Want to create a good service? Embrace constraints!
Creating a new service which is popular, useful and financially successful usually requires a lot of resources. Though the majority thinks that the main resource is money, I would say that the best resource is the human ability to restrain itself and embrace constraints.
Most people are not able to create something meaningful would they be provided with all money on earth, best minds and access to whatever tools. At the same time, being put in the conditions of very limited resources, without access to best brains and with very limited tools, they create great things.
How can it be and why it happens? It is all because of constraints. Constraints help to focus on essentials, on epicenter, on things that matter. When you see another successful service, website, application or product and wonder how it nailed the core of the problem, it appears that a strong vision, passion to solve a big problem and…. what is the most crucial… constraints make all the difference.
What constraints do we have and how we can use them to our advantage? Here is the list coupled with some ideas.
Money. “Best things in the world are free”, says a poster on my wall. That’s especially true these days when it comes to product development. Software is free or virtually free, hosting power worth nothing, Internet is filled with freebies that can be used to create great interfaces and backbones for new breakthrough services. Any company can advertise in Google using the same keywords as billion-dollar corporations (though your budget would be a bit less :)). Money appear to do not matter much when it comes to building great things.
Time. Most teams and companies spend too much time on thinking about ideas instead of creating and testing them. Finally, Blank has shed a light on the importance of validating business ideas with the customers and time-to-market schedules decreased in several times. Still, there are company, mostly in traditional product development industries, that can spend several years thinking about the idea and three more years putting it to the market. While products usually fail, enormous resources of those corporations provide designers all over the world with work and opportunities to sharpen own skills. Great evens such as Global Service Jam turn things upside down ,and let people create prototypes of products or services in 48 hours. If students can do it, why can’t you?
Tools. It is tempting to think that tools define the quality of the output. I reality, its not… What is more, fancy tools usually require additional time to master and provide with too much of details. This can ruin the product in the beginning of a timeline. While choosing tools time and the deliverables matter. If you are creating a prototype of the website, even PowerPoint can handle it, for planning a new service you need a pen and paper. You do not need expensive prototyping suits, you can omit Photoshop or Fireworks with their focus on details. When you need to have something done, speed is the key factor. How can you use tools that you know how to use fast to create the next big thing?
Talent.Talent and education are overrated. Its true. Most people are not inborn genius. When it comes to sports and music, some people have a little bit better inborn abilities, but in most cases the advantage is so small that anybody who practices enough can keep up with the prodigies. Going to a prestigious school also does not matter much. These days education is virtually free and accessible to anybody. People from all over the world can visit online courses or watch lectures from top universities like Stanford, MIT or Harvard. What matters is the ability to get things done. You probably have the most talented people around you. What they might be lacking is a framework for taking actions. Just place constraints on them, give plenty of food and coffee to release their creative energy and you would be surprised with the results. Nobody has a monopoly for a talent.
Are you ready to compete with Apple? Or with Starbucks? These and other exceptional companies might do not work in your industry, sell completely different goods and services and still you are competing with them.
You are competing for a glimpse of attention of customers while these companies are setting new standards of customer experience and quality of interaction.
Customers that have used an iPhone expect their medical devices and even thermostats to be the stylish - here you go Nest:
Some raise bar even higher and disrupt complete industries with a stunning design (take for example Lelo and the kind of revolution they made in the world of adult toys).
Customers have already seen beautiful things and things that are working so well that they almost feel like magic. Now they will demand alike from all what they interact with.
Customers have already tried Brazilian coffee without caffeine with double creams, cinnamon and whatever comes to your mind from Starbucks while sitting in a comfortable chair and listening to favorite music through iTunes.
Being good in questions of design and customer experience is not enough anymore. You have to be great.
Building websites based on hypothesis is easy. You just have to gather a bunch of capable people, they do the work and then, when you like it, you launch it. In best cases, you add some business reasoning behind your decision on having this particular information on the website and providing visitors with some features.
Such an approach based on pure ignorance and arrogance leads to a situation that we have now on the web. Websites are created, they do not meet business objectives but satisfy tastes of owners, visitors are ignored and frustratingly jump from one website to another in order to fulfill their goals. In many cases visitors cannot afford to switch to another vendor because of a monopoly (e.g. the company is an avid market leader because of more than 50 years of history behind it or its a website of a government agency).
This trend is especially relevant for small countries like Finland.
So what is a cure? There is one. If website owners take responsibility and commit to delivering best possible quality to visitors you have the cure. At the same time, commitment and taking responsibility is a mental effort. The real things that should be done are user research and user testing.
