Many people don’t realize that several of the most distinguished generals from the American Civil War started out as engineers. These are not engineers as you and I would think of them today, but rather people who studied the ground, its layout and how to use it to great effect against an enemy. General Robert E. Lee, one of the most beloved figures of his generation, was such an engineer. He made his career sighting locations for gun emplacements during conflicts with the Spanish under very difficult circumstances. . In fact, Revolutionary General (and later President) George Washington started his career in the army as a map maker.
If you look at the period between the Napoleonic Wars and the Civil War, you will find a great focus on cartography. The ground you fight on is a great ally if you use it correctly. If your enemy has to climb a hill to attack you, the ground works for you by depleting their strength. If your enemy has to cross a river, the ground works for you by slowing them down.
My experience has been the same with products. The best battles are fought over ground that you are familiar with.
Several months ago, I had to redevelop the user experience for a product. It was a consumer facing product and there were many complaints regarding its usability. The challenge was that the product was mature…so mature that most of the engineers who worked on it were no longer available. To make matters worse, there was no documentation of the product.
After considering the problem, I concluded that the best approach would be to start with a flow of the entire user experience. This would give us a good map of the ground where it was built so that we could use to determine what direction we wanted to take the product. With several hundred thousand people using the product on any given day, I knew that any changes we made would have to be incremental and measured.
My team assembled and I laid out a few simple but essential rules for the exercise:
- We will create a complete flow of the client that will include all of the entry points and exit points.
- If there is an exit point to a function that will end up back in the client, we must create a flow for that. For example, a messaging client on a device may use a media gallery to pick a picture and then send message with that picture.
- All of the functions represented on the screen must be represented in the flow of the client.
- If there are special transitions from one UI screen to another, they must be noted in the flow.
The UI for the product turned out to be approximately 200 screens. The effort took three people about 1 week to complete.
At the end of the exercise, we had a very complete UI flow. I then sat down with the team with our new UI flow/battle map and posed three questions:
What can we do to shorten the journey for the user? In the mobile space, fewer clicks is preferable. My goal was to tighten up the UI and reduce the amount of time and effort it took users to perform tasks. Like many smart people, my team was prepared to address this question right away. The view was that by consolidating several of the functions into a new menu structure, we could reduce the UI by approximately 15% and subsequently the flight time for the user (the amount of time they spent performing a task).
Can we remove functions in the product to enhance the user experience? This ignited a debate about the importance of specific functions in the product. We evaluated the use of a sync technology that we had developed to work specifically with tethered tablets. Wi-Fi and Bluetooth functionality has significantly reduced the need to use this function and we simplified the product by removing it.
Are there gaps in the features of the new UI that affect the user experience? This was a little more difficult to answer. Several weeks earlier, we had performed a UI test to determine how users used objects such as images in messages. The primary conclusion was that many users had trouble managing their media. Looking at the user flow, we decided to add functionality that enabled the user to grab and catalogue media off incoming communications more easily. The path to complete these functions was easier to address now that we had the map in front of us.
If I had to sum up the moral of this tale, I would say this:
“You will never find your way if you don’t know where you started from.”
This holds true in war, in business and in life.