Popping the head office bubble

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This is a guest post by Myles Runham, an independent digital and learning consultant, at MylesRunham 

Last month (in that distant land before the holiday season), I was running a workshop on user experience principles with an L&D team. One of the participants described being locked in “the head office bubble”. This is an excellent shorthand phrase for what, I am certain, is a common phenomenon in the HR and L&D digital landscape. A central learning team (this could be an HR team or technology team, or many, many other teams), is working on a project/product/programme to a set of requirements set out by stakeholders from another central function. They are using technology defined, managed and maintained by a central technology function. Add some more corporate subject matter experts to define the content and an elegant, self-affirming bubble is created. Not a user to be seen.

From the safe confines of the bubble a business problem or opportunity is described, a set of objectives is agreed and the tactics and resources to meet them are selected. This is a well-meaning bubble, of course. The benefits to workers and colleagues are at the heart of the matter. The solutions agreed will make life better for the organisation by improving the experience of staff. The problem with bubble thinking is that it floats above the organisation. It is disconnected. An organisation looks different from the bubble and the projects defined to improve it run the risk of being distant and theoretical. The head office bubble has a tendency to focus on what it wants learners to want rather than what they actually want or need.

The problem with the bubble scenario is that users are absent. It is full of stakeholders and stakeholders are bad at user experience thinking. Stakeholders are very good at describing what they want users to want. This does not qualify them to define what users actually want, however. Unless they have evidence. Evidence direct from users. Very often they do not. Stakeholders are likely to have clear views of how an organisation should work, how processes should be followed, how tools should be used, which content is endorsed, what the policy defines… None of these are helpful for user experience design. (This is why no one likes an LMS – it has no foundation in user needs).

All of our favourite digital products are good at user experience. Whether this is Uber, Pinterest, Kindle, Gmail, Amazon, WordPress etc. etc. they are all dedicated to meeting well defined and verified user needs. They do what we want them to do and work in ways we like them to work. They change as they understand our evolving needs of them. The product managers who are responsible for these services apply the evidence of user experience to their design and are good at reflecting that user experience back to stakeholders. They are custodians of user needs. Corporate digital functions have lessons to learn here, I think. Good digital product managers can navigate commercial imperatives, the possibilities of technology and the needs of users to constantly refine and develop a better approach. They do this by assessing evidence and feedback as a matter of course.

Before I suffer the slings of accusation of naivety, let me expand my thinking. I know that stakeholders are important. I am one, have been one and full­­y expect to be one again. A stakeholder has a vital role in defining a business problem or need. Something that needs to be improved, stopped, or started. Business requirements. These are the stuff of the stakeholder. The business metrics that need to change need to be described and analysed to scope a response. A learning project rarely starts without these inputs. There are enlightened stakeholders with supporting evidence and user insight. This is great and useful grist to the mill of UX testing. Even this is not the full UX answer, though. That must come from users and is what is needed to burst the bubble.

Insight on user needs can come from many sources, including: talking to them, surveying them, studying use of products and tools, product usage analysis, social media, feedback links, feedback mail. Most, if not all of these, are readily available to L&D and HR teams. Too often this data is not gathered or is used in piecemeal fashion. Too often the product manager sensibility is absent. Interpretation and response to user data is what product owners are for. The best of them can translate this into stakeholder friendly stories and evidence. This is a skillset we need to introduce and foster to release us from the bubble.

About the author

I have been working in and around the web for around twenty years in many roles from research, marketing and product development through to senior leadership in a variety of different sectors. Prior to the BBC, I worked at the search engine Ask.com (AKA Ask Jeeves) managing the European business. The last eight years have been spent at the BBC, first as Head of Interactive Learning running education and learning services for school pupils, teachers and parents and most recently as Head of Digital for the BBC Academy, managing all digital activity of the professional learning and development functions for staff and the broadcast industry internationally. I am now advising organisations on how best to respond the opportunities and challenges of the emerging digital age.

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