The first grumblings
What would later amount to one of the worst days of my life, was already off to a bad start when my general discomfort developed to be a fully fledged case of food poisoning. I was on a solitary road trip across Bali, and had previously stopped at a roadside restaurant with beautiful vistas over lake Buyan for some lunch. As I sank my spoon into what may or may not have been fresh chicken soup, the ground started shaking for the first time during my trip. Maybe this was a warning to leave my meal untouched, but after the shaking stopped and the hysteric restaurant staff made their way back into their establishment, I continued with my meal. The shaking wasn't too strong - like standing on a bridge while a lorry drove past, so I wasn't very phased at the time. Neighbouring Lombok had been shaking for some time and it was assumed that Bali, while expecting some minor movement, was generally a safe place to be. A few hours later, I (just about) made it to a hotel at my next stop, Ubud where I was to spend many horrific hours in the bathroom before retiring to bed.
10:56pm. Waking up in the pitch darkness, dehydrated and with high fever, I felt disoriented, but not yet alarmed. I'd experienced fever-induced hallucinations before and so, at first, didn't make much of the perception that the room, my bed, the curtains were moving. As the shaking intensified, though, I panicked. Now, the furniture and the hotel itself started to make sounds that accompanied the shaking: cracking and shrieking, as if the hotel was suffering a bad case of arthritis whilst trying to climb a flight of stairs. I threw off the duvet and ran for the door. With everything - myself included - shaking, it took me a perceived eternity to unlock the door. When I finally made it out of my room, I joined a German family with three children who were running outside as fast as they could. As we reached the end of the hall, the shaking stopped suddenly. For a moment I hesitated, listening to the ensuing silence that would have been eerily perfect, if not for some faint, far away car alarms. Now, I was overcome by something else that made me race back the way I'd come. The shock to my body caused by fear and physical exertion, compounded by the condition I'd already been in, meant I had to say goodbye to the banana and toast that I'd had for dinner, and that I had so proudly kept in my stomach until then. As I stepped out of the bathroom, I broke out into cold sweat and dropped to the floor where I passed out. It was all too much for mind and body.
This is where the UX part of my story begins.
When I came to, there were only two questions on my mind: What exactly had happened, and was I safe now? Naturally, I turned to the internet for answers, expecting that all my needs would be catered for. After all, the brief was simple. Let's try to write a user story:
As a person in (or traveling to) an earthquake-prone region, I want to be educated on what to do during and immediately after a tremor, so that I can calm down and reduce the threat to my health.
Back in my bed (I'd faintly remembered that being outside during an earthquake had its own risks) I picked up my phone. Upon opening my browser, Google had already guessed what I was after. It showed me a summary of the event and provided a link to the website of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). I learned that the shock waves I'd experienced indeed originated from Lombok, but were so strong that they still amounted to a good 4 on the intensity scale in my locale. I then typed in iterations of my most pressing questions into search: Should I be expecting more shock waves? For how long? What should I do when they hit?
Every article I found was littered with images of entirely levelled neighbourhoods from around the world. They talked of emergency evacuations, first aid advice, everything that may be useful in a worst case scenario. But my case, the one where I was well and alive, the hotel is still standing, and I am just really freaking scared, was not catered for. At. All. Sure, some said that there is no telling when another tremor will hit. Great, but what was I supposed to DO about it? While still reading a few of the 'when all world breaks loos' type of articles, it started again.
11:16pm. My eyes caught sight of a water bottle, its contents shaking from one side to another, until it dropped to the floor. This time, I followed some of the most basic advice I had just discovered and did not mindlessly run outside, but jumped to the door arch between the bedroom and the bathroom. All the while, I could hear the German family shout for each other outside. They had been as clueless as me since the last quake, but had stayed outside by the pool instead. After this episode was over, I went back to my research, still looking for answers. Was this it, or was it just the beginning? Were things going to get worse and I would need that catastrophe-situation advice after all, where I'd try to make a pocket with my arms and hands to trap air to breath while the building would collapse above me? You can tell - while a little more rational, I was still absolutely terrified at this point. Stuff was real. My frustration over not finding the answers I was looking for - or even a reliable source telling me there weren't any - kept growing. Then, after investigating the USGS's stats and charts a bit more, I startled at something: A map and table, outlining an estimate of how many people had experienced that night's tremors.
