UX as a new year’s resolution

 Gym membership is about to undergo its traditional annual boost; even now the introductory offers have been readied to greet the queues of earnest individuals who feel that the time has come to make that long–overdue change to their regimen. Sports shops will be visited, gym wear and protein shakes will be purchased.

Television ads, with easy answers to any number of personal improvement and personal transformation challenges, will race to fill the vacuum left by the stores trying to convince us that they ‘do’ Christmas better than all the others. Exercise gadgets, diet plans, fitness DVDs by an endless string of B and C list celebrities will be paraded across our screens. We all know the pattern. It is recurrent, seasonal.

In boardrooms and meeting rooms across the land, similar cyclical activities may be underway: discussions centering around the need to improve performance in particular areas. Just possibly, this may involve performance online. Maybe that website that no–one believes is really pulling its weight for the organisation has had its time. Yes, that’s it, it’s time for a new website.

Fulfilling Einstein’s definition of insanity – doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result every time – a lack of attention to underlying challenges will result in repeated, failed attempts to meet any tangible goals. No questions are asked of the old website. No specific, relevant targets set for the new one. Clarity of purpose gets lost in interdepartmental wrangling.

In many cases, a vague sense of the website having to achieve something will exist, but what that something is will too frequently be weighted towards the organisation’s view of the world.

Increasingly, discussion of this nature will turn towards the need for a UX/UI/[insert your acronym of choice here] guru. Sometimes this will involve hiring a single individual to provide the essential missing ingredients – as evidenced recently, with a company seeking to recruit a “Creative Front–end / UI / UX Engineer”. Nothing could signal more clearly ‘we don’t know what we’re doing but we hope that by throwing some terms around something magic will happen’.

Without something changing beyond the veneer then, like the hopeless dieter who is all talk at the water cooler while gorging out on nachos and chocolate at night, very little is likely to change. Without a commitment to a customer-centred approach the new digital venture, be it an app, a website, whatever, becomes that oddest of man-made endeavours: a folly.

The lessons from recent history are clear, right across the digital industries that innovation and market advantage are gained through customer insights and user-centred action.

GOV.UK is quietly revolutionising transactional services through a commitment to understanding the needs of the user. If you have renewed your car tax online recently, you’ll perhaps know what we mean. 

Umpqua Bank has gone from 6 branches in 1994 to almost 364 branches today, across 5 U.S. states, counter to conventional wisdom which says that physical branches are a thing of the past. Through deeper understanding of customer needs, Umpqua created spaces that customers actually want to visit.

Zappos built a billion dollar business by eschewing traditional media and investing instead in a superior user and customer experience, well ahead of that offered by its competitors.

These advantages require a change that is more than just a fad – or a diet if you like. It is a lifestyle change, a cultural change that requires buy-in from all levels within an organisation.

So when those familiar conversations begin again around you, ask yourself: “How are we actually going to win this time? What is going to be different this time round?”.

A Happy and Prosperous New Year to you, and whatever your New Year resolutions are, may they bring the lasting change that you aspire to.

The design of everyday experiences

A contactless transaction taking placeWhy does experience matter?

We read enough about it on every platform we encounter, so let’s ask: why should we care about experience? If we build a product or a service and it works well, isn’t that enough?

There are many, sound ethical reasons why better user experience is simply the right thing to do. Improving experiences, saving time and effort, is where we want to get to surely? Experiences matter because optimising them tends to mean incremental improvements to peoples lives – and more. We’ve read well written up cases where badly designed interfaces in airline cockpits or medical sector software have put lives at risk.

If that sounds a little too heady and idealistic, then let’s focus on the bottom line via a sobering fact: people buy into experiences of products, rather than the products themselves. The ‘experiential shopper’ is on the rise. Google research has even led them to rename ‘the path to purchase’ as ‘the path to purpose‘. For consumers, the experience IS the product, and when faced with a choice, consumers tend towards superior experiences.

When Theodore Levitt let fly with his famous line that people “don’t want quarter inch drill bits, they want quarter inch holes”, he was of course promoting the importance of outcomes and benefits over a product’s features. Marketing 101. And when you have a number of products that all provide the same thing? Then it’s the product experience that becomes the differentiator.

So how much should a business invest in “the experience”? The Walt Disney Company have decided that it’s worth a $1bn investment. That’s how much they have put into developing The Magic Band, a wrist band which now accompanies visitors to its US parks, designed to make each visit a seamless, integrated and – yes – even a magical experience.

The band acts as a companion and guide through the park. As soon as a ticket is booked online, a visitor’s preferences, allowances and entitlements are programmed into their band. Overall, the wearable can replace passes, maps and even your wallet (the band is linked to your credit card). It enables staff to greet you by name as you move around the park (slightly creepy?), or to locate you or your child quickly in an emergency (highly practical). In short, the business is taking a lot of the effort away from the customer, thus improving customer experience.

