How user experience design can help organizations innovate

The middle years of the 18th century brought us to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution; the remnants of the same are the old defunct textile factories dotting our cities. The industrial era started in Great Britain with Thomas Newcomen inventing the steam engine in 1712, which James Watt improved in 1776. These new machines helped speed up the manufacture of textiles, improved transportation, and soon other products and services.

The industrial era was a drive towards manufacturing efficiency in generating maximum goods in the shortest time. In this chaos of newfound technology, no one thought what the customer wanted. It was a technology push. Even customers did not know what they wanted because they could buy products at a cheaper price than they could not afford earlier.

Before the dawn of this industrial era, humans consumed products or artifacts produced by skilled artisans of their period. The artisans had customers who knew their needs by virtue of their wealth and access to different artisans and products. The artisans varied from a cobbler, goldsmith, blacksmith, weaver to a cabinet maker. There was an artisan to every imaginable product from that era, and they were able to cater to their customer’s needs. This was a precursor to the User Experience design.

But the industrial era made a huge disconnect between the customer and the manufacturer of the product. Organizations focused on efficiency and soon followed the “Assembly line” method by Henry Ford, who had borrowed the idea from the slaughterhouses in Chicago. The operator assembling one of the hundred components of a product mostly has no semblance of the customer for whom the product is made. The same may hold true for the members of the other functions in an organization.

We are currently in the 4th Industrial revolution or Industry 4.0. And due to the democratization of technology, mostly through the internet, the customers have matured and expect the organizations to meet their explicit and implicit needs. Also, organizations now have unprecedented data about their customer attitudes and behaviors. To benefit from this data, organizations need a process to extract the relevant information and use it to build innovative products and services.

In the past few decades, there have been many leaders championing to bring the customer to the center of the design process. One of them is Don Norman. He was the User Experience Architect at Apple and coined the word “User Experience.” He is also famous for his book, “The design of everyday things.” Over the years, many organizations have understood the importance of keeping the customer to the center of their design process. This is evident from the design value index maintained by the Design Management Institute ( Design-driven companies outperformed Standard & Poor’s index by 228% over ten years in 2014.

Even if the benefits of the customer-centered design are staggering, not all organizations have adopted the User Experience design process. One of the main reasons is that many organizations still limit their focus only to manufacturing efficiency. Many are like photocopying machine churning their output efficiently and consistently. But there is a limit to the efficiency which we can achieve from man, machine, and materials in the manufacturing process. Except for the lower prices and quality, there is a lack of customer-centric innovation with this approach.

The customer-centered design process is vital for any organization looking to be innovative and lead the industry with products and services that can delight its customers. To become a customer-centered design organization, it needs to understand the value of design and grow a team that can propagate user experience design practice. This practice is not limited to a set of design practitioners in the organization; it requires active participation from the different functions of the organization to make it successful.

One of the most common methodologies is “Design Thinking” to practice User Experience design. Although this method is not new, it was made popular by Tim Brown, ex-CEO of IDEO design consultancy, through his book “Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation.” Although there are many variants of the Design Thinking methods, the most popular is the one developed by the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University. The method consists of 5 phases that need not be sequential and can be adapted depending on the project at hand. The different phases are “Empathise”, “Define”, “Ideate”, “Prototype” and “Test”.

Let us consider a hypothetical example of an urban bus transport corporation. It wants to improve the experience of using their buses for the office-going user segment who are currently dependent on their cars.

In the empathize phase, the design thinking practitioners plan and conduct user research using qualitative research methodologies like user interviews and contextual inquiry. The qualitative methods help to “know why” of the customer attitudes and behaviors. They can also talk to subject matter experts like urban transport academics about earlier research. The team may also use quantitative methods like the online survey to evaluate a larger user sample size and measure the customer attitudes and behaviors which were discovered in the qualitative research.

The define phase is started based on information gathered from the empathize phase. The practitioners use the insights gathered to synthesize and define problems to be solved from the customer’s perspective as we are focusing on the user experience. Multiple techniques like user personas, user journey maps, etc., are used to discover and define the problems to be solved. In this example, the practitioners found the following as the top problems for office going user segment. These users felt that it was cumbersome to buy a ticket; there was overcrowding during peak hours and a lack of comfortable bus shelters.

The Ideate phase is started when problems are defined. It involves stakeholders from different functions to use idea techniques like brainstorming, sketching, storyboarding, etc., to idea solutions. For focus, it is best to work on one problem in a session. The ideas are displayed and voted discreetly to avoid prejudice. If there are many ideas, the key stakeholder decides on one idea for prototyping. In this example, the problem of ticket purchase was conceived for solutions. Ideas like using e-ticketing via app, payment via digital wallets were proposed. It was decided that payment via digital wallets can be a quick short-term solution and was taken for prototyping.

In the prototyping phase, the selected idea is transformed into a tangible product or service using inexpensive techniques for quick turnaround. The aim is to create a facade for the idea and not a fully functional product or service. The prototype creation phase can again take the help of the stakeholders to realize the most convincible prototype in the shortest time possible. Before taking the prototype to the test phase, it is tested internally to iron out any issues. In this example, it was proposed to create a QR code that is to be displayed inside the bus to enable payment via digital wallets.

Before starting the test phase, the design practitioners need to arrange for at least five users for whom the solution is being designed. Jakob Nielsen, Usability Advocate and principal of the Nielsen Norman Group, through his research, has found that beyond five users per session or segment, the returns diminish in finding unique feedback from the users. Also, a suitable testing method is chosen for the solution being tested. The observation during the test is documented, and it forms the basis for the key stakeholders to make decisions on the project.

A bus route is chosen in this example, and the idea is tested. Key metrics like time taken, the success rate for the transaction, and user feedback are collected. Based on the test, it was found that the idea was good, but sometimes the mobile network connection dropped, and the QR code was not scannable due to the constant movement in the bus. The key stakeholders can decide to further iterate for solutions based on the problems found in the test phase.

These five phases of the Design Thinking method are iterative; the result of the first cycle will yield three outcomes as per Jake Knapp, co-author of “Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days.” Outcome 1: The idea tested becomes an efficient failure, thereby saving time and resources. Outcome 2: The idea is a flawed success, and a few areas need improvement, so further iterations are required. Outcome 3: The idea is successful and becomes an epic win in which you have met all your user needs, and it is ready for implementation.

User Experience design may feel like an unstructured process for organizations that follow Standard Operating Procedures designed for efficiency. Innovation through “Design Thinking” is fuzzy because the problem identification to solution evaluation is based on human emotions. And failures are part of this process as we test ideas quickly, but the time taken to fail is short. Design Thinking is also a tool to control development costs as it helps to test ideas before a huge investment is committed.

In his book “Change by Design,” Tim Brown has mentioned that at the intersection of desirability, feasibility, and viability lies the most promising product or service. Most organizations are strong in the feasibility and viability of their products and services. But remember organizations from the recent past like Kodak and Nokia, they were once at the pinnacle of their success. But they did not connect with their customers as their needs changed. They were no longer desirable for their customers.

Every organization looks to go beyond its competition to find and retain its customers. User Experience design will help these organizations innovate and be desirable with customer-centric offerings and help them stay connected with their customers.



Views expressed above are the author’s own.



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