A conversation I had with a client this morning brought to mind an excellent research whitepaper published by Human Factors International (HFI), and is available via their website. It’s called Going Mobile? Speed is Fine, but UX Strategy is Final. It was published in 2012 originally, but the lessons contained within are eternal.
The basic premise is that while speed to market is important, UX strategy trumps it nine ways to Sunday.
Which of course brings a BIG, wide, cheshire cat smile to my face.
Consider the opening paragraph:
“Typically, the first foray into creating a mobile presence is a rushed affair . . . the development process does not allow companies to understand and appreciate the relevance and nuances of the mobile channel across three key aspects: business considerations, user engagement and technical capabilities.”
True dat, as the kids say. If I had a nickel for every time I tried to convince a client that they had to design and pour the foundation before building the house, I would be sitting on a backyard beach in Tahiti typing this. Most of us inherently know that you can’t build anything without a plan, right? And yet companies launch mobile apps every day without taking the time to figure out if anyone wants, needs, or will use what they’re launching. Too many nights watching Field of Dreams, I guess.
The HFI paper describes the development process most companies adopt as this:
- Identify business need
- Develop and debug
The problem with this is that in the mad rush to get something to market, they spend no time considering the three most important aspects of product strategy: business considerations, user engagement and technical capability.
First of all, the design processes and effort required don’t change just because the screen is smaller.
My own experience over the last three months alone proves out what the authors describe: companies all too often assume that designing and developing for a small screen size is somehow proportionally cheaper. But the context-specific ways in which users engage on mobile devices are myriad and complex, and demand a narrower, task-centric view than their large-screen counterparts.
And aside from that, consider how many different devices, fragmented systems and pixel ratios your mobile app or site or widget now needs to display and function properly on. More options to develop for = more money. Not a complicated equation, folks. Multiple versions of an interface have to be designed, developed and tested to cater to the majority of mobile users.
And even though everyone’s in a rush to get there first, time to market isn’t given proper consideration either. The publishing legalities alone can slow the process to a grinding halt. The HFI whitepaper offers the example of FreedomVOICE Systems, developer of the Newber iPhone app, who evidently learned this the hard way. After a full 165 days of radio silence from Apple, they simply abandoned the project altogether.
As you’ve heard from me more than once, all users have a core set of expectations, which create a “mental model” of how they expect things to work. They know what they want, they know when they want it and they know how they want it. sers have a strong mental model of how they expect to be serviced. And the producer of an app has zero control over that, because the model is built from a person’s psyche, expectations, emotions, needs, prior experience, etc. What they decide to do — what apps they do or don’t use and for what reasons — are dependent on their mental model, on how they see their world and how your product fits with that vision (or doesn’t).
Most companies simply don’t take the time to investigate what the user’s mental model is, and then determine how their offering fits in, how it can add value without disruption. They don’t invest, in other words, in solid user experience research or design. There’s no validation of any of the assumptions being made about what people will want from them or what they’ll be willing to use. What I see most is akin to what my Sicilian grandmother would do to see if the pasta was cooked: throw it against the wall and see if it sticks. Great for pasta, not so good for a quarter-million dollar investment.
There’s also a common assumption among organizations — or actions that suggest the assumption — that their app lives on a high pedestal in some kind of isolated vacuum. Look, any person who has a mobile device lives in a complex universe — and so do their apps and actions. There are multiple channels, players, relationships, scenarios, needs and opportunities. So whatever you put out there has to coexist in some manner with everything else. Channels have to be tied together, not separated. That bit of traditional business thinking is a dead end when it comes to the mobile universe. Users give less than a shit how your company is structured internally — all they know is they’ve got a fragmented experience that isn’t very positive or useful.
With every opportunity comes an equal amount of challenge (and sometimes more). In this case, there’s a huge ongoing struggle within most organizations over the format of a mobile product: native app or browser-based?
Each has advantages, of course. Apps can take full advantage of the device’s native hardware, OS APIs and multiple innovative functions like camera, GPS, Accelerometer, Gyro, vibration motor, magnetic sensor and others. Browser-based products can’t. Native apps typically deliver better speed and responsiveness and a higher degree of control over visual quality and content.
However, there are times when a browser-based app — which is typically a cheaper alternative — fits the bill just fine. Because in some cases, users don’t want or need all that cool native stuff you’re adding into the app. But because companies often base their mobile strategy on what’s cool, what’s popular and what the competition is doing, they add a whole bunch of things that (a) add complexity, time and cost to the development effort and (b) do nothing to improve the user’s experience in any meaningful, valuable way.
