User Experience beyond personas and wireframes

User experience has become very popular over the last few years in the digital world.

Just like the modern car in the ‘80s and the PC in the 90s, UX today is becoming ubiquitous and is on everyone’s wish list. Also, although we often just make reference to the products (e.g. Ford Focus), tools (e.g. iMac), or methodologies (e.g. usability testing), its true value comes from the revolutionary impact it is having in the way we think and act.

User experience is often perceived only through its deliverables, such as wireframes and personas, and not through the user-centred design process applied to arrive at these deliverables. So, anyone could learn Balsamiq Mockups and retrospectively wireframe a visual design to demonstrate “UX expertise”, or could create a “persona” based on their own gut feelings about the audience. But that would be the equivalent of using your BMW as a flower pot, or your Macbook as a bed warmer. This superficial approach to UX can be found in agencies, clients and freelancers alike.

However, there are plenty passionate people who have joined the “UX movement” from a sense of deep empathy towards users and businesses. For example, there are many frustrated in-house UX teams-of-1 that desperately try to change corporate culture through preaching and through actively pushing the boundaries of bureaucracy ruled by marketing executives. UX budgets are slashed for more advertising (and pray that getting more traffic on a half-baked website will somehow improve ROI), user engagement is substituted for expert reviews (because you are the “expert”, right?), and recommendations are not followed due to IT bottlenecks. But they keep trying because they have seen how UX can bring more smiles to otherwise frustrated customers, and effectively cut costs in their companies. Similar defiantly passionate behaviours are observed by practitioners in multiple environments and adjacent professions (e.g, visual designers and developers), who “get” user experience.

So, what’s the big secret? Where does the impact come from? The hint is in the UCD: put users at the heart of everything you do. Talk to them, and you’ll arrive at Theodore Levitt’s insight: “when customers buy quarter inch drills, they really are buying quarter inch holes”. Observe them, and you will produce the century’s best selling phone concept, just as Henry Dreyfuss did when he placed both speaker and microphone within one handset. Both of these examples are from the middle of the 20th century, so it seems that the world’s worst kept secret still seems to elude marketers and many distinguished directors: for a product or a service to be commercially successful, it needs to be:

  • useful (does what the target audience needs it to do),
  • usable (matches users’ mental model),
  • easily accessible (people can find it).

Take usefulness out, and you have Google Buzz; without usability, Google Wave; without findability, well, I haven’t found an example yet. Put all 3 together and you have desirable products such as iPads, Dropboxes etc.

As with any process, you need to have or build a certain culture around it to embrace it. For example, when agencies “do” agile, they don’t achieve this by just buying a funky project management tool, or hiring one agile expert. The same goes with UX, just because you have, watched UIE webinars or hired a UX person, you don’t necessarily “do” UX.

It would be naive for me to attempt and explain how to set up the right UCD culture in this blog post, but you’d be surprised how much a huge whiteboard or the relocation of your dev team can aid collaboration! The best starting place is to engage with the vibrant user experience community to cultivate your empathy & passion for personal growth. Attend events in your local community (e.g. UXPA UK holds regular events and workshops in London), and share your challenges, experiences and learnings with other practitioners. You may also want to consider joining the wider UX community at inspirational conferences, such as UXPA 2014 in London, UX London, UX Brighton, UX Bristol, UX Cambridge, UX Scotland.

What are your UX-related business culture challenges and how do you overcome them?

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