I’ll admit it’s a little unreasonable to reference one of the world’s largest corporations to illustrate ‘everyday’ experiences, but the principles of anticipating and catering for customer need apply universally. We tend not notice good experiences from day to day, because they effortlessly become part of our lives.

One of the foundational texts of user experience thinking is Don Norman’s book ‘The Design of Everyday Things’, a book full of practical common sense. In a nutshell, Norman records poor experiences with doors, cooker hobs, light switches – a myriad of interactions we encounter and tolerate on a daily basis. Most are average, many are bad. The book could easily have been titled “The Design of Everyday Experiences”.

If your bank card offers contactless payment, you’ll know how quickly the unthinking ease of using it becomes an expectation; and it is with a degree of disappointment that you revert to chip & PIN input when required. Conversely, if you’ve ever had to turn specific lights on or off in a large space using a bank of switches on the wall, you’re probably like me and guess your way to success. A little guidance would go a long way.

So what price tag would you attach to improving the experience of your customers or clients?. The good news is that it needn’t be $1bn. Great experiences are built from a series of small, incremental improvements or ‘micro–interactions. When brought together as part of an experience strategy, you can remove just so much friction from someone’s life that you earn a place in their daily routine.

Now, what business wouldn’t want that?

The facts don’t always speak for themselves.

Facts are stronger than argument, more impressive than reasoning, more dependable than opinion.One of the odd little things that reminds me of my Dad currently sits in a small, unkempt frame on my desk.

It’s an obscure quote that I’ve traced to a U.S. congressional hearing on air safety, of all things. However it made its way in front of Dad, it was clearly something that resonated with him enough to frame it, and is nicely evocative of the man. It reads:

“Facts are stronger than argument, more impressive than reasoning, more dependable than opinion.”

My father was a pragmatist, although I suspect he wouldn’t have labelled himself such. He valued honesty, plain speaking, and facts; something I hope I’ve inherited an amount of from him.

I often attempt to mirror my own profession with his, trying to convince myself that his highly practical skills (Dad trained as a joiner) are somehow mirrored in my distinctly soft skill-set. That said the principles of craftsmanship regularly feature in the challenges I find myself involved with daily.

‘Measure twice and cut once’ was one of his maxims, as it is for so many trades. The same advice is perfectly applicable to my own work, where it is imperative to question assumptions, to research, then – and only then – to begin designing a solution. Measure twice, cut once indeed.

Research can often be misconstrued as overly academic, a noble pursuit that gets in the way of practical action (if you pay close attention to some of the small print flashed on-screen in the middle of ads for hair or beauty products and you could lose faith in it altogether). But research shouldn’t hinder action. It can in fact act as a springboard to set a project off at a canter in the right direction, providing sufficient evidence that – in the words of Lean methodology – we are ‘building the right thing’.

Steve Blank, one of the founders of the Lean Startup movement, purports that “there are no facts inside your building” meaning that views from internal stakeholders alone can’t be taken as reflecting reality.

The role of research in design should be to deal with facts, to uncover truth and reflect it back at the organisation. Very often truth can be uncomfortable to stomach of course. Facts around poor conversion rates, low customer satisfaction ratings, low usability test scores and more can all be swept under the carpet because they are just too painful. Regardless of what the facts might be, they must be acknowledged and understood before something better can be achieved.

All views within a business or organisation are perfectly valid. They are also just pieces of a broader puzzle, one that can only be completed when those outside the building – specifically customers – get to add their voice to the mix. Research what any organisation represents to those customers and end users, and a very different picture can emerge to that which exists internally. It is likely to be a more definitive one.

The framed quote that sits on my desk is a paean to critical thinking, an approach that has been defined as “disciplined thinking that is clear, rational, open-minded, and informed by evidence” – exactly the space that user-centred design operates in.

In any discussion around what customers or users want, or what they need, there will be plenty of arguments, lots of reasoning, and no shortage of opinion. Greater than all of those are facts.

I won’t be taking that quote off my desk any time soon.

One-eyed kings: the masters of innovation

One sure way to spice up any conversation around design or innovation is to note that Apple have never invented any device.

While it may be met with some resistance, the fact remains that they didn’t invent the PC, nor the MP3 music player. They are not responsible for the tablet computer, the smartphone or indeed the smartwatch. For all of their (deserved) reputation as innovators, Apple have yet to debut any mass market device that didn’t exist previously.

Given that one of the greatest innovators of our age has achieved this position by essentially coming to the market second or third with their offerings, how have they managed to achieve such a lofty status?

“In the land of the blind the one–eyed man is king” – Desiderius Erasmus c.1500

Apple’s greatest asset by far has been their fieldwork; relentlessly studying how people behave, discovering what they need – and why. They then do one of two things: either a) successfully define a problem, and apply existing technology to solve it in a superior manner, or b) identify inherent problems within existing technologies and successfully solve those.

