A UXA Podcast with Karen McGrane: Taking Advantage of Fear

The belief of public failure or marketplace irrelevance can drive an organization to change. How does a UX leader exploit this corporate fear? What transforms the momentum from fear into positive change within the organization?

In this podcast, Karen tackles the UX Advantage topic, Taking Advantage of Fear.

Full Transcript.


Sean Quinn: Hey now, I’m Sean Quinn. Today is a pretty special UXA podcast. Why? That’s a great question. For the past several UX Advantage Podcasts, I’ve been joined by Jared Spool, which was great.

But today I’m super lucky to be joined by the co-executive producer of the UX Advantage Conference, Karen McGrane, who along with Jared has been working really hard on putting together a different type of conference focusing on UX strategy issues no one else is talking about. How are you today, Karen?

Karen McGrane: I’m doing great, very happy to be here.

Sean: That’s good to hear. In this podcast, we’ll dive into the UX advantage topic of taking advantage of fear. Public failure can put the fear in you. The healthcare.gov disaster is a good example of a public failure. My first question for you, Karen, is how can you use this fear and turn it into positive change within an organization?

Karen: I think the healthcare.gov example is instructive, that up until they had a huge, spectacular public failure, the US government was able to treat web services technology, services, digital services, what this hands-off business is usual approach. “This is the way we’ve always done it. It must always work.”

It wasn’t until they had the media and the public attention pointing a finger at the problems with that website and those processes that they were really inspired to change.

I think in our conversations that Jared and I have had with some of the guests who will be at UX Advantage, fear is something that’s come up. I think it’s one of the hardest things for people to talk about.

There’s the sense that people want to say, “Oh, no. We really are inspired and we’re excited, and we’re not motivated by fear at all,” but I think honestly, most organizations really are motivated by fear to some extent.

The fear of a big, spectacular public failure, or perhaps having a big, spectacular public failure is what drives companies to day, “Hey, we got to work differently.” I think companies that can recognize that and take advantage of it can harness that for good.

Sean: This seems to parallel, then, with the idea of getting the executive buy-in from the top down and not just paying lip service to that, because I imagine this fear transcends the organizational chart.

Karen: I think that many organizations probably find that it’s difficult to get genuine C-suite attention for some of the digital initiatives that a lot of times the web and other mobile and other initiatives like that are treated as if they’re more of a tactical implementation detail.

That they’re something that once executives have said, “We need to have that,” it’s expected to just run and be managed and not actually influence or drive other aspects of the business.

I think what we’ve heard from so many of the guests who will be with us at UX Advantage is that that mindset, that approach just really doesn’t work, that you need the genuine involvement and support of C-level executives to ensure that digital initiatives which touch a variety of different groups across the organization, so marketing and IT and customer service and sales, all over those groups have to work together.

You might need something that shines a big, bright light on the fact that those groups don’t have a really effective way of working together and that that is painfully obvious when you look at the website. That might be what sparks someone’s attention to say, “Hey, we got to fix this.”

Sean: I’ve been thinking a lot about this particular topic. It’s one that I think a lot of people can get something from. Do you think that the different industries have to deal with different types of fear?

What I mean by that is, do you think, say, Fidelity, because of the scope of their business and what they’re actually providing their customers, they’re dealing with a different sort of fear than, say, Marriott?

Not that they’re not in a very competitive space but there is something, it seems a little safer about the fear they might be experiencing than the fear of the transactional relationship that Fidelity seems to have with folks.

Karen: As you’re talking, I found myself thinking that we’re going to have a range of guests that cover the needs of private companies, privately-held companies, public companies, publicly-traded companies, and then civic or government organizations.

While I think that the challenges that many of those organizations face are, in many ways, quite similar, I agree. I think that there probably is some different motivation, some different fears that come to play.

Whether you are a government institution and beholden to your citizens or whether you’re a public company and beholden to your shareholders or whether you’re a private company and, to some extent, you maybe have the luxury of dealing with some of these things behind closed doors.

I think that the types of problems organizations are solving also probably, can cause some different motivations or different fears. I know that Stephen Turbek from Fidelity will probably mention some of the concerns that they have around changing their transactional experience.

I’ve had some great conversations with him about the work that they’ve done to build a beta version of their account servicing so that they can go responsive but have the ability to test and learn and not be making changes on the core transactional experience because that would be really  risky.

I’m sure that we’ll get some great stories from organizations like Marriott about how they’ve managed risk as they move into global markets. Yeah, I agree. I think that there’s just all kinds of interesting stories here about how organizations recognize their fear and then deal with it.

Sean: It sounds like beta mitigates fear. That’s potential bumper sticker slogan, I guess.

Karen: I definitely think that organizations that have moved toward a more data-driven and perhaps even continuous deployment model, which is another thing that we’re going to be talking about at UX Advantage.

How do you get around the fear of the one Big Bang release? Maybe you’re doing more frequent testing. Maybe you’re supplementing what should be a really rigorous approach to in person user research sessions with also some ongoing AB testing or split testing that you’re running on the live site.

You’re continuously deploying a variety of different objects into the live site so that rather than waiting for the one big reveal, you’re constantly evolving the site.

If I was thinking about ways that I might mitigate my fear, making lots of small incremental changes rather than one big bang might be a really good way to do it.

Sean: Listening carefully to you talk, it’s clear that what’s going to be really exceptional about the UX Advantage Conference is that all of these topics were obviously very well thought out, because they’re seemingly interwoven together.

I guess you’d be lucky in an organization if you only had to deal with one or two of them. It sounds like they come part in parcel with another.

Karen: As Jared and I were planning the topics for this event, we realized that most of the leaders that we were going to speak to would be able to cover probably the majority of the subjects.

While we have some guests that are going to come in and give us a really focused look at topics like globalization or how you get your lawyer on your side, I think most of the interviews will be able to cover a range of different topics.

Everything really is an interwoven look at all of the different steps and all the different processes that organizations take as they become a more design-centric, more user-centric organization.

Sean: Taking this full circle, this idea of fear and how can leverage that to make better decisions and release better products, what are some valuable lessons that you think every organization can learn from the challenges that healthcare.gov launch uncovered in spectacular fashion?

Karen: I think first and foremost that fear and even the risk of failure can be a good thing. I don’t know that we would have the US digital service or 18 F right now if we didn’t have healthcare.gov. I think organizations being able to look at a failure and say, this is an opportunity to change is probably one of the most powerful things they can take away.

I think I’d also like to say, you don’t have to wait for a healthcare.gov fiasco in order to make these changes. One of the benefits that I think organizations will get from coming to UX Advantage is a chance to hear from organizations that have already been through this transition and hopefully walk out with some tools that they can use in their own companies to make this change happen.

Sean: That’s great. I think this is going to be an excellent event that people will be well-served attending. I just want to thank you for your time today, Karen.

Karen: I think it’s going to be a fantastic event too, and I hope to see everybody there.

Sean: Watch for other podcasts. It’ll be covering more of the conference topics. Be sure to take out the conference speakers and all of the topics at uxadvantage.com. We hope to see you in Baltimore, August 18th and 19th. I’ll be there. I’m excited for the event. We hope you’ll be there, too. Bye for now.

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