Balancing business and user needs
It's an age-old debate, going back at least a decade on the web, and even farther than that when we think about integrated product design: the user's experience vs business directives. One is a longer-term, more ephemeral goal, with indirect dollars associated with product loyalty and brand trust. The other, very real revenue needs of a business striving to to grow and capture market share.
These two sides are often in conflict, but the tides have turned in the last couple years as businesses learn that success can be derived from products that lead with design, and that there is very real failure for those that don't take their users objectives into account.
What is the user experience?
The conflict has shifted somewhat as companies become more aware, and UX becomes a piece of mainstream vocabulary, yet there's still a lack of understanding about what the user experience is, and what it means to be a user-focused business. Even companies invested in web-based technologies or emerging platforms tend to conflate user experience design with interface or web design, without understanding the multi-disciplinary role that encompasses information architecture, interaction design, HCI, interface design and content strategy, among others. To add to the complexity, there are varying degrees of each needed, depending on the product.
Kicker studio has a great diagram talking about different roles and overlapping specialties, but what it really boils down to is this: the true UXer makes people's lives better, by making the things they use better to use. The user experience encompasses the range of nuances that positively or negatively impact the user's interaction with a product.
Personally, I extend this to include the whole range of emotions and feelings that the entire company creates for the user (ohaithere Apple). The user experience is inherently a strategic role, one requiring dedication to tough decisions that sometimes go against revenue-generating desires, and it takes strong will to advocate for those implications when faced with shorter term business directives.
Another challenge is in the multi-disciplinary nature of UX; it has impacts across varying, sometimes competing departments, and those departments sometimes have motives and needs that are not in line with an overall user experience strategy. It becomes easy for the experience to become muddled and inconsistent, as aspects and mandates from each of these competing directives surface in the end product. These mandates are often business focused, so in the end, the focus is not to understanding the needs and goals of its users, but to address short-term business goals.
A coming together seems feasible. User experience and business overlap when a user comes with a need, and your business fulfills the need with a product or service. That path to the end goal is what's hotly debated; it's why ads and commercials try to convince us that we need their product, shoving it down our throats, so to speak. It's the idea that the user won't find the benefit on their own, they need to be dragged kicking and screaming to the end, where we can shout at them, "SEE?!"
In an age when the average consumer is overloaded with thousands of competing messages a day, clarity and trust become major players in determining whether they'll engage with a product and become loyal users.
For a user who may not be familiar with the benefits of your service, there's a large void between them and full loyalty to a product. Their trust and attention must be earned, and its earned by fulfilling the user's need in a clear and unobtrusive way. In short, it has to fulfill a need and make it easy.
Trust is impacted by all facets of the business' interaction with its audience. Your forward-facing product may be the most obvious element of the experience, but all things matter, and contribute to the whole. A technology that articulates clearly to the user that it's there to help them reach their goal, is a technology that encourages gradual engagement, and earns a user's trust. In turn, a business that tells a consistent message, and supports that message with every facet of its being, is a business that appears honest and truthful in the wares its touting. Saying We care about you, then essentially asking what can you give me — e.g. your email addy, phone, first born — is at best insincere and at worst deceptive.
Yes, the goal of a business is to make money. You can do it by creating a product in a vacuum and hand holding people to it, or you can truly, truly develop something that helps a user reach a goal.
Storytelling and the user experience
I suspect, though they're too nice to say it, that the folks I work with are tired of hearing me say, "but what STORY are we telling the user?" Having a story that explains who your company is and what they do is critical, but there's a key differentiation between the typical brand story and a user story. A brand story focuses on the company, and conveying the personality; it's one way to generate trust and loyalty. A user story focuses on the user; who they are, what they need, what tools they need to help them reach their goal, and that goal is what brought them to you in the first place. Eliminate the barriers between your user and their goal (your product and what it can help them accomplish), and you'll build trust.
Explain to users, in language that sounds redundant, simple and repetitious: what it is, what the benefit is, and how it can help solve a problem. Use consistent, clear language, and make sure your company's story is told BEFORE you ask them to register. If you have a product that prevents access beforehand, what can you do to weave the tale before that? Where are you losing people, and how can you help them stay on path?
Account creation paths are one of my favorite examples of a brand story vs. a user story. You start with a brand-new or even an inexperienced user. You may weave a great tale about how wonderful you are. But ultimately, you ask them to create an account to see the real deal. Before they even know if you live up to your promises, they have to give you personal information; email address, name, sometimes make a password, verify that I'm real, agree to terms of service and that my privacy is limited, then I get to see if it's worth my while. But the implication is that they have to give before you do.
This seems so trivial; people fill out forms all the time. But if your business was a person, they'd be the type of person people deal with, but really despise, because they think of themselves first and they don't really listen.
Well, what do we do?
With all the stuff businesses are trying to collect from users, what is actually driving revenue and creating conversions? It does make it easier to talk to them, market to them, but what's the benefit to the user? If there isn't one, what message are you conveying? Even more important, what solutions are being missed at the crossroads of UX and business? Maybe, just maybe, we're missing a better alternative that actually solves both needs, because we're taking the lazy path at the expense of the actual user.
I talked a bit about this in a previous post, how it's easy for companies to throw around the term user experience, without actually thinking about the user. It's become a buzz word. They can say that they are user-focused, but never ask the deep questions about user value and trust.
So, how do we balance the needs of business, with the user experience?
1. Start asking the right questions. What are we conveying to the user? What story is being told? Is it their story, or is it the businesses story? Does the product actually do what it is the user needs it to do? Does it do more than they need, and is weighted down by excess features? If you and the people you work with can't consistently and clearly articulate the story, chances are pretty good that your users can't either. Then it's like herding cats.
2. Be redundant, vigilant, and ruthless in your quest to get rid of barriers. Frankly, annoy the hell out of folks with how many times you talk about barriers and user stories. Whether they're signups, quirks in the technology, or sloppy inconsistencies, they all contribute to a clogged flow. You won't get them all removed, but you won't get any fixed if you say nothing.
3. Articulate how user flow directly impacts business. User experience is more than just a single sign-up form. Help your team understand the overall user path; what came before (where the user's coming from) and what comes after (where they want to go, which is their goal). A broken workflow is harder to fix than a broken UI element; while one non-working button is annoying, a broken or confusing path directly keeps the user from their goal. Enough of these problems add up to a negative overall experience, and has lasting implications on the business.
4. Build credibility by extending outside the product(s). There is crossover among platforms; if you build trust across your various communication channels, you can "borrow" or extend trust capital, and build trust through the rest of the business. Once your users like you, you can utilize opt-ins, gather additional info, or require a bit more work from them. But you have to do the hard yards first.
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It's hard not to look at a company like Apple, or Zappos, and see a simple road to success where business needs and user needs on the same track. But actually executing that consistently and with vigilance takes time, a lot of work, patience, and a lot of trust in the capabilities of your product to have what your audience needs.