Hi, I'm Dave Mulder. This is my website, where I write about user experience and product design.

Originally Published: June 11, 2010

Solved: Rory Sutherland’s fourth quadrant

Rory Sutherland is a thought leader in advertising, and he’s given multiple TED talks about his approach.

Sutherland’s latest talk is titled ‘Sweat the Small Stuff’. It’s an exercise in paying attention to little things which can make experience a lot better.

If you have 15 minutes, watch it right now.

Toward the end, you saw a simple table comparing the cost of some effort to the effect you get out.

  • Strategy costs a lot, and you get a lot.
  • Consultancy costs a lot, and you might not get much.
  • Trivia costs nothing, but you also get nothing.

And then there’s a fourth quadrant: things that cost little but give you a lot. Sutherland left a question mark in that table cell, asking the audience to fill it in.

TED commenters offered numerous abstract ideas that seemed way off target.

But I think I know: Sutherland’s fourth quadrant is a mixture of user experience research and design thinking.

User experience research just so happens to be my field, and maybe I’m biased for thinking it belongs in Sutherland’s fourth quadrant. But it fits so … beautifully. UX researchers spend time watching people use things. These things might be websites, child-proof caps, retail stores … anything that people interact with.

We’re trained to recognize bottlenecks in that experience. What went wrong? Why wasn’t this customer satisfied? How can this be better?

Whereas an expensive advertising campaign might net you more money by driving people to your e-commerce website, a smaller investment in user experience can have an equivalently large impact.

A relatively big effect from relatively little change.

Design thinking is a process for practical, creative resolution of problems or issues that looks for an improved future result. Design thinking is what brings you the music selection buttons in an elevator, or free liquor on the railways

When you blend user experience research with design thinking, you get the contents of Sutherland’s fourth quadrant: Small and creative ideas with substantial impact.

So the answer is a blend of user experience research and design thinking. If you want a single name for it, try something like user experience thinking. That seems like a terrible buzzword, so feel free to offer a better one.