Your Big Picture Isn’t Big Enough

Let’s say you love grilling and eating outdoors, but you don’t like the isolation of manning the charcoal. While everyone is pretending to enjoy each other’s company over glasses of box wine, you are relegated to the corner of the pavers, eyes red and teary with a bottle of Bud and an apron emblazoned with “Kiss the Chef!” You’re tired of passive-aggressive comments on your cooking skills, and you’d like to watch the game, too.

You think “There’s got to be a better way.”

Well, someone else (with more motivation and resources) shared your pain, and did something about it. And this was the outcome:

Usable or not, it's pretty damn cool.

Usable or not, it’s pretty damn cool.

This is the JAG Grill. I don’t think I need to explain this one, but if you go to their site, you can see numerous pictures and videos. They even state the business problem that they’ve solved as a mission statement:

To ensure relaxed, sociable outdoor dining experiences and lifelong memories.

Now, before I go on, I need to state a few disclaimers. I have no relationship with the company that makes this product, nor have I ever seen it in person. From what I can surmise from their site, the thing is built like a tank, and the fit and finish of this grill table is impeccable.

But, I don’t think a UXA had a look at this beautiful monster in the design phase. I notice that in the multiple videos, there are no “in action” clips. So as a UX professional, I would be compelled to ask some simple questions. Does each person really need the equivalent of an entire grill area for their own portion? Can this only be used in still air? I imagine this being a hellishly smoky experience for 2 or three of the table guests (or more when the wind shifts). At a seven-foot diameter, are the diners adequately shielded from the ambient heat to be able to enjoy eating at this grill on a sunny summer day?

This is a great execution of the (implied) requirements, but it possibly suffers from lack of UX testing and lack of a high level overview. Of course, at that price tier, these requirements may simply be unimportant to someone who just has to have it in the backyard.

It’s really difficult in a large corporate environment to evaluate a project holistically. You have to trust your peers and the contributors upstream to provide you with requirements and data that will produce the outcome for the business problem at hand. There is a certain opaqueness among disciplines that occurs naturally due to time constraints and workloads.

But that simply cannot be an excuse for not constantly assessing the big picture. No matter how much your company’s process looks like an assembly conveyor, there are opportunities to look at the overall project and the motivations and justifications for its requirements and prioritization.

“But I’m just a lowly UXA,” you might say. “Those huge political decisions are above my pay grade.” Well you certainly can go heads-down and just solution the requirements and due dates that are handed down from the business analyst, project manager, or client. That certainly is a way of working, and sometimes, especially as a contractor, that will be the only way to work. But there will inevitably be times when you are going to notice conflicting requirements, or a huge functional gap, or a misinterpretation of data, or (and this is my favorite) a missed opportunity to further leverage what’s in the requirements. It behooves you to call out the conflict, to flag the gap, to correct the data, or to execute the leverage.

You have to be selfish about it, and I mean that in two ways. First, you may be wrong, so maintaining a calm line of inquiry instead of aggressive criticism will most likely get you the detail that you need without revealing that your assumptions were way off the mark. Second, you need to correct any of these issues as far upstream as possible for your own sake. No matter how monolithic and stodgy your org may be, there is most likely a vantage point available to you to get the 10,000-foot view.

I am part of a team that builds components for our CMS. It would be difficult to get more granular than that here at Sears. But it’s important, maybe even vital, to assess possible alternative applications, the political force that drove this project to the top of 900 similar projects, and any gaps that may have been missed due to time constraints or context.

Pointing out those things to the client/product manager/boss doesn’t have to be contentious or even negative. Instead of criticizing or interrogating, we simply ask very specific questions or create very quick pre-wires to articulate the issues we are seeing. Again, keep things light; you could very well be wrong because you didn’t see the mother bear behind the cub you are kicking.

User Experience Design is not just about meeting requirements and proposing solutions. A good UXA does that. A GREAT UXA knows the organization inside and out and can intuit the subtleties and motivations of every request.

Maybe if that grill had an octagonal umbrella that acted as a grill lid…

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