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Customer Experience and Design

User Experience Debt: Why, What, and How? (Part 2)

shutterstock_307219181_350Part 1 of this post shared some ways that I’ve seen user experience debt burgeon from projects. This includes all manner of usability flaws and poor experiences. Here, Part 2 offers a strategic framework for addressing those problems. It’s divided into the following 3 sections as “Why”, “What” and “How.”

  1. Purpose. Why do we want to improve our designs?
  2. Assessment. What needs to be done to improve them?
  3. Design Principles. How will we do it?

1. Purpose 

Strategy must begin with genuine purpose. As the business philosopher Jim Rohn said, your success in life will be measured by your impact on other people. What is the purpose of your design? How will improving your user experience help the world in some small way?
It’s easy for design improvement projects to ignore these questions. I know because I’ve been guilty of this about eight thousand times. Here are some misguided purposes from past experience:
Simply wanting to “be the best.”
Project scopes sometimes proclaim that Product X will supersede the competition by becoming “the best” in the industry. The thinking stops there. In practice, though, every organization aspires to be on top. A purpose should define exactly what that means for your company and customers. To quote the writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, “A goal without a plan is just a wish.”
Being different for the sake of being different.
I once worked with a product manager at a Global 500 company who stated, “All our competitors have a grid UI. So we want to implement anything except a grid.” The merits of grid design aside, this philosophy is purely reactive. Zigging just because the competition is zagging indicates a lack of vision for serving one’s customers.
Ignoring competitive advantage.
This is the opposite of the last pitfall but equally dangerous. It occurs when stakeholders reference their favorite websites to prescribe, say, Parallax UI with a novel JQuery twist.
In practice, purposeful design must be grounded in business strategy. Designers should know if their business generally distinguishes itself through price leadership, product differentiation or specialization. It’s great to look at UI trends, but form must follow function.
Enterprise website design (here at Perficient) should reflect the marketing principles of specialization, differentiation, segmentation and concentration. It’s necessary to recognize how an organization specializes in a particular market and differentiates itself from competitors. What are the user segments (perhaps represented by personas and supported with web analytics) that the site should target? And lastly, how should design and content strategy concentrate on those offerings for those demographics?
It’s so tempting to skip the business broccoli and jump straight to design dessert. The sooner that executives can see visual designs the better, right? However, ignoring your competitive advantage means that your best-case scenario is to match the status quo… you’ll never beat it.
Fixating on conversions (or revenue).
Gamification has emerged as a hot trend in recent years. But I feel there’s also an unstated gamification of web analytics and conversion design. Personally, I’ve been as guilty to this as anyone. At my worst I’ve treated A/B testing on an e-commerce site like a contest. Which button color, image or label will triumph each week? My only goal was to “win.” In retrospect, this was devoid of user empathy… which is an underlying cause of UX debt in the first place.
What does a legitimate purpose look like? A technique to consider is the “5 Whys.” Ask yourself why you want to improve a design, and keep challenging yourself by repeatedly asking “Why?” The fifth time you ask “why” may reveal some interesting truths. This is a shorthand method for “Starting with Why”, as organizational expert Simon Sinek encourages us all to do. To paraphrase Sinek, profit is a byproduct of purpose. It should not be the purpose itself.
I never applied the 5 Whys to the e-commerce site that I mentioned. Here’s what the logic chain might have been if I did:

  1. I want to use A/B testing to improve the checkout funnel. Why?
  2. I want to quantify improvements to checkout. Why?
  3. I want stakeholders to stop speculating which designs work best. Why?
  4. I believe it’s important to show ROI in design improvement initiatives. Why?
  5. I want to convince our company to adopt a more user-centered design culture. Why?
  6. I believe design should be a differentiating factor for our company in an extremely competitive industry.  

As you can probably appreciate, there’s a huge leap from picking A/B button colors (Why #1), and envisioning design as a competitive advantage for the whole company (Why #5). When examining UX debt, try to have a real purpose. It will define you as much as your work.
In a couple final posts I’ll share the next steps in this framework. This involves Assessment – what needs to be done? and Design Principles – how will we accomplish it?

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