Originally published in Ahead of the Curve on August 31, 2014.
User experience (UX). User-centered design (UCD). Experience design. You may have heard these labels or other variations of them, but what do they mean?
What exactly is UX?
And why should it be implemented?
These phrases are not buzzwords. Collectively, and often interchangeably, they refer to the design and development philosophy that puts the user at the core of the development process. Focusing not on building a product, but on creating a complete and immersive end-to-end experience. For some modern organisations, this practice is in their DNA. For others, it represents a fundamental shift in corporate culture and strategy that could be challenging to achieve. For any business aiming to maintain sustainability, the end-user is the key stakeholder who must remain central to the development process.
There are several factors, mostly cost-related, that lead some organizations to initially meet UX with resistance:
1. Leaders often lack the vision to see the long term advantages of a user-centered design approach and are distracted by short term expenses.
2. On the surface, it doesn’t seem to fit into the traditional Project Management Triangle model that emphasizes quality, cost, and schedule as opposing production constraints. Even if you can convince decision-makers that designing for the user results in a higher quality product, anyone who has worked in product development knows that, unfortunately, cost and schedule regularly trump quality.
3. It is difficult to demonstrate UX return on investment since there are no known methods to specifically quantify “experience”. Products are often praised for being simple, delightful, and easy-to-use. But how does one directly attribute a portion of these products’ sales volumes and revenues to their UCD characteristics? Forward-thinking leaders understand the value of UCD and can see the correlation between a well-designed product and the sustainability of the business. Others struggle to make that connection.
At the intersection of usefulness, ease-of-use, and affect (emotion) are delightful user experiences. These are the three essential components of disruptive products; ones that generate excitement and brand loyalty. Love it or hate it, this narrow slice is where the iPhone lives. It is a product that has demonstrated not only tremendous sustainability, but also the ability to spawn many new markets in its wake (iPad, iPad Mini, iTunes, accessories, home ecosystems, and more). It has produced a new generation of loyal customers (they even have a name; “Apple fanboys”). Introduced in 2007, it has created thousands of jobs worldwide and continues to dominate major sections of the smartphone market.
While simple in theory, user-centered design is a highly innovative approach to product development. It is based on acquiring direct feedback from users or prospects during the different phases of development, allowing you to make iterative design updates.
If you are an entrepreneur, this could be as basic as asking your friends or family what they think about your new idea.
If you’re a large corporation, it could mean investing in an in-house UX team or spending significant budget on outsourcing large research projects.
There are many proven methods with which to obtain empirical data and user feedback; surveys, one-on-one interviews, focus group sessions, and contextual field research- to name a few. What differentiates organizations that effectively apply UCD practices from those that do not isn’t just asking the questions…that’s the easy part. Where many fail is listening to the feedback, and implementing design changes accordingly. This is the design-test-iterate cycle that any product development group should aspire to follow.
UX practitioners come from a variety of different educational and professional backgrounds. Human factors, ergonomics, computer science, psychology, design, and arts are all common areas from which UX designers, engineers, and researchers develop. There are many specialized disciplines in UX; researcher, industrial designer, visual designer, interaction designer, prototyper, front-end developer, and many more. What they all have in common is the shared belief that the only way to create the best user experiences is by building the development process around the user.
Conducting user research and establishing a direct and ongoing stream of communication with the user is the crux of UCD. However, there are also other components that are critical to the success of the process. If you are developing software user interfaces (UIs), there are tools to help you maintain consistent behaviours, look and feel across your UIs. Depending on your resources and scope, you might use a combination of pattern libraries, icon libraries, style guides, reusable front-end component libraries, or a dedicated front-end development team (critical for large-scale operations). If you build hardware, you can utilize cosmetic specification documents, behavioral specification documents, and design and engineering style guides, all of which should be backed by a thorough understanding of the user and comprehensive user research. Many specialty firms around the world offer services in the different UX areas such as Userade, which focuses primarily on research in the Middle East, Africa, and North America.
While UCD is not a magic formula for delivering disruptive products, it is a main ingredient. Exceptional user experiences are rarely designed and developed in a vacuum. And when they are, it is usually by chance. As thought leaders and business owners concerned with the sustainability of your organizations, this is a risk not worth taking. And ultimately, completing the circle, the main beneficiary of UCD is the user.