User-Centered Design - What It Is and Why It Matters

I was recently told by pioneering User Experience (UX) Expert Larry Marine of Intuitive Design that he is more likely to be consulted on a new eCommerce project after a new design has already been completed, rather than before design has started. Sometimes he is even brought in after development has begun.

Larry told me that he is often called in at the last minute to help address issues that arise from focus groups or beta testers just prior to a new product or website launch. Reportedly, these clients are sometimes desperate, and hope UX Designers can apply some “tactical” UX techniques to address user behavior problems. Most notable among these problems are users who complete the “purchase process” without buying anything.

Larry explained to me that there are exceptions, but he often has to give the client bad news - sometimes there is no easy way to fix a particular problem without significant redesign. Larry chuckled when he told me, tongue-in-cheek, “Clients don’t like it when you tell them, ‘Pardon me, but your baby is ugly.’”

Larry is not the only UX Expert to share this kind of cart before the horse experience with me. Some years ago, another Expert UX Designer I’ve worked with once provided YODLE.Com a new design concept for the user interface of their product. This exercise was part of the job interview process for a new UX Architect position there - their first, I believe. This was a position they considered creating only AFTER their product had been created and released, and AFTER they discovered some user behavior problems. The employment test was a real world example that resulted from some customer behavior problems they were experiencing at the time.

Upon presenting his concept, this UX Expert was informed that his solution would not work because, “That’s not how our system is designed.” To which he replied, “I know. You have to redesign your system to meet the users needs.” He thought that was why they had brought him in - because they understood the mistake they had made, and recognized the effort required to build it right. He was mistaken. They were hoping he would come up with a few tweaks and modifications that they could snap into place after the heavy lifting was already completed. In the end, my my friend did not end up being offered a position at YODLE.

The management team at YODLE wasn’t ready to accept the reality of their situation, which, unfortunately, makes them more the rule than the exception. As Larry explained to me once, most companies unfamiliar with UX Design are often too close to their product to see things from the user’s perspective. Often, they already have a solution that they would like to market, and are just starting to look for customers. UX focuses on identifying problems real people are facing first, before designing a solution.

I share these analogies not only to illustrate the importance of starting from a User-Centric Design approach, but also to make it plain that most companies are still early in the adoption of this technique. No one wants their product launch to fail, and most project teams are doing the best they can with what they have. Many of them even accept the concept of UX, but think it is something their team can implement themselves, without experts. The perception is changing, it’s just taking too long.

What Larry has witnessed in his consulting practice is not a limited experience. It takes at least one UX-based design project - lead by someone who really gets it - before people become champions of the UX approach, and see it for the competitive advantage it is. We’re still early in the adoption curve for UX, but I’d say people are at least more aware of it, and are starting to recognize it’s value. They still do not yet know exactly how to integrate UX into their projects properly, but at least, like YODLE some years ago, they are starting to try.

What is UX?

The Three Phases of User-Centered Design
Image Source: SAP Design Guild

User Centered Design (UCD) is the science of getting people to interact with the artificial as if it is a natural extension of themselves. Think Tony Stark in his Iron Man suit. User Experience Design is the realization of that suit. Tony’s suit is tailor-made for him. If someone else - say Andre the Giant - tried to wear it, it would not work, as the UX was created for a different audience.

User Experience Design starts by investigating and understanding the users you expect to be interested in your product. In some ways it’s a marketing function, including customer analysis, customer segmentation, and often including customer interviews. UX can even provide the innovative spark for new product invention, such as Apple has seemed to have a monopoly on these last years (iPOD to iPhone to iPad).

As a core tenant, UX strives to solve a problem faced by a user, and to give them a reason to want to interact with your system. Once the value proposition is communicated and accepted, UX strives to make the interaction with the system as instinctual as possible - like Tony Stark in his Iron Man suit. It does this by relying on knowledge we can expect the target user to have, and by avoiding requiring special knowledge (Programmers who design applications seem to forget that users are NOT programmers and often include special knowledge requirements), or by providing users with cool new ways of interacting with a website that is different from anything they’ve seen before (Graphic Designers seem to favor this approach).

One UX Designer I’ve worked with liked to say, “If you notice the user interface, I’ve failed.” If you require users to have special knowledge, or that they learn new ways of doing things, you are adding tension to the human-computer interaction, which makes it more difficult to get people to take the actions you are trying to optimize for (like selling products, or signing up for your service).

The best UX designers want users to be able to interact with their products and websites without needing to think about the user interface. What a ZEN career choice - your work only succeeds if no one notices it exists.

As it relates to the eCommerce websites, UX is the science that turns prospects into buyers. UX converts “just browsing” prospects into “buyers,”  “buyers” into “repeat buyers,” and converts “repeat buyers” into “brand ambassadors.”

Why UX Matters?

Projects that start with a UX-centered approach cost less, deliver more value, and provide business leaders with new tools to better manage and project expectations. It is estimated that every $1 spent on UX returns $100 in overall project savings. Better product, faster to market, cheaper. Strong value proposition.

Unfortunately, UX professionals are also outnumbered by the number of Graphic Designers who claim to know UX, as well as Programmers who believe their experience building commercial software comes with User Experience Design expertise as a divine right. It has fallen out of favor to expect Programmers to do design, thank goodness, but we are still seeing under-qualified Graphic Designers assuming the responsibility for UX on projects. This does a disservice to both the clients and the UX Profession. These are the kinds of projects that Larry often gets called in to consult on after programming has been completed.

What I’d like to see happen is more recognition of the formal education needed to do UX Design properly among Graphic Designers, and Programmers. The skills required for each of these discipline is so great and different that you cannot expect a person to do more than one thing well. It’s important that everyone on the team understand and appreciate how UX fits into design. However, expecting graphic designers or programmers to perform the UX function is just too far reaching.

I’d also like to see more acceptance of the UX role at the START of new projects, rather than as a triage activity after the horses have left the barn. I think a solid, forward thinking organization can learn the tenets of good UX Design practice, and start applying them. However, I don’t see that being successful without including experienced UX Specialists as part of the team from the beginning.

At TechKnowSys, Larry Marine is the “UX Guru” who I engage on every important eCommerce, or conversion project that I work on. He also has been the personal mentor to my own ongoing journey into User-Centric Design.

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