Authors Saurabh Gupta and Amber Krishan do a really thorough job of describing the place too many organizations find themselves in these days. If you’re one of them, I strongly suggest you download the whitepaper and share it with your colleagues. Discuss it in your next strategy meeting. Put any mobile plans you may have on permanent hold until you’ve had time to digest and absorb everything in here.
Why all the gravitas, you ask? One single, simple reason:
Creating something your customers don’t need, don’t want and won’t use is a terribly expensive proposition — in more ways than one. As the authors point out, you don’t just differentiate based on good user experience — you live and die by it.
At this point, I’m sure most of you are aware of Apple’s recent settlement with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), where they’ve agreed to pay $32.5 million in refunds for kids’ app purchases without parental consent. The FTC’s complaint, and the resulting settlement and media coverage, all revolve around the fact that Apple doesn’t inform parents that entering their password in the company’s App Store opens a 15-minute window in which children can incur unlimited charges with no further action from the parent.
I read all this, and I could only shake my head. Not at the situation itself – at the fact that so many intelligent people have missed what was right in front of them. The lawsuit, the settlement and the media coverage all fail to identify the real issue, the real reason all of this happened.
The real issue is that you cannot have an iTunes account without a credit card attached to it.
If either of my thirteen-year olds want to download a free app, they cannot do so without my credit card on file.
If my nine-year old wants to use an iTunes gift card she got for Christmas, she cannot do so unless my credit card is on file.
Ask yourself: does it make any sense that downloading free apps, many of which are designed specifically for children, requires a credit card? Does it make any sense that even if you have a gift card, which is already paid for and backed up by hard currency, you still need to provide a credit card? Would that ever happen at any other retailer you’ve ever used, online or offline? Or, gee, is free stuff actually free, and you only provide payment details when you’re buying something that costs money? Amazon, anyone?
As such, the real issue is the fact that at best, Apple has failed to design the App Store in a way that matches the context in which people use it. At worst, I, as a parent, am in a position where I am essentially forced to be liable for the naturally questionable judgment of my kids.
And it is painfully obvious that Apple either does not recognize this as a problem.
Or worse, does not care.
Scenario A: Apple doesn’t get it.
From a purely physiological standpoint, kids are not going to pay attention to the obtusely-worded prompts. They’re not going to readily discern between an in-app prompt that will cost Dad money and a freebie. Partly because the in-app ads are designed to appear to be part of the game. They’re not going to carefully consider the ramifications of any of these actions. Why? Because they’re still learning how, essentially. Their brains are still forming; their ability to reason is a work in progress.
And any UX or UI designer worthy of the title knows that. Decorators, on the other hand, don’t give things like this a second thought. And as I’ve watched Apple evolve since Jobs’ demise, I get the very distinct impression that the decorators are the ones in charge over in Cupertino right now. If any of the design team that made Apple a force for positive UX/CX are still there, they’ve been silenced. They are now subservient to decorators who believe that the primary action on the screen should be a text link, not a button.
A text link, mind you, that’s the same size as the 20 other text elements around it. Because Jony Ive and co. seem to think it’s OK that the primary action, the thing the user is there to DO in the first place, should only be identified by a shade of color so subtle that even those of us with excellent vision and no color-blindness can’t tell the difference between things you click and things you read. I could (and probably will) write a short novel about this issue alone.
Scenario B: Apple could care less.
It’s also entirely possible, as I said above, that Apple doesn’t care. That this is essentially an intended approach – to both strategy and UX – to increase profit via what they feel is a negligible risk. It’s the old “it’s not wrong unless you get caught” approach that a whole lot of companies still take. Until somebody sues us, let’s get all we can from every possible avenue. And even if they do sue us, the payout is negligible and strategically capped due to our carefully, legally obfuscated user agreements.
Lots of organizations have done this, and lots more are still doing it. Lots of organizations still don’t realize that UX design isn’t something that IT should be responsible for. But here’s something that they all have in common: they’re losing market share.
They’re losing to pissed off customers who have woken up to the fact that their decades of loyalty are not only being taken for granted – they’re being used to take unfair advantage.
They’re losing to competitors with younger, smarter folks at the helm who realize that at the end of the day, we all just want to be treated with respect.
They’re losing to organizations that invest in the true value of design, in people who do a hell of a lot more than make things look pretty after the programmers are done. Who, instead, choose to place trust and responsibility — and most importantly, authority — in people who get the fact that good user and customer experience starts, runs and ends with respect for the people who use your products.