Users’ or visitors’ behavior is the only source of valuable information about how well you satisfy their needs. And here we are not talking about questionnaires. You might remember that listening to users is a recipe disaster. Interviews and questionnaires help sometimes, but it most cases you get just a bunch of opinions based on faulty memory. Testing and real life observations on contrary exclude subjectivity and therefore are incredibly valuable.
The bottom line is simple: the only way how current situation with miserable websites’ experience could be improved is if websites’ owners commit to make the websites better and test it constantly with representatives of current or potential visitors.
Good website is like a house. Even though it is built it is just the beginning of the story.
Customers are the most valuable source of insights. Spending time with them and listening to their problems is the best what any company could do. However, as most companies do it wrong, customers become the biggest sources of distractions and a reason for failed products and websites.
With all the talks about customer-centric, customer-driven, customer-whatever culture it might be daunting to listen to your customers. Most companies, however, take this advice literally. This leads to a situation where a product or a website is developed under a pressure of diverse opinions of various categories of customers. In the end it becomes nothing to nobody. It becomes overcomplicated, costly to maintain, not focused. As a result, all those customers who were kindly advising you what could be improved resign from you in favor of your competitor.
So what is the trick? How one can listen to their customers and benefit from them. This is a thing we love the most about usability testing. You take representatives of real customers or real customers and show them a product. Then you give them a high-level task that uncovers how customers interact with a product (not primitive as most do, like “Would you please find this button or this function on the website etc.”) and start observing. When you are observing you focus on behavior and real problems and then - and here the most interesting part comes - you support what you have just seen with comments of your customers. In this case, their opinions, personal preferences, comments and ideas come through a strong filter of unbiased observation. If customers say that something was not a problem for them while they failed to complete important task few times, you can clearly see it. If they claim that they would like something to be solved one way, you already have a better picture that it could be solved another way.
Yesterday, Alan Cooper from “Inmates are running the asylum” illustrated it with a great example. Let’s take a kindergarden (playschool). There are kids who are “clients” and teachers who are “designers”. The only, the biggest and the most important task of a teacher is to take care of children, so they are safe and secure. Other things do not matter much as long as children are all right. Kids, however, might have lots of ideas how kindergarden could be better. For example, they could jump around screaming for candies and ice-cream. It does not mean, however, that a teacher should give it to them. Clever teacher would drive to a conclusion that children either are hungry and they want something tasty or they are playful and want to do something fun.
What most companies do, in the roles of teachers is that they starting giving ice-cream. Lots of it and of various tastes and flavors. For some period of time it works and company starts feeling that they found “the thing” that will make the company prosper forever. In some time, however, kids have diarrhea and other skin and stomach disorders. And then kids stop asking for ice-cream and start blaming teachers for giving it to them.
Lesson learned: customers and their feedback can be a great source of inspiration, but their opinions, ideas and suggestions should be always put through a filter of professional observations and never ever should be a last resort for making decisions.
Providing great customer experience when interaction with a client goes smoothly is a piece of cake but caring about customer, thinking of him and staying at his side when your relationship does not work requires virtue, commitment and determination.
Most of businesses think that acquiring customers is the most important. Once a customer made a first payment, he is not important anymore. Well, he might be important if he decides to use additional services or support which he should pay for (important note, we have nothing against payments for additional services, additional value should be paid for).
The most miserable customer experience, however, people get when they decide to stop relationship with a business. At this particular moment when customer is the most vulnerable most businesses arrive at conclusion that this is the right time to hit strongly.
Garry Beckwith in his “Selling the invisible” tells the story of a dissatisfied customer who wanted to visit an office of a service company with an intention to stop using their services because the company failed to deliver its promise. An employee at a counter took initiative and personal responsibility for the problem, discovered reasons why this customer wanted to stop relationship with a company and took all necessary actions to solve the problem. Meanwhile, customer was wandering in premises of the company charmed by its attitude. Then not only customer made a decision to continue working with the company, but also bough additional products at a price of more than 400 dollars.
Lots of companies claim themselves being customer-centric, customer-oriented etc., but 99% of them fail rejection test when they really need to show empathy and commitment towards a resigning customer.
User experience helps to create innovations inside of big corporations
User experience research is an ultimate tool for building innovations. Big corporations start creating innovation labs that use practices of user experience research to bring successful products to the market.
We were recently inspired by the example of Nordstrom that built a real innovation lab inside of a big corporations. It appears the multi-disciplinary team and user experience design methods combined with iterative product development bring truly successful products to the market.
How to stop building user interfaces and start creating user experience
Building good user interfaces is important tasks to let customers interact with a system effectively. Creating positive user experience is a next step that leads to making customers happy after interacting with a system.