805.000 were indeed in actual catastrophe regions. Where they were, roads might be torn up, buildings might fall down, people may be hurt. They're the people the world might see on the news the next morning.
43 million and a bit were far enough away to feel roughly what I had experienced before my fateful meal earlier in the day. They might look at each other, shrug, and carry on with their days.
However, more than 13 million people might have had a similarly (or more) traumatic night as I did. That’s 13 million people with good reason to fear for their lives, to scream, cry, pray. 13 million people, who just want to know what to do in this situation, and if they are in any kind of real risk. 13 million people without answers to those questions - fearing for their lives and their loved ones'.
Eventually, I gave up. I left my doors unlocked for a quick escape, the lights on, and placed the water bottle next to me, so I could easily see any movement in the water inside. I can probably thank my general weakness, exhaustion, and fever, for eventually falling asleep.
Why does this matter for product development?
When we, as technical practitioners, shape the internet and aim to solve problems for humans around the world, it is tempting to target the extreme cases. Universities are filled with idealistic design students, who create apps for catastrophes and foldable lifeboats that can be kept under a sofa in case a tsunami hits; and this is something that is carried through across less dramatic domains as well. We might tell ourselves that we just start designing the critical or happy path; that, eventually, we will cater for all other important use cases too, but like the idea of launching an MVP that will eventually be perfectly glossy and complete, this is MUCH harder to not lose track of, than it may sound. Prioritisation is hard. Ultimately, the example in my story begs the question: How to prioritise use cases, and how to keep track of all others? Has no one thought of the information needs of people in the situation I shared with 13 million others? Can they be ignored completely? How does one compare the risk of loss of life to a few, to the certain panic of millions others?
Let's take this to other contexts:
When we work on a mobile app for an airline, do we prioritise the happy path of the perfect experience, or do we dedicate resources to those whose journey didn't go to plan?
When designing B2B health care solutions, how to we keep track of the needs of the user, while designing critical paths for what the payer wants to see?
When creating applications for an insurance company, how do we help a customer whose factory is under water, whilst maximising efficiency and profits for the client?
I don't suggest that we should not focus on the extreme cases. They deserve to be treated as priorities, and they are a powerful north star when thinking about what not to design for. However, let's also ask how we can make sure that the less obvious use cases are not forgotten. So when we do come back to re-visit them in the future, we can uncover synergies and efficiencies between all of them, creating compelling solutions that help more people more effectively.
The key step is to thoroughly analyse and document the entire stakeholder and user landscape, before we jump head over heel at a problem we think deserves all our attention. Once we start thinking about this, we will find that there are plenty of well-established ways to document everything we should keep track of and come back to later. Personas, empathy maps, journey maps are a few. Solid service design will help maintain an overview and fill a strategic development pipeline that grows more powerful and efficient as it is being worked on.
At QuantumBlack, my colleagues and I meticulously analyse and map the end-to-end process of how advanced analytics projects are (ought to be) solved. This enables us to develop powerful tools that target specific and rich opportunities, whilst coming together as an ecosystem of solutions that power projects from before they start, until long after they are complete. At the same time, our learnings feed into a protocol that sets new standards in how to use data to solve business problems. Learn more at www.quantumblack.com.
If my earthquake experience and the problems I encountered left you with a feeling of "So go do something about it!": I would love to! Let’s crowd-source information on what to do for any situation on the intensity scale in all geographies and circumstances. If you know of a reliable source for information, please leave a comment.