Every day, Apple, just like every business, has a choice: do the right thing and don’t settle for the easy explanation, or lose your place on the mountaintop. It happens a lot faster than people think.
Fifteen minutes, my ass.
Let’s start with the obvious: like any software system, a web-based application is designed and intended to be used. What isn’t so obvious, however, is that the tried-and-true mantra of application design – that users are the center of the equation – may not hold water any more.
Now, before all you traditionalists get your panties in a bunch, let me explain. If you’re like most organizations, your project managers, designers and developers are pressed for time and are constantly being asked to do more with less. And if that’s your reality, then the biggest issue you face is figuring out what the main focus of your design and development efforts should be. And that focus is probably a little different than the one you know best and use most often.
Consider some specific problems with the traditional User-Centered Design (UCD) approach:
Features upon features upon features, interface buttons and menus and hyperlinks strung haphazardly across every square inch of real estate. Almost anything is possible – but people can’t figure out how to do anything. We recently read an article where Microsoft’s Chris Capossela gave a great example: “When we asked what users wanted in Office, nine times out of ten, they named something…already in the product; they just couldn’t find it.”
While listening to customers makes sense, it’s dangerous to accommodate every request. Doing so leads to massive complexity and cognitive overload that only increases with every revision.
Fear of a better mousetrap
Fixation on user opinion often leads to extremely conservative design. Products that repeat the mistakes of their predecessors, albeit in a prettier package. Like most people, users are often very hesitant when it comes to change. While they want new and better applications that help them do new things, they really don’t want to have to learn a whole new set of skills. They’ve been struggling for the last umpteen years to master the last version; so they want the new one to look and work just like the old one (never mind the constant complaining about how hard to use the old version is).
The truth is that users don’t always know what will really work for them. The reactions and impressions you get during usability testing or in feedback sessions is often very different from how people react or perform in real-world activities. Confronted with anything truly novel, they’ll look puzzled or or complain that it doesn’t look like Microsoft Office. On a previous project we tested, every subject complained that the screens were too “simple”. However, they all completed their work faster than before – with fewer mistakes. Going back to the drawing board every time someone complains only produces mediocre apps with marginally useful tools.
It’s a BIG world, after all
There are an awful lot of users. Not to mention that they’re all different; they want and like and react to very different things. We’ve watched teams run circles into the ground trying to redesign for every piece of user feedback on a prototype or usability lab session. The natural diversity among human beings makes it all too easy to forget about their common needs and interests.
I’m not advocating a return to technology-centric design in which arrogance decided what was best and threw it at the masses. As web tools and technology continue to evolve – and the field of UX becomes increasingly relevant – we’re starting to see hard evidence that too much attention on users as people can lead developers and designers to miss the point: it’s not really about the users themselves.
Instead, it’s about what they’re doing or trying to do, in the context of the larger activities they’re involved in.
Focus on Use, Not Users
If we pay too much attention to people, we might overlook what it is they’re using the software to do. So while we may produce cool technology and innovative interface design, the product still fails if it doesn’t help people do what they need to. In order to develop products that truly help people do their jobs, we need to focus on context instead of content; use instead of users.
In an age of total information overload, the brand promise is more critical than it ever was. And I really mean that — as in ever. At no point in history has the brand been such a crucial component of business success. In a world where intelligent agents provide nearly unlimited options on prices and features, customer loyalty is tremendously important.
1. Old habits die hard.
The thing many of the top global brands still have not completely understood and internalized is that a history of success on the street or across a single consumer channel (e.g. retail shopping) is absolutely no guarantee of success in the digital age we live in today. Trust and loyalty don’t automatically transfer from the brick-and-mortar world to the Internet — so brands don’t either. If you’re still relying on physical barriers to competition (which many still do, believe me) to succeed in the marketplace, it’s time to pull your head out and take a look around.
The impulse to buy and the ability to do so used to be two separate things. If you heard music on the radio you liked, you had to get in the car and go to the record shop, and then spend 20 minutes trying to remember what the song or artist’s name was. Not so anymore. Hearing it and buying it are virtually the same act; the individual processes of marketing, sales and fulfillment have merged and now happen simultaneously. And the infrastructure of most large organizations simply doesn’t match this model. Too many decisions at too many levels are made by divisions — whose very title nearly guarantees no one’s talking to anyone else in the organization.
