“Deliver an incredible user experience” is a common, nearly guaranteed expectation for all companies and services operating in the digital space in 2021. The term user experience (UX)—with some of its earliest origins going back to 1993 and Don Norman’s time with Apple Computer—has now become a household term, and for good reason. Thought leaders in the technology and software sectors have realized that the success of any application or service can be directly correlated to the impacts on customer behaviors and happiness.
As a result, there has been a dramatic shift in the way we plan, design, and build new digital experiences. Previously we put the product first—prioritizing what the products do (features) and how they look (user interface). Now the new user-first mentality puts the needs of the user (research) and how they interact with the business (design) at the center.
But how can a project team guarantee they “deliver an incredible experience”? What is the process or formula for making products customers love? The unfortunate, yet not-so-surprising reality is that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to guarantee a world-class experience. Every company, industry, and project offer unique challenges which could enable or inhibit specific processes, tools, and approaches in the UX toolkit. This means every situation will require a unique blend of strategies that will be refined and adapted over time.
Building an exceptional user experience is similar to cooking. As the American chef Michael Symon once said, “If you learn a recipe, you can cook the recipe. If you learn the technique, you can cook anything.” While there may not be a secret recipe for a beautifully baked user experience that will impress your friends, there are a number of key ingredients and techniques to blend into any team looking to integrate user-centered thinking into the daily routine.
Let’s explore three essential principles that should be considered by any team looking to deliver the best user experience possible.
Essential UX Principle 1: Assemble Your “Tribe”
It is no secret that collecting feedback from users is one of the most important aspects required in a UX-minded project. However, many projects often underestimate the sheer amount of user exposure that is required to gather truly meaningful, significant feedback. Unearthing creative outcomes from users will not happen overnight, and it is extremely important for teams to understand that interactions with users are more of a long-term relationship than a short-term transaction.
When preparing for any initiative that directly impacts your customers, consider the following questions to ensure your team will be primed to perform consistent interactions with users and equipped to build long-term relationships with them throughout the life of the project.
WHO are your users?
Conduct user research to identify a deeper understanding of the needs, desires, and behaviors of your target audience. For example, ethnographic studies are a powerful, and non-invasive tool for understanding users in their current positions well before a new product is even defined.
Create user personas to define descriptive archetypes to assess who will benefit from your product or service.
Divide real-world collections of the population into categorized segments that can be tactically targeted for specific purposes. This exercise encourages teams to apply their persona archetypes to real portions of the population in preparation for outreach and analysis. For example, a team building a new internal tool may start by segmenting employees based on department, skillset, or position.
HOW will you interact with your users throughout development?
After understanding who your users are, you must identify how your team will interact with them during the product or service development cycle. Establishing a clear outline of the methods you plan to use to interact with your users will influence future planning needs such as meeting space, specific tooling, and resourcing.
Surveys are one method that require minimal preparation and can deploy very quickly at very little cost. Tools such as SurveyMonkey and TypeForm, for example, offer robust templates and assessment capabilities that help streamline the survey creation and delivery pipeline.
User interviews are another tool used throughout the life of a project. Due to the impacts of COVID-19, tools such as LookBack and Userbrain are excellent options when conducting interviews virtually. However, if you do have the opportunity to conduct interviews in-person, ensure you have access to meeting space, hardware, and of course, people to conduct the interviews before you commit!
WHEN will you reach your users?
With your users defined and the plan for how you will reach them, the last step is to plan when these activities will occur.
Create a roadmap of consistent and recurring activities that coincide with project milestones, ceremonies, or sprints.
Block meeting calendars weeks in advance—your users have more important things to worry about than attending sessions with you. Make sure to establish your routine as early as possible, and ensure you communicate in a timely fashion if adjustments to the schedule must be made.
Essential UX Principle 2: Define Hypotheses Instead of Requirements
In product development, we are all very familiar with the term “requirement.” Sometimes, these requirement rascals might be masked behind fancy words such as “story” or “specification,” but they all represent the same thing. They share the demands of a project that must be completed. Therefore, any project that strictly binds itself to a set of requirements is implicitly stating that all variables are known, and the desired outcome will be achieved if all tasks are completed. Anyone who has worked in product development knows this is almost never the reality.
