Undercover Boss – A Case Study For UX Research

Many of you will be familiar with the ‘Undercover Boss’ series on television. For those who aren’t the basic concept is a CEO puts on a disguise and starts doing some of the jobs within their own company to discover what the issues facing their staff are.

The bosses in the show are constantly surprised that systems and processes they have in place aren’t working in the real world. It takes them working with and listening to the actual staff for them to realise there is a problem. Sound familiar? That’s because this whole series is exactly like a contextual enquiry.

Undercover Boss is great entertainment but it is also a solid case for companies to invest in user research before profit margins start slumping.

Speak to your users

One of the most recent episodes was one of the directors of Honda UK. When working in one of their garages he soon discovered that a system he had helped design with other people from head office was failing and costing Honda money.

It is often only when companies see this monetary effect that they start investigating what could be going wrong.

In fairness to the director he accepted that his initial approach to designing the system was wrong. However it wasn’t clear that they would be doing any additional user research beyond what he had seen during the episode. I hope for Honda that they will be involving their users in redesigning and testing of the new system.

Create product evangelists

DHL Boss Phil Couchman
DHL Boss Phil Couchman

The bosses often come across (more frequently then I choose to believe) employees who are heavily invested in the brand but can’t do the job as well as they think they could because of process or system restrictions.

At the end of the program these employees normally get pulled into the head office and rewarded with a nice little PR-friendly holiday or similar, but that doesn’t really sort the issue.

When conducting contextual enquiries or research one of the key things you can do to make a new product successful – particularly if it’s an internal tool – is to identify these types of users. They can be instrumental in swaying opinion and increasing uptake of what you create.

They are also one of the key candidates you can use to test your solutions as they often have an innate desire to help improve the company.

Don’t wait for there to be an issue

This is a plea to companies and their CEO’s – don’t wait for profits to drop or staff turnover to reach unacceptable levels to kick start this type of UX research.

User needs can change over time and a system that worked last year may not work this. Take time to involve your staff in key system design and observe them using it in their natural environment. Rather than seeing it as an expense consider it as an investment to identify issues sooner before they start to hurt your company and it’s bottom line.

It’s very easy to assume something works well in your air conditioned office but as soon as you hit the shop floor things may be very different. Context matters. You are not the user.

Image courtesy Channel 4