The one question that forces you to really understand your service or platform

December 11, 2018 | 4 minute read


Digital Strategy

Digital Transformation

Stakeholder Management

Image credit: Tumisu

Recently, I had an interesting conversation with a software engineer about the challenges of working on existing digital services run by an organisations operating in industries dominated by jargon, acronyms, and complex concepts. She mentioned that she felt like only a select few on the team really understood what the platform offers to users.

To better understand the service she works on - and to gauge whether there is a clear and shared understanding across the team - I suggested that she ask her product owner or senior stakeholders one simple question …

How you would you explain our service or digital platform to an 8-year-old?

Sounds like a simple question to answer, right?

Surprisingly, it’s actually quite challenging to answer it properly. Because 8 year-olds see the world as it is, any attempt to use jargon, fancy writing, or complex concepts to distort reality will be met with a puzzled look - and likely a barrage of rather pointed questions.

Yes, 8 year-olds have active and healthy imaginations. But they won’t understand something abstract like “We aspire to be the world’s leader in X and Y and to do so, we integrate state-of-the-art pipelines and machine learning driven by Z, all of which have been developed in close collaboration with a select range of near- and off-shore partners.”

Trying to communicate what your platform or service is to an 8-year-old means there is no escape and nowhere to hide. You can’t rely on the coporate-speak, on-brand messaging crafted by the marketing team. You can’t rely on complex jargon and acronyms that everyone in your industry knows. And you definitely can’t rely on some abstract vision or mission statement that you think sounds fancy and intelligent.

Instead, you have to strip that all away and explain what you do in a simple, concise way.

If you can do that, great! It means you know exactly what you offer and the position you occupy in your industry. And so integrating UX design principles and practices into your existing organisational processes - if they aren’t used already - can help you build better products and services.

But if you can’t answer the question in a simple, easy-to-understand way, then you have a major problem! You don’t really understand what it is that you offer. And no matter how well-intentioned it may be, the UX design process won’t help. Instead, you will find yourself throwing spaghetti against the wall and hoping something sticks.

So where did the question come from? It’s actually based on my all-time favourite interview question from John Cady. When I was interviewing for a UX role with the University of Michigan’s Information and Technology Services team, he asked how I would explain UX to an 8-year-old.

Admittedly, I was slightly thrown by the question. I know how to explain UX to C-level executives that think it’s expensive, time consuming, and just about fancy colours and fonts. But trying to make UX make sense to an 8-year-old, that was a new challenge.

Despite the fact that the question was originally posed to me in an interview, it has become one that I often use when I first meet a client or start working on an existing service or platform. And it’s one that I prefer to ask during a collaborative team exercise that ensures we all have a common understanding of the service or platform.

Here’s what I do - and don’t worry, it takes less than an hour:

  1. Give each person a blank piece of paper and a marker
  2. Ask everyone to describe the service/platform/website to an 8-year-old using sentences, phrases, words, or drawings
  3. Using coloured dots, get your team to dot vote on particular phrases, words, or drawings they like
  4. Come back together as a team and agree on how you’d describe your service/platform/website to an 8-year-old
  5. Don’t consign the answer to sitting on some server or up in the cloud. Use it for a variety of tasks, like onboarding new team members, building empathy maps and jobs-to-be-done statements, or for assessing if a new feature contributes to the main function of the product or service.

Of course, there are other potential uses for this answer - persona development, marketing messaging, branding, etc. But at its core, it’s about ensuring that everyone has a common and shared understanding of what a product or service does - courtesy of an 8-year-old.

So next time you’re stuck for a conversation starter with a team, a client, or a group of senior stakeholders, ask them to describe their platform or service to an 8 year old. Yes, it might initially be met with strange looks and skepticism, but it’s guaranteed to lead to interesting conversations and will result in a UX artefact that can serve as a solid foundation for future UX research and design activities.