On the contrary, a hypothesis is defined as a proposed explanation made on the basis of limited evidence as a starting point for further investigation. I believe this is the perfect definition of a project’s value proposition—yet we almost never interpret it this way. Instead of viewing a project as a means for further investigation, most project plans are constructed with the sole focus of executing upon the requirements. As a result, many projects fail to accomplish their value proposition, despite finishing on-time and on-budget, because they adhere to only what is known and fail to embrace what is unknown.
Successful UX projects operate best when founded on the basis that all requirements are actually assumptions, and it is the job of the team to verify those assumptions throughout the project life. Shifting your thinking toward exploration rather than execution helps foster a team dynamic that is focused more on value generation rather than utilization.
Take this simple example of a requirement:
Increase the size and visibility of all calls to action (CTAs) on the site so that a user will be more likely to convert.
When written in this way, you can see how easy it would be for a project team to perform the requested action of simply making all of the CTAs larger and more visible and then move on to the next requirement. This requirement doesn’t facilitate a conversation, nor does it elicit additional discussion.
If we were to write this as a hypothesis, it may flow something like this:
We believe our users will be more likely to convert if the CTAs on the page were made larger and more visible.
While the difference is hardly noticeable, you can see how this form of dictation opens up a door for immediate assessment and validation. It holds the team accountable to perform the action of increasing the size of the CTAs while also provoking them to test and evaluate if their thinking was correct. By combining both the action to be taken with hypotheses to be tested, your team will be able to verify that it is consistently delivering value rather than simply delivering features. Combining this strategy along with the testing plan you have outlined for your users is essential in building great UX.
Essential UX Principle 3: Be Comfortable Being Wrong
In order for a hypothesis to actually stand as such, those who are conducting the experiment must be willing to admit they were wrong. If a team is unwilling to accept their assumptions were incorrect, then their hypotheses would simply be another form of “requirements.”
Therefore, it is important for all members of a project team, including leadership, stakeholders, and team members, to understand that a hypothesis that is proven wrong is not a failure but rather an opportunity for learning. This can be a difficult expectation to manage for multiple reasons.
First, humans in general do not like being wrong, and second, being wrong can be easily interpreted as wasted time or effort. However, is it really practical to believe the project team can deliver the best UX on their first try? Absolutely not! Thus, it should be acceptable and encouraged for projects to prove themselves wrong, as long as they have the procedures in place to continuously learn from these oversights.
Here are a few ways to help your teams feel comfortable being wrong while still fostering continuous progress:
Test, test, test: Prototyping tools such as Invision and Figma make it easy for teams to create interactive experiences which can be shared with small, yet intimate sets of users quickly. Additionally, A/B testing (or split-testing) using tools such as Google Optimize, can be used to test different versions of a feature with a very large audience. All teams should consider using a combination of these approaches to continuously test, validate, and modify ideas as often as possible.
Share unfinished ideas: Sharing designs and prototypes in a “raw” state can be uncomfortable—but it is essential to ensure you are identifying what doesn’t work early in the process before too much time is invested. Additionally, by showcasing unfinished work, you essentially facilitate an open dialog with users, allowing them to feel included in the design process.
Celebrate failures: Rather than ignoring inaccuracies, bring them into focus and use them as an opportunity for learning. Mistakes are a cost that every UX project must pay, so make sure to get your money’s worth!
Great UX Is a Journey, Not a Destination
To deliver an exceptional user experience, project teams must change their mindset in addition to changing how they operate. While the insights provided above merely scratch the surface of the UX landscape, my hope is that by placing an emphasis on building a deep relationship with a “tribe” of users, creating hypothetical beliefs rather than verdicts, and by accepting failure as an essential element of progress, you will begin to see a shift in the way your teams approach challenges, ideas, and the best interest of your customers!