2. Brand value doesn’t match market share.
I don’t have enough fingers or toes to count the number of times in the last 6 months that a prospect has tried to convince me that the traditional rules of economics still apply in 2012. Specifically the one that says value comes from scarcity. I’ve got news: scarcity left the building at least a decade ago, if not before.
We’ve all read and/or heard ad nauseam about the network effect. Well, this is all the more true for those brands at the top of the mountain. The more plentiful these companies become, the more essential each individual unit becomes. Companies routinely give away products in order to grab market share, and then come behind those gestures selling linked services. There is no scarcity in this model! And because of that, very few products have a hope in hell of gaining value without widespread, networked acceptance.
Everything is everywhere for all of us — so if your everything isn’t everywhere, you’re wasting time, money and resources putting up the same barriers the Internet destroyed at the tail end of the 1990s.
3. Platform blindness.
All the things people believe brands can do for them — making their lives simpler and more efficient — have to be consistently, expediently available and dependable. Why? Because we live in an era of time famine. At this point there truly aren’t enough hours in any day. So when our customer service emails aren’t returned or customer service hassles us about returning a product or the web site doesn’t suggest alternatives to what we’re looking for, we divorce the brand. We cut it out of our lives almost instantaneously because hey, I don’t have time for this bullshit.
When you’re consistently connected to your customers, you have more touchpoints. The web site, the emails, the call center, the mailbox, the phone app, etc. And every one of those touchpoints is a critical act of branding that will determine the fate of your customer relationships.
You can’t just do the web site. You have to do the website for laptops, smartphones and tablets. You can’t just do direct mail. You have to do direct mail, email, text messaging and tweeting. Plus all that website stuff. Plus smartphone apps. Plus….
Every platform matters to every one of your customers. All of them. Ignore any one of them and you leave a hole big enough for ALL of your competitors to drive their entire fleet of trucks through.
Like a lot of people, I’ve been thinking that I really need to start exercising. And like a lot of people, I’ve been putting it off since Ronald Reagan was President. Regardless, as I get older, the daily aches and pains have intensified to the point where I can ignore them no longer, and everything I read — along with my recent physical therapy experience — tells me that the place to start is to get more active.
Way back when, I was a member of Brick Bodies in Perry Hall MD. I liked the gym because it was basic, unassuming and uncrowded — a stark contrast from the 70s Disco Sleazy Chic of their closest geographical competitor, Bally Fitness. I was a member for about four years, and then life changed in a number of ways, I moved, fell off the wagon, so to speak. You know how it goes.
So this past Monday morning, drinking my coffee, I look them up on my iPhone, because (1) I have a history with them and (2) whenever possible I like to patronize local, people-owned businesses instead of faceless corporate franchises. To my surprise, Brick has a pretty great mobile-formatted site. And right on the main screen is the motivation I need, the words nearly every gym procrastinator responds to: 14-day free trial.
Perfect, I think. Get your free trial right here, right now. I click, fill out the wonderfully short form and send.
And then…it all fails.
First, the subsequent confirmation screen — counter to my expectation — contains no info, no details about my free trial. No coupon to print, no code to take with me, nothing I can act on. Just a message saying hey, thanks for your interest, we’ll get back to you about this when we feel like it.
OK, so it didn’t say that. But it did say “someone will contact you shortly” or some other insincere bullshit.
Guess what? I don’t want someone to contact me. If I did, I’d have called you, or emailed and asked for a reply. I filled out your online form specifically because I don’t want to talk to anyone, I don’t want to hear how great the gym is, I want no part of the pitch. What I do want is to see something that allows me to walk into the gym tomorrow morning and start my free trial. Period.
And then…it fails again.
It’s been a solid week. I’ve received no emails, no phone calls, no contact of any kind. Now, I realize I said I didn’t want to talk to anyone. But let me put on my consultant hat for a minute and pretend I’m trying to help Brick Bodies get more members. If someone fills out one of your forms, they are essentially communicating that they are interested in giving you their money. Maybe not explicitly, but it’s certainly a distinct possibility, because they sought you out, not the other way around. And if you fail to respond — forget within 24 hours, think the next 3 hours max — you leave that money on the table.
Take a look at your Analytics or web logs. How many people filled out your form? And how many of them never heard back from you in any way, shape or form? How much potential revenue does that represent that is now lost? All because someone somewhere was too lazy to reach out to them?
Do it right, or do something else.
