Upon hearing the recent news of a deal struck between Joe Rogan and Spotify worth over a hundred million dollars, I began thinking more and more about the need to apply rigour to any proposed product solutions designed around "best practices".
What's the connection?
Well, best practices would suggest that 3 hour long videos on YouTube such as Joe Rogan's interviews wouldn't be effective, because, "people are time poor" or "have short attention spans".
A quick Google search on the subject would suggest as much, as seen here:
Cut "best practices" any which way and they'd offer that The Joe Rogan Experience (JRE) is a bad idea. It's too long and it has no real theme, with an ad-hoc mix of guests making it very hard to recommend.
Yet JRE has become one of the biggest podcasts in the world and cultivated a massive following, with Joe himself having a huge influence on culture.
Therefore, the JRE podcast perfectly introduces the dangers of leaning too heavily into best practices, as they are often cited in a vacuum when discussing product solutions.
Best practices attempt to offer a short cut to success by focusing on the containers rather than content; the length of a video, the number of words in an article and so on. These variables MUST change when applied to a given context or problem.
But aren't best practices a good starting point?
Not necessarily. Based on the success of JRE I expect the next set of "best practices" for videos will start looking something like this:
- Broaden your appeal by diversifying content topics.
- Do long-form interviews because people want to go deep.
- Put your content exclusively on one platform so that you can control your audience more effectively.
See the problem?
You can point to the containers of JRE to rationalise a set of best practices, but only after the fact. You can't recreate the success because Joe has spent the past 10 years working at it. Whenever he himself talks about the secrets to his podcasting success, it sounds more like this:
- Start small and focus on what you love.
- Adjust as you learn what works for you.
- Work (your arse off) at it.
- Be where people are.
This list sadly, doesn't offer the short-cut which best practices promise.
Discovering your own best practices
To bring things around to my own recent experiences, in May 2019 I began working at Cluey Learning as Product Design Lead in the company's Customer team. During one of my interviews, Chief Product Officer, Michael Allara—my future boss—used the phrase:
"Don't bend the industry to the framework, bend the framework to the industry."
It (and he) immediately intrigued me.
Michael was setting up the challenge ahead for the role, and Cluey Learning as a whole. In a landscape flooded with "cutting-edge" apps and conventional tutoring options, creating the best conditions for product awareness and merchandising was going to be a challenge. This is before the recent abundance of "online tutoring" solutions which have emerged in the wake of Covid-19.
Cluey Learning was founded on the notion that traditional schooling structures have become extremely outdated, a hangover from the industrial revolution. To that end, Cluey seeks to supplement school-based learning with its personalised, curriculum aligned, learning programs for school-going students. Programs which offer guidance, demonstration, practice and evidence driven adaptability.
By entering an emerging market with a new approach, it is up to Cluey to come up with what the best practices are for its unique context, while resisting the allure of those from mature markets.
Aiming to enable customer awareness, consideration and purchase via the website in order to decrease the reliance on sales assisted acquisition, Cluey Learning began re-imagining their brand, acquisition strategy and product offering in mid-2019.
The major associated campaign aimed for a January 2020 launch to kick-off the new school year and the new website was required to create the optimal conditions for:
- Driving traffic via search.
- Product consideration.
- Enable independent enrolment.
Resisting the allure of UX best practices
Our starting point had been to help customers find a tutor, anchoring that on different use-cases (ie. tutoring for maths, tutoring for homeschooling, etc). To that end, designing an interface which allowed customers to enter all the required details for enrolment would be easy. However, convincing customers why they should choose Cluey, was much harder.
At no point did we find that user interaction with the design system or the interface patterns were the main barrier to purchase.
The problem was deeper.
By anchoring our early research on "tutoring" we weren't gaining deeper insight, but rather starting with a solution and prioritising features.
For example, by asking customers (who are already considering tutoring) what is important to them when they're considering tutoring, they'd respond, "the quality of the tutors" and as a result, we'd been broadly focused on service features in that manner.
The position was based on the assumption that customers had already decided that tutoring was the solution and you could validate this assumption by looking into search behaviours.
The best practice from this point would suggest that if Mum seeks a tutor, showcasing comparative features against the competition was the way to go.
This (data-led) approach informed us that we had to tell customers that our tutoring had curriculum aligned content and quality tutors. It was not very compelling, nor effective. Further to that, it didn't fully highlight Cluey's points of difference.
We needed to start fresh and elevate our research.
A new approach
It was paramount we started at zero, accepting we didn't understand the problem and that gathering our own insights into customer motivations, needs and activities would be required to effectively position our product.
By acknowledging that we didn't understand the problem or "job" parents were seeking to address, we were able to expand our research anchor beyond tutoring and broaden our ideation.
In order to stimulate conversation with Mums of school going children and uncover the problems they faced when it came to their child's education we defined two distinct directions: exploration and guidance. The manifestation of these directions was two simple prototypes: "Guide" and "Explore".
