargo cults. Singapore, and Asia by extension, is a younger market for UX, and practitioners here are still having to do more selling of the benefits. They are more flexible by necessity and so less likely to just repeat what they were doing last time. This is a big benefit and may allow Asian UX to leapfrog its western counterparts.
This article is a summary of the OpenSpace discussions on the topic with many participants at UXSG Meetup #17 on 17 September 2015.4