User Experience strategies and design seem to be on everyone’s lips. Even the big lumbering giants of industry are creating UX teams and describing their redesign efforts in the most fashionable terms. As exciting as it is to see all the change and buzz, the unfortunate truth is we’re still a long way from seeing these companies, and their agencies, adopt true user experience development models. User Experience is a comprehensive approach to creating a long-term and meaningful relationship with the customer. It’s an investment, that when correctly implemented, yields tangible and positive results.
The largest return on UX investment is the relationship with the customer. As my first boss would say to us at sales meetings, “There are four ways to make more money; higher quantities being sold, high margins per sale, more frequent per sales and referrals.” All of these are based on the relationship your business has with the customer. People buy more when they like the experience of buying from you. That’s experience design or UX design.
So why are we still so far off from a reality where companies, big and small, get the importance of installing UX design into every aspect of their business? There are several reasons. I’m going to mention a few here and make a case for the remedies.
Most creative agencies, and specifically ad agencies, are still not ready to deliver UX
Saying you’re a UX or UI firm doesn’t make it so. You can add all the jargon to your pitches and rename your process but you’re still a traditional agency with traditional approaches. Like Jeff Foxworthy’s “how do you know you’re a redneck?” line, here are a few ways to determine if your agency can’t deliver real UX design:
- If your ad agency has an ‘interactive division’ – you’re not ready to deliver UX strategy or design.
- If your agency’s final deliverable is Photoshop files – you’re not ready to deliver UX strategy or design.
- If your agency still thinks that identity design comes before experience design – you’re not ready to deliver UX strategy or design.
- If your UX team is run by a traditional Creative Director – you’re not ready to deliver UX strategy or design.
- If your agency doesn’t have a specific UX process that includes mobile and tablet strategies – you’re not ready to deliver UX strategy or design.
- If your agency delivers solutions in the form of personas and flows but can’t tell you the last time they got out of the building to talk to real people – you’re not ready to deliver UX strategy or design.
- If your agency can’t integrate the creative UI work with the functional front-end code – you’re not ready to deliver UX strategy or design.
The solution is for agencies to allow the UX work to lead the creative process. The only way for that to happen is for them to uninstall the Creative Director as the holiest of holies. UX design is not a design-only process. It requires, at very least, research, planning, an understanding of development platforms and methodologies (Agile, Scrum, LEAN, Kano), UI design and front-end development skills. Having the entire process driven and managed like a traditional design project is a recipe for failure. Leadership for this process comes in the form of a strategist with product design and development skills. The perpetuated creative director archetype in the black turtleneck (or hipster outfit) and the thick-rim glasses needs to be treated like the stereotype joke it has become. We’ve moved on and it’s time for those guys to make way for the next generation of creative geeks. The creative process is collaborative, that means including the customer, and not an event fueled by mushrooms and trance music.
UX and UI companies need to share the blame
Now that I’ve royally dumped on agencies it time for the UX industry to take their blows.
The best part of the UX/UI industry is that it’s filled with crazy smart people with amazing skills. Essentially it’s a geek fest of design and development gurus with layers of strategic and business experience. That’s also the worst part of the UX community; they are geeks. Us geeks can be introverted and insular at times. We have to get used to the idea that the magic happens when you’re face to face with your clients and their customers.
Sitting behind an iMac all day will not get you across the threshold from good to great. Sure you need to read, prototype and strategize but none of that means anything if you can’t make a strong case for your decisions. Go to meetups, conferences, client and industry events. In short, get out the building and see what’s really happening out there.
It’s also critical that UX breakthroughs have a solid ROI case for the companies that investing in them. Having great UI design skills is not enough. You need to know the business dynamics you’re designing for. Right now my team is working on a patient portal for a large consumer pharmacy brand, a European based sports gaming platform, a pharmaceutical sales app (iPad) and a startup consumer bank on the West Coast. Getting to know these industries, the business models, the regulations, and of course the customer base is way more than just a creative or design skill. UX firms aren’t taking enough time to get to know this stuff and it’s hurting everyone else’s chances of getting the respect we deserve.
The traditional RFP process is destroying most well-intentioned projects
Our firm has always been very vocal about the flaws of RFPs. Over time we’ve only got more anti-RFP. With the rise of the UX strategy as the cornerstone of smart design and marketing, the client is now in seriously muddy water. It’s hard enough to select a partner (notice I didn’t write ‘vendor’) without all the complications of this fast evolving set of UX/UI frameworks. The best way to evaluate a UX firm is to talk to them and get to know them. It doesn’t take any more time that the standard RFP process but it does require that the executive team is involved.
Many of the client prospects that we talk to complain that they don’t like the RFP process either. They tell us that their policies keep their hands tied and force them to get multiple bids. Their best intentions are diluted down into a conversation about price and resources. With respect to the purchasing departments, you’re screwing things up for your own companies. In the decades of working with clients in a service role I have never seen a successful outcome from an RFP process. Stop pretending that they work and move to a model that works. Engage UX firms on small low-risk projects and find your long-term UX partner that way.
We’re still treating customers like the enemy
The sad fact is that it’s become standard to make condescending dismissals of the customer’s opinion.
Customers are way smarter than we give them credit for. It’s true that if you recruit your users from Craig’s List you’re going to get what you deserve; pure crap. However, this is the lazy and unimaginative approach and isn’t what we’re talking about. You can’t do user testing with the promise of pizza and beer. You need to make a real effort to get out and talk to the people that use the product or service. One of my business hero’s, Dave Cancel, has often been overheard to say stuff like “Stop the whining and treat your clients with respect, they are the reason you’re in business”. I truly believe this to be true. It’s disheartening to hear people say that their customers are stupid.
For those of you still clinging to the Steve Jobs “the client doesn’t know what they want” excuse for not doing real customer interviews are forgetting that Apple has massive brand to fall back on and billions of dollars to try multiple design approaches. My guess is you do not. Nothing good happens in isolation. It’s time to get out of the building and talk to people.
UX creative strategies work better than traditional creative approaches because of the user-centric approach. You get to take the customer’s primary desires and behavior and mold a user experience around it like a warm coat in winter. Traditional creative approaches don’t do a great job in identifying and bridging the Knowledge Gap. To quote Jared Spool:
“Users can complete their objective when current knowledge equals target knowledge. There are two ways this can happen. You can train the user, thereby increasing their current knowledge, until they know everything they need to know. Or, you can reduce the knowledge necessary, by making the interface easier, until target knowledge only requires the information the user already has. In fact, most good design involves both: users are trained (through explanatory text and other devices) while the designer reduces complexity, reducing the gap distance from both directions.”
Design is very often about getting someone from A to B. It’s the design of a journey. That requires knowledge of the landscape and the travelers. Building the solution alongside the customer is a very rewarding experience. It also solves the problem of having to build twice. As carpenters often say, “measure twice, cut once”.