I was once hired by a company that develops software for collection agencies. They wanted a partial re-design of the screen that shows on the collector’s computer after an automatic dialer generates a call to somebody with one or more unpaid debts.

It quickly became clear that what they wanted was not really a redesign – They just wanted me to stuff a few more fields onto an already very crowded space. I knew this was not a good idea, but how to proceed?

The screen in question was a very detailed review of unpaid debts, promises made for payments, or for a payment schedule, and actual payments received.

My first request to this client was standard: “Can I spend some time observing some real users working with this system?” Indeed, that was possible – although I believe they expected that I’d spend an hour or two in this phase. To their surprise, I spent a few days, sitting next to several collectors, and always wearing a “training harness” that let me listen to both sides of the call in progress. I offered no advice, and no comments. My purpose was not to educate or engage, but just to observe. A few times, after a call was completed, I’d ask a question about what they were trying to do with the computer screens – but my questions were never pointed.

And then, after many hours of patient observation, I blurted out this comment: “So, have I got it right, you’re in the business of getting your clients [those who owe money] to make promises that they keep?” The collector I was with practically jumped up and down for joy, exclaiming that nobody has put it so clearly. It hardly felt like a creative breakthrough to me, but this formulation did help me see more clearly what was going on.

Then I asked, “So, what are you doing with all this data on the screen? Are you, I wonder, computing a kind of index of promise keeping?” This was exactly what was going on, I was told, and when I asked what computations would go into that promise keeping index, the collector knew exactly.

Finally, I asked if instead of displaying so much detailed data, I showed only the promise keeping indices, and a few key data points. “That would be wonderful”, the collector explained. This would give him a quick picture of who he was dealing with, and would free him up to be more creative in the debt collection dialog.

Right away, we had a whole new paradigm for designing the key screens in this system. Instead of just showing lots of raw data, we could show some trends, that would really guide the collectors. It would still be necessary to have a way to drop down to the detail data, but that data would not be in the way when it was not needed.

The big picture here was quite typical: At one time all this data was probably written manually on paper files. The collector could open those files while talking to that particular “customer”. Later the collection agencies were able to use software that mimicked that paper files – although with easier access, updating, and reporting. And there were probably several upgrades to that software that were faster, had prettier displays, and perhaps added some other bells and whistles.

What’s wrong with this picture? The software had been designed, right from the beginning, to “computerize” the data, rather than to creatively help the debt collector manage the collection dialog. The notion of promise keeping indices was a radical transformation, that offered a paradigm for a new generation of debt collection software.

At best, user interface design or redesign doesn’t just result in more attractive displays of data. It helps users do their job better, faster, with less hesitation, fewer mistakes, and more satisfaction. A really good user interface elicits a positive emotional response. This is where the phrase “user friendly” really comes alive.

I called this short essay “Usability from the inside out” because the starting point is not the data or the screens, but the user goals and user tasks – which usually correlate closely the the overall business goals. By paying attention first to the big problem or goal, we can design software and systems that enhance productivity, improve user morale, provide more accountability, and are often simpler to use and to maintain.

I’ve identified six critical skills, that serve me well in my coaching and consulting.  In fact, I think these may be all the skills that I need.

But check me on this.  Comment on this blog with what you think might be missing or wrong.

1. Listening (and looking, and listening)

Listening is an active process.  It’s not summarily waiting until the other speaker is done, so that you can respond!  At best, it includes offering some feedback, that allows you to test whether you’ve understood.  And the other modes — looking and listening — are just as active.  As a photographer, I have to constantly ask myself, “What’s visually interesting her”, and, “What am I seeking?”

2. Asking great questions

Lots of questions come from a wrong place — trying to show off, or make the speaker wrong, or some such.  Great questions illuminate, open up a deeper dialog, expose important issues.  They may also show some bias or committment, but they are not argumentative debating points.

3. Giving and receiving feedback

The most helpful feedback is offered with understanding and compassion.  It may be as simple as, “I see you doing this, and wonder why you feel you need to?”.  Feedback to you is best received as helpful advice — not as criticism.  It’s coaching, editing, insight that can refine, sharpen, augment.

