The least you can do

It’s not rocket surgery

I spent last Tuesday holed up in the ICA with Steve Krug and 40 other folks for a workshop on website usability. Steve is a big friendly American who likes to see things get better and stuff get done. He’s come up with a simple way to get people to start doing their own web usability testing done cheaply and effectively and to get it done now.

The process is simple. Really simple. You make up some tasks you expect people would do on your website and then you watch them try to do those tasks and get them to think out loud as they do so. You get instant feedback that helps you understand what the problems on your site might be. You have a go at fixing the problems and then you do the testing again (he recommends monthly cycles).

The point is to prioritise the biggest usability problems you find and do the least you can do to fix the problem. This stops excuses getting in the way – an upcoming redesign, waiting for some other big fix etc.

It’s also not about laziness – clocking off at 11 and down to the pub. It’s about getting stuff done. It’s about having a better website sooner rather than later. Not a perfect site – but one where the list of ‘big problems’ shrinks and shrinks progressively rather than waiting months or years for a big fix. I’ve certainly fallen into the trap of thinking “We’ll fix that in the refresh”. This is something this approach helps you out of.

A non-web example Steve offers in his book is about a hole in his kitchen floor, roughly covering with a matt, that took ten years to fix properly as it was caught up in lofty plans for a $10,000 kitchen renovation that didn’t happen for 10 years. A simple fix could’ve been put in place for a couple of hundred bucks that would have improved his enjoyment of the space for all of that time!

What’s this got to do with planning?There are probably plenty of parallels – but I wondered if the idea of the ‘least you can do’ is helpful for planners.

There is often reference to “proportionality”. I’ve just looked at the slides for the presentation PINS gave to our infrastructure pilots. They complain about evidence that is too large, over-elaborate, out-of-date or missing… and ask for ‘only as much as is necessary’ – keep it simple – just the crucial stuff etc… The plans that CLG have for additional bits to add to the plan making manual includes something provisionally titled “no gold plating”. I like the attempt at getting the point across, but will be planners still be out there doing unnecessary work (polishing marble?) and missing the point.

We’re about to go into a public sector finance squeeze and quite frankly I think I’d be troubled to find anyone who really thinks we should waste public money doing unnecessary work.

User testing websites helps you find out what the problem is you need to solve. What are the problems planning is trying to solve? What does your evidence tell you?

It then says do the least you can do to fix it – move some text, delete an image etc. In a planning context, what is the least you can do to fix the problems you see? You have policy documents to make sure that the right kind of thing gets built? Do the least you can do with them and see if they work. Do they make any difference to the problem you have seen and are trying to fix?

The other thing user testing says is “if you haven’t seen a problem – you can’t try and fix it”. It’s about solving observed problems. Not things you think might be a problem. These only contribute to an unachievable to-do list that cripples your ability to act and understand the impact of your actions.

Abandoning grand plans for a least you can do approach might actually mean there is more time for actually making things happen, understanding what they mean, tweaking the plan ever onwards, but always doing and making a difference.

It’s the least you can do.

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