Interface is a means by which users interact with a digital system effectively. It includes controls, tabs, navigation and other elements. The task of a designer is to organise interface elements on the screen in such a way that user can interact with them the most effective way. In ideal case user interface design would be based on goals of users, usability principles and will go through several iterations.
User experience is a means by which you include the whole context of users’ life in the design process. It means that you create only those interfaces that make user’s life more pleasant and his experience working with a product more indulging. What is important is that user experience could be created or improved without changes in the user interface.
As usual, products of Apple provide great examples to illustrate the difference. To download an application from the Apple application store user has to input his password. Apple provides good form for this purpose. User inputs his password that is semi-hidden and makes input on a mobile device more effective. Creating good form for inputting password is a task of a user interface designer. Now, what happens if user wants to download several applications in a row. Normally, she would has to input password all the time before another download starts. Company, however, took this tasks in a context of a real user. If she wants to download several applications in a row and has already input right password once, then why bother with asking the same question several times? Instead, iPhone or iPad memorizes the password for 15 minutes, so users get more pleasant experience of interacting with the application store.
User interface is a part of a user experience
User interface should help users to complete asks the most effective way, user experience should aim at indulging users while interacting with a product
User interface design focuses on a particular screen while user experience designer focuses on a context where and how interaction happens.
How to decide what matters in your product? Put yourself in a constraint of being able to change only one thing about it.
In IDÉ Finland we are constantly trying to focus on changing and improving only those things that matter the most.
When I mean matter the most, I mean those changes or improvements to the products, UI of websites or applications of our clients that will solve the pain of customers and will help to reach goals of a company.
Now you can wonder, how you can know for sure what matters the most?The truth is that no one does. However, you can make yourself think about the most important problems that you can tackle in a product by putting a constraint on you.
What if you could change only one thing? What would it be? Would you change a header on your home page, so it describes clearly the purpose of your website or would you make “Buy” button bolder, so visitors do not leave your website after few failed attempts to make a purchase? Would you invent new controls for a UI of your software or would you group the most important controls and make them pop-out, so users can interact with them easily.
The trick works perfectly. Whenever you want to make improvements on your website or software next time, ask yourself what would you change if you could change the only thing.
Developing applications and websites with good usability is several times more difficult for mobile devices than for desktop. If company has not improved usability of its website or web-application, going mobile is premature and will not bring much benefits.
Do not jump on a “go mobile” wagon. This is a road to a dead-end. Despite the fact that you can hear from every corner about “going mobile” and that “mobile is a new strategy”, do not listen. Do not go mobile now.
Mobile is definitely a long-term trend. This trend is very important. In four-seven years according to major research companies like Forrester and Gartner mobile applications and websites will dominate. It does not mean, though, that now is the right time to start building mobile version of your website or mobile application for your service.
There is one very strong reason for this. Usability requirements of mobile websites and applications are more strict than web-usability. Users of mobile devices face more problems with understanding content and functions of mobile websites and applications, have less time to learn and use it. They are also less tolerant to mistakes.
Creating a really good mobile application puts a lot of pressure on a development team in terms of time and knowledge of usability.
Fix your current website or web-application first, discover main problems users have, solve them and then go mobile. Otherwise, developing mobile applications will not bring much benefits to your company.
It is not uncommon to see these days like software companies post job ads where they state that they are looking for a graphic designer to work on interfaces either for their own software or for their clients. Who if not graphic designer is capable of creating beauty on a screen? Sounds logical, isn’t it?
The reality is different. Graphic designers come from a different domain and even got used to work with another type of surface. Screen is not a low-resolution version of paper and people who use to be designing posters and book covers are not necessary capable of creating good interfaces.
Graphic design aims at presenting stuff, creating positive image or evoking good emotions. On contrary, interface design aims at creating meaningful experiences between users and companies through software or a website. It is not a big deal if somebody does not like the font or background colors used on a poster or cannot distinguish them from the distance of several metres. It’s a catastrophe if potential client abandons website because check-out process looks long for him.
What works good, usually is said to be looking good. Take a look at products that have been many times praised for their good design: Quora and Dyson. In a sense, both have nothing to do with a good design. However, as they are both simple, solve important for some problem and work well, people say that they look good. There are other examples of products that have nothing to do with a design, but work so well that even become popular within a design community. Take Tumblr for example. Company has not had designer for all time of its existence until recently and still was able to have a design-centric culture. Another example is Instapaper which is so simple that even looks beautiful.
It drives us to a quite straightforward conclusion. Create product for people, solve their real problems and try to involve them on the every step of product development. By doing so, your product will be good and that is why you would never need a graphic designer to decorate it.
This blog is run by user research company IDE Finland. We post here our thoughts about user experience, simplicity, business and how to make it all work together. We publish things that might be interesting for designers, developers and business owners.