4. Design thinking

A good design is an economical, functional, beautiful solution to a well-understood problem.  It may be an elegant bridge that supports many cars, or a simple tool to cleanly cut pieces of pie.  A design may be a process, an interaction, or may be embodied in an object.  Design thinking is focused on creating such full solutions, rather than makeshift steps that appear to solve an immediate problem.

5. Feeling and showing empathy and respect

Conflict can be constructive, if we see those who differ from us as helpful messengers of new points of view.  Even if those points of view seem to us completely wrong, perhaps even counter to our core values, an empathetic and respectful relationship leads us to seek understanding, welcome deep sharing.

6. Integrity, including being able to say “I don’t know”

Truth telling is becoming increasingly rare these days, but it still matters.  And one of the most important truths — especially in business situations, is that we don’t know the answer.  Why not just say so?

We had an affectionate connection to our Quaker meeting house in Portland, but it didn’t work very well.  The circulation was poor, so that after meeting for worship, visitors had a hard time finding refreshments, and we had a hard time finding each other.  There was no handicapped accessible bathroom.  And we knew that with our growing population of young families, we’d need more space for children’s programs.  We could imagine adding more space, but not any natural way to cure our building’s problems.

Than misfortune hit us with grace.  Part of the plaster ceiling in the meeting room had detached from its framing, and so we hired a contractor to remove and replace that ceiling.  They had just started the demolition face when the whole ceiling fell — exposing framing that was dangerously weak.  Luckily nobody was hurt. At one point in our history, there had a been a removable partition dividing the meeting room into separate area for men and women, and when that had been taken out some important structural members had been compromised as well.  Luckily the pending failing of these beams was announced by the falling ceiling, and we were able to put up temporary bracing to make the space safe.

But now there was no putting off major work on our building.  We engaged as one of our meeting members, Chris Wriggins, as  architect for this project.  His recommendation to us was startling and disturbing.  Chris noted that our meeting room was a long rectangle, and that by simply removing one end of that room and turning that space into a wide hallway, we’d have excellent circulation right through the core of our building.  There would be enough space to create a new wide stairway to the lower level, with a power lift riding alongside that stair.  That would make the already large bathroom accessible to all.  Finally, we could put a modest addition on the rear of the building, creating new classroom space.

What was disturbing about this plan was that it entailed cutting off part of our meeting room — and that room was our reason for existing.  It seemed unthinkable that we’d diminish that space — at least until we thought carefully about it.  But we realized that the meeting  room, even without that end, was large enough for almost all our gatherings.  And for those events where we couldn’t fit, the space in question wouldn’t make any difference.  (Very large funerals were typically held at another church in town.)  Finally, we tended to arrange chairs in a circular formation, so making the room more square might even feel like an improvement.

We decided to go forward with this plan, and have found that the renovation turned out to be an improvement in every way.  The meeting space feels more comfortable, circulation is better, the addition does provide important new space, and the overall project was not as costly as many of us feared.

I tell this story to illustrate some key points in this design thinking:

  • Chris Wriggins, the architect, was able to put aside emotional reactions and look clearly at the space and circulation issues presented.
  • His solution represented a new paradigm for how to deal with the building.  (Rather than just add the spaces we said we needed, he changed the whole building’s circulation.)
  • While the solution seemed obvious once it was put forth and argued, it was “out of bounds” to most of us before that.
  • The solution was remarkably simple.

What enabled Chris Wriggins to see this simple solution, while the rest of us couldn’t even imagine it?  He’d never seen exactly this problem before, or even one that was very close.  He had no special tools, and no advanced technology.  As a member of our community, he shared our emotional connections to the space and how it was used.

Clearly, something in his training led to a kind of design thinking that led him to a crucial idea that was the key to this solution.  I wish I could explain — actually wish I could fully understand — that design thinking.  But suffice to say that it is distinctive, that it’s of special value, and that it’s relevant in most aspects of our institutional and individual lives.  Design thinking is central.

“Designers don’t follow trends — we make them”.

Quote from Brook DeLorme, clothing designer, as she spoke before a business networking group, and was asked how much she follows and responds to fashion trends.  Her web site is www.Brookthere.com, and her store / workspace is located at 37b Wharf Street in Portland, Maine.