miltary tank

User Experience for a Volatile World

Every year, it seems that the “experts” say that there is a new normal. Things are different this time. The world has fundamentally changed. If these experts agreed on what the change was, perhaps we could agree with them. But they often have diametrically opposed views of what the future is. They can’t all be right.

But there is one thing that hasn’t changed. The increasing velocity of change. Eric McNulty has a good summary of what I mean in a recent Strategy+Business. He is an international consultant on leadership so he has seen the changes in the world from a widely diverse perspective – he works with corporate executives at a high level and in many different countries.

From regular triple-digits swings in the market to the rapid rise of often profit-free unicorns valued at US$1 billion or more, a possible exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union, the devolution of the once-hopeful Arab Spring into the chaos of the Syrian civil war, and turmoil from Libya to the Ukraine, this isn’t just a VUCA world anymore; it’s becoming ever more VUCA.

He uses the U.S. military’s acronym VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) to describe it. This concept has a lot in common with the way human factors practitioners describe naturalistic environments. That is no coincidence. Just as we are designing systems for this volatile world, management has to run companies in this same volatile world and the military needs to operate here too. Whether you call it VUCA or NDM, rapid change makes it much more difficult.

My Take

Are there some high level guidelines we can use to address this situation? Something that applies whether we are designing for a VUCA healthcare system, a VUCA transportation system, or a VUCA consumer system?

In my own work, I have discovered several commonalities no matter where I am working. When users are confronted by this VUCA world and need to resolve it to achieve their goals, their anxiety levels skyrocket. So design attributes that help to reduce anxiety is critical. This can include both simple interventions as well as more intricate ones. For example:

  • Social feedback such as social proof (“10 of your friends like this product”).
  • Shortcuts such as expert recommendations
  • Decision wizards that take users through a step by step process so that each step is very simple
  • Reducing the total set of attributes or options they have to pick through
  • Profiling in advance and leveraging user models to focus the decision process.

Note that not all of these work in all cases, but the basic approach does for most. A doctor may not want any options to be hidden. But other ways to reduce anxiety through decision simplification can be helpful if they do not reduce the doctor’s freedom of action.

Your Turn

I am sure that you have many techniques for dealing with VUCA domains as well. Please share. We can all benefit from your experience.

Image Credit:Richard Bumgardner

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