Fish Bones Fixing User Experience

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Often when we are brought in to fix a poor user experience it is because there has been a set of complex business processes codified into a technical solution.

The real problem with this is that those complex processes turn into a series of questions that a user needs to get through in order to achieve some kind of outcome with the system. These lists of questions turn into visual noise. The user usually ends up missing something that was required, or typing in something that triggers a complex ‘form validation’ scenario where they have to wait for the form to be submitted only to reload and discover something was not entered as the system required.

Image result for long form with lots of questions horrible ux
Image courtesy of Jamie Davis

If a user needs to use this system once in their lifetime, it is a mild annoyance. If a system like this is required to perform a daily job function, it is soul-crushing!

How can the complex business process be distilled into something that does not have complexity, visual noise or excessive form validation?


The key is to distil down to the critical path of the process and represent that simpler process by using something that looks like a fishbone diagram in reverse. The ‘reverse fishbone’ diagram is excellent because it makes us think about a core process (the backbone) and the triggers for sub-processes as the starting point for spines that come out from the backbone.

The ‘reverse fishbone’ diagram is based on the original fishbone diagram also known as an Ishikawa diagram. This diagram was first developed by Kaoru Ishikawa at the Kawasaki shipyards in the 1960s as a way of identifying the root cause of manufacturing defects.

Image result for fishbone diagram
Example of a Fishbone Diagram. Image courtesy of Wikipedia


In user experience design we use the left-to-right spine to represent the critical path and the spines to identify the ‘stage-specific’ sub-paths.

To start the process of developing a reverse fishbone diagram, we would first start with the existing process mapped as a linear sequence in the centre.

Once we have the linear sequence mapped out, we could prune steps down to the critical path by identifying which steps depend on a critical step – but do not have a dependency on any questions further down the sequence.

These get moved off to the spines and the steps that remain are the critical path. Furthermore, we want to identify optional questions that have a dependency on a critical step and identify these on the spines.

The final stage of the process is to illustrate the interdependence between steps in the subprocesses in the reverse fishbone. You can see from the example above we get a clear sense of the commitment process being restructured, we see what is important, as well as throwing up some ‘challenge’ questions back to the client to force a distillation of thinking around key steps in the process – Are they really part of the critical path?

Case Study

A state-owned energy utility we worked with had the challenge of providing transparency for employees to obtain subdelegation of authority to spend money. That is, how do employees find the right person in the organisation that can authorise an expenditure. This is an electricity company so there are all sorts of expenditures, from stationery supplies to 25-tonne transformers, and each class of expense has a different set of subdelegation constraints.

To solve this problem, the company developed a complex form that employees could use to find the appropriate authority in the business. The only problem was that nobody used it. The complexity in the forms was such that employees found it easier to use the ‘grapevine’ and take a risk that the subdelegation was incorrect rather than persist trying to use the system.

We then brought in to resolve the problem and using the fishbone diagram in a workshop with the project team we were able to reduce the process down to three simple steps that had a few extra questions depending on the answers you chose in one of the three steps.

Employees started using the subdelegation solution, compliance was almost immediately improved, reducing operating costs and legal exposure.

Image Courtest of Francesco Ungaro.


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