10 things still to Fix in Experience Design

by Foolproof

Over the last few days we’ve taken a look back over our first decade in business.

As part of this series we also wanted to turn our attention to the present. There is a lot to be optimistic about. User experience and experience design thinking has matured rapidly – particularly in the last five years.

But there are challenges that we still face. Some of them have been with us the whole 10 years; others are new. Here’s our view of some of the peaks we still have to climb if experience design is to become a mainstream business discipline.

Targets and incentives within businesses must be aligned with long-term value

As long as business managers are incentivised only to deliver against short-term goals in narrow areas of business performance, companies will struggle to make significant improvements in their relationships with customers.

Giving people bad targets leads them to make bad design decisions. A good example of this in recent years is payment protection insurance (PPI). The UK financial services industry is now paying a multi-billion pound price for focusing managers on the bundled sale of PPI with credit cards and loans in the 90s and 00s. Until the regulator finally stepped in, the user experience of buying a loan was really the user experience of buying PPI.

If companies want to deliver consistently good experiences across the customer lifecycle then their marketing, sales and service functions must be aligned around a common view of how they want to be seen, experienced and talked about by customers. And this includes measuring those outcomes across the long-term.

We need to stop designing experiences based on company structure

The early generations of corporate websites were often criticised for saying more about the internal structure of the company than anything else. Sites were not designed with the customer in mind, or the goals that various users might have when they came to the site. Every area of the business wanted a section of the site in which it could push its communication objectives and the homepage was a political battle ground in which screen real estate was used to denote the relative importance of business areas rather than importance of real user goals.

We’ve certainly come a long way since then, but companies need to take care not to fall into a similar trap as they wrestle today with increasingly sophisticated multi-channel customer relationships.

We’re already seeing a rush by individual business units within large organisations to launch their own individual mobile offerings, often with little thought for the overall experience. The early years of mobile seem to have been about tactics, not strategy.

As user experience extends itself across devices and channels in the years ahead the biggest winners will be companies that take a holistic and planned view of how it all works for the customer.

The User Experience community needs to get out more

The UX community isn’t shy and it certainly likes to talk but the question is, who is it speaking to? It appears the answer may be that we are talking to ourselves more than anyone else. There is now a seasoned network of speakers who attend the annual circuit of conferences on UX subjects, often delivering insightful and thought-provoking ideas. The problem is that this thinking is being shared within the UX community rather than communicated outwards to the constituencies of politicians, business owners, executives and managers who can really effect the kind of organisational change the UX community is asking for.

If user experience people are to be successful in changing the hearts and minds of these groups, then we need to seek out opportunities to speak with them on their own ground and use a vocabulary that resonates with them: tying UX to social benefit, improved business performance and new marketing opportunities.

Speaking at a User Experience Professionals’ Association meeting this year, my colleague Tom Wood summed this up by saying that “User Experience people have spent too long being right in the corner. We may need to put on a suit and go and talk to the boardroom if we want things to change.”

Improve the user experience of boxed products

The quality and capabilities of software products bought from third-party vendors have an enormous impact on the performance of the companies that buy them. It affects the degree of personalisation they can offer in their marketing and sales activities right through to the quality of their self-service environments and customer support processes. All too often the out-of-the-box experience offered by third-party products simply isn’t flexible enough to create a valuable, differentiated experience for customers.

Two things need to change. First, the vendors of third-party products need to put more thought into designing processes and user interfaces which can be configured easily and cheaply to the context of individual corporate customers.

Second, tender processes should put a lot more emphasis on user experience as a factor when assessing third-party products. This may ultimately mean that tenders for third-party software should be run by customer experience people rather than IT people.

Most digital agencies are charlatans

Ten years ago, few digital agencies had any user experience offering, so it should seem like progress that today the majority of agencies make the vocabulary of UX central to their pitch and their proposition.

Or perhaps not. As clients increasingly talk about user experience outcomes within their design briefs, agencies have responded by declaring themselves to be inherently user-centric. They incorporate design tools such as personas and user journeys in their design process and talk a lot about customers to the client, but in our experience they still neglect to actually speak with customers in any meaningful way.

The design process is still very much the domain of the Creative Director and while customers are sometimes roped in for usability testing, they certainly don’t have an invitation to take part in shaping the design strategy or contributing to the formulation of digital products and services. The time has come for clients to exercise some due diligence in their agency partnerships and look for evidence of real collaboration with customers within the design process.

Design decisions based on guesswork bring unnecessary risk into the creative process. And at the moment it’s the clients who take the consequences when these guesses are wrong.