In doing so they stimulated latent consumer needs which then triggered demand for their product. This is Apple’s genius, and this is innovation.

The company’s rare failures tend to be situations where they tried to solve problems that didn’t yet exist. As an example, the Apple Newton message pad was a tablet by any other name but it came too soon to an unprepared market. In retrospect the consumer PC market itself hadn’t yet been properly established; the public hadn’t yet come to value personal computing of any kind let alone tablet computing. For a modern-day comparison, one has to wonder whether Apple’s reported removal of the headphone jack from the next generation of iPhones is straying into just this territory.

Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door – attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson, c. 1889

No matter what a business or product offers, someone else has either already tried it, or is currently doing it. To innovate, you need simply to do it better than those others. And by “better” read ‘in a more customer-centric fashion’. A surprising number of founders, businesses, organisations don’t appear to have grasped this. Investing heavily in what may be incremental improvements might not set the boardroom alight, but that’s where the gold is. As with design, innovation is a process not an event. A verb, not a noun.

Correctly defining the problem is more than half the battle in product development. Putting the customer at the centre of the solution is the rest. And to any cries of “but… what about marketing??” in response to that last point, let’s answer it with a look at the banking industry.

Banks are so far behind where they should be with their services it’s tempting to be embarrassed for them. Banks are prime examples of organisations that have tried to market their way out of problems that should have been answered by simply providing better services. This approach has led banks into the unenviable position of being some of the least customer-centric businesses in the world. Millions of RBS customers unable to withdraw money from cash machines for days on end would attest to that.

The financial sector is gradually waking up to the fact that design thinking can be applied to services every bit as much as products. Design thinking doesn’t need to be the territory of the ‘big thinker’ or genius designer. It belongs to everyone on a team – including designers.

Of course everyone wants to innovate. And innovation can be managed through a pragmatic process of observation, competitive benchmarking and incremental improvement. Just ask Apple.

This post first appeared on the FATHOM_ blog.

Pizza for dessert: why products fail

It turns out there is a name for that thing when you walk into a room then can’t remember what you went in for. Somewhat disappointingly it’s called the Doorway Effect.

Apparently the very act of crossing a boundary between rooms affects our memory function enough to lose the thread of our intended actions. That being the case, what name might apply to a scenario where a product team forgets what they are building the product for?

If that sounds ludicrous, consider the following. There’s a story about Sony co–founder Akio Morita and his efforts to bring into being one of the most successful consumer products of the 20th century, the Sony Walkman.

Morita originally conceived of the personal stereo idea when he visited New York in the 1970s and saw people walking around with boom–boxes on their shoulders. He realised the potential for a device that delivered a personal listening experience, but in pocket–sized form.

He returned to Japan, excitedly telling the product development team about his idea. The concept made its way across various levels of the organisation, passing through engineers, managers and product designers. When the first prototype came back to Morita, it most closely resembled… a boombox.

Somewhere, the essence of Morita’s idea had been lost. The product team had walked into a room and forgotten what they went in for.

The story serves to typify the challenge of keeping a product on track and ensuring that all involved in its development get it. We might call this ‘True North’; the course by which all other aspects of the product are calibrated.

In Valley Ranch Business Park, somewhere in Michigan, stands a building operated by GfK Custom Research North America. Inside, lines of shelves carry examples of a diverse range of products all sharing one key characteristic – they failed in the marketplace.

In there you will find, amongst other things, Clairol’s ‘A Touch of Yogurt’ shampoo right next to Gillette’s ‘For Oily Hair Only’, just down the aisle from Pepsi’s ‘Breakfast Cola’. You’ll see discontinued lines of caffeinated beer, or Colgate–branded TV dinners. For Steve Jobs aficionados, you’re also likely to see at least one Apple product in the mix.

These products, which we have to assume were subject to rigorous rounds of research, design and testing, are testament to a singular, harsh truth: most products fail.

While there are certainly obvious howlers on the shelves, there are many credible efforts also represented. Products can stumble for any number of reasons. Some suffer from untested business models, some from ill–considered marketing, others because of plain bad manufacturing. But one over–riding factor emerges as key to failure: the product was either solving the wrong problem, or more accurately, it was attempting to solve a problem that nobody had.

In product development, there can be no more effective question to focus the mind than “what problem are we solving?”. If the answer isn’t clear, the challenge can often be one of articulating purpose in a manner that the entire product team can buy into. But if the answer can’t be articulated, or simply doesn’t exist, the product may be on course for a place on the shelf in Valley Ranch, right next to Dominos’ ill-fated “Oreo Dessert Pizza”.

The process of building any product is, in true X–Factor parlance, a journey; sometimes a painful, agonising haul to achieve a vision that can become distorted and blurred. In identifying a product’s True North, it’s essence is sustained and the path to purpose becomes much more navigable.