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Six painted rocks. Five are painted to represent different characters.

I live in Brighton with my partner, 3 year old daughter and 2 Border Collies. There are no shortage of options for amazing walks nearby. We are surrounded by public footpaths, rolling hills and the South Downs is right on our doorstep. Yet it can be a challenge to find a decent walk that will provide exercise for 2 dogs that have a lot of energy while not not being too demanding on my daughter’s little legs or my partner’s shoulders! This is why we regularly end up driving 20 minutes on most days for one walk in particular.

We stumbled upon this particular walk by complete accident. Out of lockdown, we’d taken a family outing, driving out of Brighton and coming across a beautiful spot where we could just see hills. The dogs needed their walk and my partner and I agreed to take turns carrying our daughter if it came to it. It was a lovely day, but too sunny for me, so I needed some shade. There was a wooded area a short distance from where we could park, so we headed there and found a trail leading into the woods. And it was along this trail we came across something totally unexpected.

Dotted throughout the walk were painted rocks. Some featured images of characters, others depicted colourful scenes. We ended up spending most of the walk looking out for these painted rocks. It was extremely enjoyable, and my daughter loved it. So much so that we went back a few days later. To our delight, there were more painted rocks!  We kept going back and each time there were new additions to keep us entertained. It was clear that different artists were getting involved and that kept us coming back. More recently, fan art arrived, and then some gamification around the rocks. For instance, a sign appeared near the start of the trail challenging us: “can you spot 10 Pickle Ricks?”

A wooden sign with "Can you spot 10 Pickle Ricks?" written on it and a cartoon pickle

A rock with the character Pickle Rick painted onto it. There is a small 6 in the corner of the rock.

If I had been asked how I would have designed the perfect walk for me and my family, or how I would improve an existing walk, I would might have come up with the following:

  • Make it flat
  • Create some shaded areas
  • Include a few benches to sit on
  • Have a place to park nearby
  • Have some picnic areas
  • Ensure there is plenty of room
  • etc

I certainly wouldn’t have – and I doubt many other people would either – thought about decorating the trail with painted rocks, or adding gamification around the rocks. However, the painted rocks are what makes this walk unique and one of the reasons that this particular walk is enjoyed by lots of different people who keep coming back.

This is a great example of a delightful experience for people that could have been missed out had the problem to be solved not been truly properly defined, if there wasn’t enough freedom for coming up with ideas, or if the wrong questions were being asked of users. Approaches that limit us in these ways can have a huge impact on the success of the experience we want to provide. 

The Nielsen Norman Group (NN/g) describe the first rule of usability as, “don’t listen to users”. I’ve also personally given this advice many times throughout my career. I’ve often heard people say things like, “this is what the users told me they want”. Only providing what users ask for is an approach unlikely to lead to success or please our users. For example, I was brought in to one company to help with a real time information dashboard that had been designed based on what the users thought they needed. All of the users had been very articulate about their individual requirements, but once everything was implemented it resulted in a bit of a mess. There was feedback on the primary menu that it took up too much space so they wanted it in the bottom right hand corner of the page. This meant that the primary menu was buried at the bottom right of the page which you had to scroll to (down and right!) because there was so much information in an attempt to get everything on one page. The users insisted on having information automatically scrolling horizontally across the page which meant, once implemented, there was so much information moving across different parts of the page, it was impossible for anyone to make sense of it and find what they needed. Worst of all, because the page was so busy and so much information was automatically scrolling, updates that should have been in real time took several minutes to loop round again.

Listening to users just isn’t enough. What people say is unreliable. We need to see what people actually do. Understand what they are thinking as they carry out a task or activity. It is about understanding the entire experience of a user. Watching people take that walk, or taking the walk with bored children that needed something to grab their attention could have been what led to the idea of the painted rocks. 

User interviews, qualitative surveys, diary studies, field studies and Genba are some of the user experience techniques that, when used in combination, we can use to build better empathy with users. An Empathy Map is a great tool to bring the results of these and other user research techniques together to look at what a user could be thinking, seeing, feeling and hearing during an experience. This provides a great base to understand what drives users’ behaviours so that we can be guided to more meaningful innovation.

This is what UX is all about – increasing the chances of coming up with more interesting and innovative ideas by getting closer to our users and discovering things we wouldn’t have if we just ask people what they want. Nobody would have asked for painted rocks!

 

***The walk has been named Malling Rocks which is hidden in Malling Down and to all those that have been contributing thank you for creating such a wonderful experience. If you’re ever in the area, it’s certainly worth a visit.***

***I never did find all 10 Pickle Ricks!!!***

Two rocks, side by side. One is painted white, with a heart, a bee, and a leaf painted onto it. On the rock, there is the words "In Fairies". Read aloud, the rock reads "Believe in fairies". The other rock is pained as a sunset, with a silhouette of a fairy and a dandelion.

 

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