UX Magazine

Defining and Informing the Complex Field of User Experience (UX)
Article No. 177 May 8, 2007

Hit The Blue Up

UPS has over 94,000 delivery vehicles, 282 airplanes (the 8th largest fleet in the world) and over 425,000 employees across the globe. Over the years they have developed one of the most sophisticated hand held devices ever devised. By the end of 2008 they will have over 70,000 of them deployed worldwide. They call it the Delivery Information Acquisition Device, DIAD for short. The latest iteration has 3 different radio types and is the instant entry point for a tracking system that averages over 10 million tracking requests a day.

So how do you put a device that sophisticated in the hands of so many people without bringing the company to a crawl or opening a small university to train everyone? Make the interface dead simple.

Every time I see those DIAD devices in the hands of my UPS delivery person it reminds me of an experience I had with a UPS driver almost 8 years ago. As I watched him click clack away at the large array of buttons on this intimidating notebook sized device with such extraordinary speed and precision I had to ask him “How hard is that thing to use?” What he showed me has stuck with me ever since. On the small monochromatic screen, just above 2 sets of blue up/down arrows were the words “Hit the blue up.” — “It’s great” he said “totally dumbed down.” Now, he did not say “dumbed down” in a negative way. He was clearly proud about his speed and proficiency on this complex piece of electronics that anyone would be overwhelmed by at first (or tenth) glance. The story has stuck in my mind because that phrase, “dumbed down,” continues to come up so often over the years.

When we get worried about “dumbing it down” too much it is often our own intellect we are trying to protect.

When I tell this story to clients or prospects the response I often hear is: “No, no… I don’t want to dumb it down. Our customers are smarter, more savvy, more…” It got me thinking, when we get worried about dumbing something down, whose intelligence are we worried about insulting? Do you think the UPS drivers think they have dumbed things down for him or her? Or does the extreme simplification make the cumbersome manageable?s When someone visits your web site and there is language that makes each move incredibly clear do you think the visitor feels insulted?

I will be the first to admit, it is a difficult battle. We all want to push the envelope of design and, enjoying/exploring a beautifully designed website is great fun (and a great experience) for many of us. In fact, it should not have to be one or the other. The challenge we all face is to make something so incredibly powerful and complex, like the UPS DIAD, yet make it so extraordinarily accessible that it takes seconds for the user to put that power to use.

Whether it is a multi billion dollar global communication system or making it extraordinarily clear where someone can find something in your catalog, website or store you are not insulting their intelligence, you simply give them ones less thing they have to work through.

Not dumbing it down would have caused the tightest ship in the shipping business to sink just when they were trying to make a huge innovation leap. How many businesses do not embrace new technology because they fear that doing so would bring the company to a grinding halt? If the new way is more painful than the old way then the old way will always be too easy to fall back on.

How much did UPS save in training/support/complaint/re-training costs by dumbing it down? Hundreds of millions at least. How much did making the interface dead simple change the kind of real time information it wanted back from the devices? None.

Whatever it is you are offering, selling or trying to convey, no matter how complex it may be, how do you explain it as easily as Hit the blue up?

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

User Profile

Howard Mann is the founder of Brickyard Partners, a business strategy agency based in Portland, OR. Prior to founding Brickyard Partners in 2001, Mann owned a premier international logistics company with over 140 Million in revenue, six U.S. offices and a global network of over 40 agents worldwide.

As that business came under severe pressure from the previous economic downturn and industry consolidation, Howard lead the company out from those treacherous times by returning to the basics that make every business great and completing 6 acquisitions that re-imagined the business so it was highly attractive to buyers. Finding that “secret sauce” did not come easily but has fueled his purpose to help other business leaders to never have to go through what he endured. 

Through real world experience and those hard times in the “trenches” of business he has learned that it is not following the latest fad, copying competitors or adding complexity that makes a business truly great. His pragmatic approach and knowing what it feels like to sit in the CEO/Owner chair is what makes his work so different and effective.

