Travis recently had the pleasure of speaking at Ignite UX Michigan, a series of 5-minute talks where each speaker has 20 slides automatically advancing every 15 seconds. The following is a quick recap of his talk, titled “Resisting the Cargo Cult of UX Strategy.”

First a quick history lesson on cargo cults. During World War II, in the Pacific theater, the US military set up bases in the remote Melanesian islands. Because the area was so remote, they had to airdrop in cargo—rations, medicine, supplies, etc. Many of the villagers there had never seen planes before, let alone planes that dropped incredible wealth and technology from the sky. They were transfixed by the process that seemingly allowed the soldiers to summon the airdrops at will.

After the war, the soldiers (mostly) left and the villagers were desperate to keep this bounty from the sky coming. There were many socio-political factors at play, but one result was groups of islanders mimicking the soldiers’ day-to-day actions in an attempt to bring back the cargo drops. They mimicked marching drills with crudely fashioned “guns” and some even crafted wooden headsets—all in an attempt to summon back the magical gifts from the sky.

It’s easy from our vantage point to see the folly and futility in their attempts, but I think we fall into the same traps of thinking in our work as user experience professionals.

Visualizing the User Experience of Flavor

Fast forward to present day: I would like to tell a cautionary tale of sorts from my own experience. Our team was working with a well-known brand of tea. They offered a wide range of teas, with dozens of different varieties. We had recently launched a redesign of their website and the navigation worked well—if you knew what you were looking for. But our client wanted a way to introduce new tea drinkers to their product line and to help people discover their new favorite tea. They pointed us to an example from the world of wine.

Yellow Tail flavor chartYellow Tail had this feature on their site where they arranged all of their wines on a familiar spectrum in terms of their flavor characteristics. Dry wines on the left, sweet on the right. Light-bodied on top, heavier on the bottom. The format worked well for them, providing an at-a-glance view of all their varieties and showing similarities spatially. It also acted as a navigational device, allowing users to drill down to learn more about a particular wine.


Screen Shot 2014-11-12 at 10.42.39 AMFrom there we started looking for other approaches to visually arrange and communicate relationships between products (in other words, contextual research). We looked at the worlds of wine, coffee, chocolate, cheese—and of course, tea. And what we kept finding were these highly detailed, intricately designed flow charts that mapped the taxonomy and characteristics of these sets of products.

Concentric wheels with different colors representing flavorsIn particular, we were drawn to this circular format, or wheel. We arranged each product along the outer edge; and the various sections within described prominent flavors or other attributes. But as we pursued this idea further, we realized that it simply was not working. The wheel was surfacing too much complexity at once and required real mental effort to interpret. We eventually came up with a much better, simpler solution—but as I reflected on our journey up to this point, I realized we had fallen into this trap of cargo cult thinking.

Keep Asking What, Not How

Through our exploration of contextual examples, we had become so fascinated by their implementations—their visual design, the veneer—that we lost sight of our own goals. Without critical insight into what they were trying to do and why, we could only focus on the end result, the outcome—much like the villagers with their wooden headphones.

The design process could be described as a series of answers to an evolving set of questions. In the beginning of a project, those questions focus on intent. We had skipped this critical step of asking ourselves, “What do we want to be?” The examples we looked at had very different goals than we did—and in the end, this had manifested in very different implementations.

In many ways, the examples we looked at were trying to be art for art’s sake. The high level of visual intricacy was largely the point. And they succeeded in making something that was lovely to look at and study. But what we wanted was something more like a treasure map. We wanted the experience to be somewhat whimsical and lead you towards a delightful reward. Success for us was a user discovering a new favorite blend of tea.

Break Free … and Find Your Cargo

So how do we avoid falling into this cargo cult mentality? I’ve found it helpful to remind myself of something that Merlin Mann (@hotdogladies) often talks about, which is solving the right problem at the right level for the right reasons. Let’s briefly unpack those three things.

  • Working on the right problem for me is about focus. Honing in on the most important parts of what you’re trying to solve and setting aside (for a time) anything that isn’t directly related.
  • The right level is about fidelity. Often at the beginning of a project we are tempted to quickly get to something concrete, something we can hold in our hands or heads and iterate on. But we may be better served by intentionally working in a more abstract way, at least early on.
  • And finally the right reasons come back to your goals. What are we trying to accomplish and what would success look like?

By keeping these three things in mind—focus, fidelity, and goals—we stand a much better chance of avoiding this cargo cult thinking, enabling us to create more intentional, reasoned work.

The Understanding Group can help you put the “What Before How” in your projects. Learn more about how to first establish your goals and then translate them into a clear plan.

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