And in all honesty, the better approach is to pay your developer for another couple hours and have him/her post a coupon on the resulting page that the person can just print and show up with. Make it easy for people to do business with you. Eliminate the barriers, the hoops. Get them in the door, NOW.
Take off your traditional marketing hat and burn it. The way you’re doing things doesn’t work anymore. For better or worse, the Internet has enabled instant gratification, especially when it comes to online marketing. And if you don’t provide it, you’re not only leaving money on the table — you’re leaving a big hole for your competitors to drive their entire fleet of trucks through.
By now we’re all familiar with the breakneck pace of change online, and the accompanying mad rush to somehow try to keep up with it all. Every business is looking high and low for some magic bullet that will allow them to interact more clearly, more often and in a more meaningful way with customers. And the means and methods — all delivered via user interfaces — impact how those customers view the business, their products, their services and their brand as a whole. Messages are being sent, both implicit and explicit, with every click, every action and every view.
The role of Marketing Executive just got a hell of a lot harder.
Increasing the likelihood of success is everybody’s business, right? Of course, we say. But for the most part, when site traffic stalls or sales are lagging, the finger most often gets pointed at Marketing. A customer’s experience with any company typically starts with responding to an ad or article or comment from a friend that encourages the initial investigation. And that experience continues all the way through product purchase and use. And in the majority of organizations I’ve worked with, the vast majority of customer touchpoints along the way belong to Marketing. So although I often find myself thinking it’s a bit unfair that one department suddenly becomes responsible for the actions of so many others, that’s the way the game is played.
And that realization leads me to think that UX probably needs to be as closely aligned with marketing efforts as it currently is with the realm of IT. Maybe even more so.
Dear Marketers: YOU own UX.
In that spirit, I offer the following advice to Marketing folks everywhere as a way to take back competitive advantage, as a means to increase customer satisfaction and retention. User experience can do more for you than you may realize.
So from the VP of Marketing all the way down to you Account Reps, here are four core principles that you must embrace in order to succeed in such a violently competitive market:
- User experience is your primary means of building relationships with customers online. UX encourages, supports and allows commerce transactions that amplify profitability.
- Success is measured by retention, which is critically dependent on a positive user experience with the research, purchase and support process — as well as with the product itself.
- Marketing departments are responsible for revenue — and as such you need to see yourselves as owning the user experience. If it sucks, it falls on you. probably not fair, but still quite accurate.
Armed with that information, you’ll begin to see that the majority of the things that ensure delivery matches expectation are small. Visual cues, button sizes, menu styles, word choices, message consistency. A million tiny items that someone else in the organization is making decisions on without your input.
You already know most of this stuff.
You guys already know all about brand voice and why it has to be authentic and consistent across all customer interactions. You know the importance of presentation, persuasion and emotion. And most of all, you know what customers complain about most and what needs to be fixed first — because you’re hearing it direct from the source, day in and day out. What you must realize is that what truly drives these issues is something usually left to developers or an IT department. And that something is the user experience of your online properties. Sites, apps, portals, systems, everything. All of it.
Every single aspect of behavior and function of your online anything is — and should be — a marketing issue. Research it. Understand it. Own it. Because whether you choose to own it or not, you’ll still be the one listening to and dealing with the fallout.
I am absolutely thrilled to announce my very first online training course, in partnership with Learn to Program TV – User Experience Design Fundamentals.
We launched the course on Udemy five weeks ago, and the response has been nothing short of fantastic – 593 people have signed up to take the class! Well beyond my expectations, to say the least.
As you can see, reviews thus far indicate that folks have found it valuable, useful and most important to me, applicable. I’m a firm believer in de-mystifying this stuff so that anyone, in any role, in any kind of organization can create better user and customer experiences.
What the course covers
With more than 12 hours of content across 59 lectures, I’ll guide you through the five critical elements of user experience – strategy, scope, structure, skeleton and surface. As you learn you’ll be able to apply that knowledge in dynamic lab exercises – and, later, to your own work as a developer or designer.
And the best part? Once you sign up, you have access to these videos forever. Watch as often as you want at whatever pace is best for you.
Who can benefit from this course
If you’re a designer moving in to a more complex digital world, or a developer who has to occasionally function as a designer as well, this course is for you. I can promise you that by the time you’re done, you’ll feel more confident making UX- and design-related decisions about layout, color, information design and typography.
If that sounds like something you’re interested in, take a minute and check out the course and the introductory video at Udemy now.
And if you have any questions whatsoever, please feel free to ask.
My sincere gratitude for your time and consideration.