In addition to his strategy, marketing and communications work, Mann coaches a select group of entrepreneurs, CEO's and business owners. His highly focused workshops and keynotes help executive teams take aggressive action to unlock the true potential of their organizations and build remarkable businesses that endure. In good times and bad. Online and off.

Howard is a sought after speaker both in the U.S. and around the world. He writes frequently on his blog about the importance of the basics and reconnecting to the passion that too often gets lost as businesses mature.

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Comments

30
37

Nice write-up. I agree with your point behind the “whose intelligence?” question. However, I must admit it’s simple to dumb down a single-purpose anything. It’s easy to dumb down the google home page. It’s hard to dumb down a portal home page. It’s easy to dumb down the elevator buttons. It’s hard to simplify cockpit controls in Boeing 777. It’s easy to dumb down one of 37signals’ web apps but try dumbing down Yahoo! Finance.

32
37

Point well taken. However, with a device as complex as the DIAD, UPS looked at making the human interaction point dead simple despite a highly complex device being behind the simple words. There is some mystique in being one of a few that can sit at a 777 cockpit and know what button does what. It doesn’t mean they could not put a “Push this to start”, “Push this to go left”,etc.. Obviously an exaggeration but for interfaces where you want people to “Get it” right away considering each “Blue up” will help the user have an easier time gaining access to the power of the tool/app.

38
31

When I saw the stats for this company, and then saw that its the forth bigest fleet in the world i was amazed. I didnt know that it could get any bigger.

32
34

Great write-up! I’m in the process of designing a website for my graphic/web design business. After reading this, I went back to the site and realized how complicated I had made it for someone not familiar with graphic design/web design (my customer). A simple re-wording of the home page can make it much more clear than it is now. Like you say in the response to soxiam, why not put “Push this to start”. Sometimes I forget who I’m designing the website for, for me or for someone who needs me!

40
34

“Sometimes I forget who I’m designing the website for, for me or for someone who needs me!”

Well put Alex. Thanks for the comment.

32
34

The simplest possible system that does what is required of it is almost always the best choice.

I take pride in the simple beauty of good interface design.

28
34

wonderful!

34
35

Make everything as simple as possible, but no simpler – Albert Einstein

31
33

Make everything as simple as possible, but no simpler – Albert Einstein

37
30

wonderful!

37
35

The simplest possible system that does what is required of it is almost always the best choice.

I take pride in the simple beauty of good interface design.

39
35

“Sometimes I forget who I’m designing the website for, for me or for someone who needs me!”

Well put Alex. Thanks for the comment.

37
34

Great write-up! I’m in the process of designing a website for my graphic/web design business. After reading this, I went back to the site and realized how complicated I had made it for someone not familiar with graphic design/web design (my customer). A simple re-wording of the home page can make it much more clear than it is now. Like you say in the response to soxiam, why not put “Push this to start”. Sometimes I forget who I’m designing the website for, for me or for someone who needs me!

30
31

When I saw the stats for this company, and then saw that its the forth bigest fleet in the world i was amazed. I didnt know that it could get any bigger.

33
32

Point well taken. However, with a device as complex as the DIAD, UPS looked at making the human interaction point dead simple despite a highly complex device being behind the simple words. There is some mystique in being one of a few that can sit at a 777 cockpit and know what button does what. It doesn’t mean they could not put a “Push this to start”, “Push this to go left”,etc.. Obviously an exaggeration but for interfaces where you want people to “Get it” right away considering each “Blue up” will help the user have an easier time gaining access to the power of the tool/app.

35
37

Nice write-up. I agree with your point behind the “whose intelligence?” question. However, I must admit it’s simple to dumb down a single-purpose anything. It’s easy to dumb down the google home page. It’s hard to dumb down a portal home page. It’s easy to dumb down the elevator buttons. It’s hard to simplify cockpit controls in Boeing 777. It’s easy to dumb down one of 37signals’ web apps but try dumbing down Yahoo! Finance.