Pitches are a uniquely bad way of finding a good design agency…

…but they remain a very good way of finding a bad design agency. The traditional pitch process is flawed because it requires agencies to begin the process of making decisions about creative ideas and complex interactions in the absence of insight and understanding.

The agency is forced to come up with ideas and visualisations which are focused on impressing the client panel and attracting positive ratings on the score card. In effect the design process has already begun but without the participation of the most important actor – the customer. The client and agency are often already bought into a particular strategic or creative direction before real insights can be gathered or the problem space fully explored. The result is a high risk process in which success can only be hoped for rather than expected.

The old adage “Never run pitch work” is a wise one. But invariably budget and time constraints mean that exactly the opposite happens.

NPS is a blunt tool

At face value Net Promoter Score (NPS) seems like a good measure of customer sentiment towards your brand, giving a picture of how well you are fuelling advocacy and positive customer perceptions about how you’re doing in the market. It’s a simple and comforting measure.

But while NPS is good at telling a company what is happening, it’s less good at telling a company why. What influences advocacy is subtle, and NPS lacks the subtlety to help inform experimentation and optimisation of customer experience. In most companies NPS is such a broad measure that it’s open to interpretation by different managers in different ways. The result? Decoding NPS and making recommendations for change become a guessing game.

NPS may well have a role in the armoury of measurement techniques, but it is in danger of stealing the show and luring companies into a false sense of security that they know how customers feel about them and why. More sophisticated tools that point to corrective actions are needed.

The cult of data

When we started out 10 years ago most corporate analytics was garbage. Ten years on the quality of the data has radically improved – but the quality of its interpretation has not.

Analytics and performance data provide companies with invaluable benefits in marketing, business planning and the optimisation of business processes to drive out inefficiencies. But in recent years the use and interpretation of data has become almost fundamentalist in some companies: data is fact; the numbers do not lie; rational and right-thinking companies run their business to the numbers; the numbers will tell us how our user experience should be.

But there’s a problem. Even if data is infallible, the high priests interpreting the data are not. In almost every company we know, data analysts find patterns in the numbers and then guess at their meaning. That guesswork is passed up the line, sometimes to board level, but it masquerades as fact because its source is ‘the numbers’.

Big data is a direction finder, highlighting areas in which improvement and innovation could be valuable, but it can’t directly guide the innovation process or help companies set the right strategic direction for customer experience planning. Companies that combine qualitative and quantitative insight make better decisions. You need evidence about both the what and the why to reduce the risks associated with guesswork.

Still not enough investment in solving basic usability issues

While companies have increasingly employed usability testing to improve their sales and service processes there is still a clear tendency to act only on the issues which are easiest to fix.

Over the years we’ve noticed that known usability issues get more boring the longer they are known about. Perversely this can mean that the most longstanding frustrations for customers slowly become all but forgotten.

For example, many of the major insurers in the UK struggle with quote form user experience because the platforms they sit on are antiquated mainframes (some of them installed as far back as the 1980s to drive early call-centre operations). After quick wins were implemented in the early 2000s further usability improvement can only come at a big cost in time and human effort. We’ve found that it’s easier for an organisation to convince itself that small-but-expensive usability issues are non-critical than to engage senior stakeholders on the importance of making changes.

At some point, companies will need to take a strategic decision to invest in resolving the things which are not as easy to fix but which customers really want to see improved. The greatest marginal returns may come not from inventing shiny new stuff, but fixing old boring stuff.

Too much disrespect for customers

Henry Ford still gets quoted by people who want to marginalise the opinion of customers; “If I had asked people what they wanted they would have asked for a faster horse”. In other words, customers don’t know what they want, or what’s good for them.

There’s no good evidence that Henry Ford ever said this, or if he did exactly what point he was trying to make. Nevertheless there’s a lazy acceptance by many in business that user research is futile.

We’ve conducted research with thousands of consumers over our first decade in business and can be quite clear on this one: customers are not stupid. In fact they can be sophisticated and articulate critics of digital products and services. We’ve found them to be generous with their time and ideas. The things they say can change the minds of CEOs and create change within organisations. Overall we believe they are worthy of more respect than they currently get from the design and marketing industries.

This was the founding thought that led us to go into business ten years ago. Customers should be involved in design and service development not just as test subjects, but as collaborators and participants.

Devaluing their input shows a shameful hubris on the part of designers and business managers. Getting customers the respect they deserve still remains one of the greatest challenges for the next ten years. Let’s hope it doesn’t take that long.

What do you think?