Getting Smarter About User Experience

As I recently commented on a Bill Buxton column for "It's one thing to budget for design. It's quite another to successfully incorporate it into process and politics." In my opinion, if you have to search for a point of differentiation, you are solving the wrong problem.

Differentiation is a natural byproduct of making big annoyances for your customers disappear. Organizations that excel at this, such as Apple (AAPL), Procter & Gamble (PG), and Ritz-Carlton, use a number of simple techniques that service, product, and manufacturing organizations can use to cost-effectively enhance their product planning today.

It's a truism that if you know where you are going, you are much more likely to get there. B2C companies that consistently win through innovation figure out what the customer wants to buy before they figure out what to sell—and then they prototype these experiences to ensure management and platform developers are on the same page about the customer experience.

This process helps managers understand when risk and scheduling decisions impact product integrity. It also aligns development teams toward solutions that impact sales. And it provides a logic for cutting pet features that confuse the value proposition.

Words, metrics, and PowerPoint decks are incredibly powerful tools for other areas of business, but they don't work well when it comes to communicating user experiences. These tools describe intent instead of actually demonstrating it, providing too much room for interpretation.

Prototyping Experience

Visualizations of the user experience, what we call experience prototypes, are a much more effective tool. Unlike traditional engineering prototypes, experiential prototypes are fast and inexpensive to produce. They can be done with a pencil, documented using home video equipment, created with simple animations, and quickly mocked up with off-the-shelf materials.

These deliverables have typically been in the realm of designers who come in at the very end of the development cycle. Unlike a full-on product styling and marketing effort, experience prototypes don't require a complete product design capability, just one or two particularly facile experience prototypers.

Visualizations bring insight to market faster than a big report. "They give managers the flexibility to really understand the customer experience before investing in the product platform. Experiential prototypes give product teams a much more tangible understanding of exactly what success looks like," says Hans Neubert, executive creative director of FrogDesign.

Experiential prototypes have another benefit: They are particularly effective at aligning global workgroups. Without compelling documentation of the end state, it's easy for the original intent to get lost.

One of the world's largest retailers commissioned my firm to support a ground-up store redesign. By looking at the customer experience in early meetings, we used simple illustrations to explore how they could achieve their operational objectives by simply refitting existing fixtures and making information graphics easier to use. The solution galvanized a cross-divisional project team, bringing the project from idea to nationwide rollout in less than six months.

Prototype Till You Drop

Jonathan Ive, Apple's vice-president of product development, stated at a conference in 2006, "We make lots and lots of prototypes: The number of solutions we make to get one solution is quite embarrassing, but it's a healthy part of what we do." There is a good reason for this. Quick prototypes enable Apple to iteratively tweak the product until they have created a cohesive vision of the entire usage experience, not just tweak one button, transaction, or key feature.

Prototyping the experience is often more about stripping and streamlining features that aren't beneficial to the buyer than adding new ones. Having a full understanding of the user experience before development starts provides development teams with a top-down understanding of what the customer cares about—and gets everyone focused on identifying which steps within the experience can be made easier or eliminated—without getting caught in the mechanics of implementation.

Unlike traditional design deliverables, experiential prototypes focus on answering the why question: Why should the product be? They don't answer the typical design question: What should the product look like? These prototypes don't need to be beautiful to be useful. In fact, highly polished artwork often overwhelms the objective: getting teams focused on how the experience will change users' lives.

You know that a prototype has answered the why question when it clearly expresses who the product is important to; how and where the product is used; why it is relevant to users; where your organization needs to prioritize to make it a reality; and (perhaps most important of all) why should your next product exist?