These prototypes were used during a round of interviews as stimuli which allowed us to see how mums digested the offering and probed their responses through two opposing hypotheses: Guidance versus Exploration.
Guidance: The Guide concept held information back until customers completed a questionnaire, which produced a suggested learning program.
Exploration: Encouraged exploration by laying out all of Cluey's different services like a menu and offered much more detail upfront.
We learnt that mums weren't necessarily looking for a tutoring solution and that the job was not, "Help me decide which tutoring solution is right for me."
Rather, that Australian mums (in the audience segment we interviewed) were looking to make a positive decision about their child's education. A decision they could be confident in and wasn't necessarily focused on academic grades but rather the well-being of their children.
The themes which emerged were related as much to household dynamics as academics. Mums carry a heavy burden, they put their trust in established institutions (and their children) to do the right thing, and when those institutions let them down they find it difficult to know what to do next, putting much more pressure on their next decision.
Their needs were therefore not based on service features or configurations but rather how the service would integrate with their individual circumstance. Where school is seen as a given; educational support is bucketed with extra-curricular activities.
Furthermore, Mums had to be convinced of the product, but also given the ability to sell it, because Cluey is a service in which the customer who wants it and pays for it, is seldom the actual user (student) who may need it.
Principles over practices: Designing with insight
The insights allowed us to create a set of principles to help guide the customer journey.
These principles would be used to anchor design decisions, along with our broader experience design principles.
The insights also gave us a clear problem to solve. How do we help customer understand, "What is Cluey?" AND "Is it for them?"
Therefore the our website solution needed to allow customers to set context, asking "Who are you, literally?" Having them select a school level so it could speak to them appropriately, for either Primary, Secondary or Senior years.
It could then set a further context by asking, "Who are you figuratively? Offering learning goal options such as keep-up, catch-up and extend.
By determining these two factors, we could present a version of Cluey relevant to their individual use case. This was critical as we'd observed how easily the slightest hint of "this isn't for me", such as an image which didn't represent their child's age, could be detrimental.
Our new understanding of customer needs, motivations and likely actions made the UX design and delivery a lot more efficient with design decisions focused on driving traffic directly to a relevant product framing, rather than just presenting our features broadly.
Once the information architecture and user flows were defined, we could apply the new branding and run it through further focused user testing with a robust prototype.
This round of testing validated the user flows, visual language and tone of voice but also informed us how to further refine and simplify.
We were surprised at how quickly customers engaged with self-selection actions, such as choosing between the Primary, Secondary and Senior navigation items rather than scrolling down the homepage.
This further insight allowed the execution to become more efficient, and version 1 launched right on schedule, as best it could.
Though we are far from complete, we have our own base to build from, understanding why things are and aren't working. We have our own "best practices".
Couldn't you have just learned from the best?
Well, no. There is no "Uber-for-education" we could have copied but even if there was, which lessons should we have taken?
At Cluey, it's been vital that we acknowledged we are in an immature market and there is a lot of risk in referencing the optimised solutions from markets which have already reached maturity.
There is value however in looking at how companies like Uber and Airbnb may have faced the challenges before they reached that maturity.
Taking Uber as an example. They faced many difficulties when pitching their product to consumers who were locked into traditional Taxi services; do you remember asking any of these questions when you first heard of Uber?
- Can you schedule it?
- You mean you just get into a stranger's car?
- Why are there no Uber stands?
- Didn't someone get murdered in an Uber?
- What about my privacy?
- Can you just pay with cash?
- What types of cars do they have?
- Are the driver's vetted?
Nowadays though, you're more likely to say something like,"Uber is so simple."
However it isn't simple, in fact when broken into parts, the process of getting started and using Uber is quite complex. The customer's perception of simplicity is created by the effect of a required solution working to help customers complete their job, such as, "Get me where I need to go."
Understanding how Uber tackled those questions is much more relevant in an emerging market than focusing on their current set of "best practices", likely reflecting on optimised solutions. A luxury afforded only when larger opportunities become scarce in a mature market.
With a need to speed solutions to market and pressure to release features, it's easy to rely on "best practices" and use them as rationale for design decisions. It's a lot easier to state something is "best practice" when seeking buy-in from stakeholders, than to say, "I don't know."
While our craft's fundamentals and tricks-of-the-trade are not to be dismissed, we should also know their limits and when to challenge them. Best practices MUST be anchored to contexts by asking questions such as:
- What problem are we solving?
- Is that the right problem to solve?
- What will solving it result in?
- Is that the result we want?
- What are the core conditions which create the problem?
- How do we improve those condition?
- What is required to do so?
My time at Cluey Learning has forced me to think and re-think because there isn't a Spotify or Uber equivalent in the education space to simply copy.
We are the Spotify or Uber of the industry, or at least trying to be, and therefore "unteaching" has become just as important in design leadership as espousing best practices which can become hurdles to new ideas.
By accepting best practices as universal truths in the search for short-cuts to success, we cap our own growth as product designers, and the growth of those we are designing for.