Prospecting in the 21st century

I have been sitting on this post (and maybe this fence) for some time and a recent article finally gave me the impetus to write this.

 

innovation_theonlyone
Image courtesy of theonlyone 
 

Firstly, I would like to highlight some opinions of UX (and UCD) themes in evidence in the last 6 months:

  • The purists – those who believe UX should be kept out of the advertising agency world (Merholz and Bowles).
  • The integrators – those who feel that UX must play a part in communication of a product or brand and be an integral element of an ad agency (Abby the IA and Karen McGrane)
  • The skeptics – those who don’t believe in UX being a discipline at all (Ryan Carson).
  • The naysayers – those who believe UCD (and indirectly UX) is a waste of time and even misleading in terms of creating a truly innovative solution (Skibsted and Hansen)

 

Eric Reiss in the Journal of IA took a balanced and considered view to these opinions. Framing them with a sense of perspective and presenting some deeper thoughts about UX and the role of IA in all of this. I particularly like his focus on business reality and the clarion call to embrace Information Architecture as the label that defines what we really do;

Ultimately, it will be our understanding of disciplines both within and beyond IA, that will ensure us a place at the table around which the big decisions are made.

Why UX must be present in the advertising industry

I think it’s important to reaffirm why we should not have an elitist view of UX and why IA is at the very core of the user experience collection of disciplines.

Clearleft and Adaptive Path do excellent work as UX design companies. But they are a minority in a huge marketplace of varied design companies and to say that UX doesn’t have a place in other types of business is contradictory to their usual UX evangelism. Isn’t it much better having people in all sorts of businesses doing information architecture and interaction design under the umbrella of UX?

In the company I work at, we are growing our UX offering around a product and it is a slow but sure process of convincing people that this approach (with the right designers) can really work for their business. However, we must also embark on communication and design work as our market is not as big or as mature as the US or UK. These are driven by the need for business survival but it also ensures we have diverse viewpoints on our projects. Different perspectives provide value.

The concept of baked-in marketing

…there are so many opportunities for engagement through interaction, conversation, utility and actual *use* between the initial message and the product itself.

A day before Peter Merholz posted his view on UX and advertising, Andrew Hinton highlighted  that product development and communication go hand in hand. This closer alignment will have repercussions for UX – pushing it into mainstream design consciousness. Just about every design pursuit will need to look at wider issues that surround the customer and product. Companies will strive to engage, to create interaction. Creating users who become customers.

Service design is the natural progression from UX – taking interactions across platforms and concentrating on the invisible and tangible connections around customer or user interactions. Information architects should be at the heart of this design work and don’t be surprised to start to see IAs appear in companies that you didn’t even think of as ‘digital’.

Let’s also remember that this isn’t just the domain of designers but all stakeholders. We must realize UX work is done by those who do not call themselves designers. This can have both good and bad sides but if there are more people who know what we are talking about, in the right domains, this can only be for the good.

Design practice – risk and innovation

The reality of the times, is that a business needs to innovate and create better products, faster than before. But they need to mitigate risk, and UX methods offer a way of backing this up with real and relevant data. It seems at this stage to be a correct and considered way to ensure you have the right approach.

But the caveat is how to interpret data from users and it can be a minefield. The best designers will filter and discard many findings and see the real gold in reams of user interviews. This level of skill is learnt through experience. The ability to be a synthesiser of data and create meaningful relationships between themes is a core quality of any designer.

Conceptual work needs verification with customers at some stage and even Apple does this before they go to market. So to say they do not listen to users is a fallacy. They have conducted ethnographic studies with their customers, observing them using their products in their homes and offices for weeks.

The amount of data they acquire from these sessions would warrant a convincing case to not go for persona creation or user interviews, ever. They pretty much know how people feel about and use their products, so for them to innovate they need to pick up on areas that are hinted at by user comments and their behaviours through their usage. Concepts that are achievable by being verified with customers who have previously talked about the ‘what ifs’ and the ‘nice to haves’.

Action research and design doing

Negating risk by investing in research that is actionable is a shrewd move, especially in a marketplace where customers are more vocal and more likely to be persuaded by peers than ever before. For business, the value of UX can be seen in exploring hypotheses backed up by quantitative and qualitative research.

Optimization, concept creation and execution on innovative ideas can all be handled and explored by UX teams. Considered product developments and the tangible tools to be innovative, create real business value.

Software design, integrated service design and product design all benefit from design research. In my opinion UCD is purely another way of obtaining the right information. I wouldn’t design anything without ensuring a brief that included as much background information as possible. Would you?

Design thinking is one thing but design doing is a far more powerful act for business. A necessary part of this act is to gain real insights from user (or customer) research.

Envisioning the future by studying the present

It is not just interface design. It is not just about making the world more usable and ethically correct. It’s all this and more. It is a force for changing business in its approach and to make it economically stable by providing for needs but also satisfying wants beyond the present day. This is the business value of UX. How you interpret the data you collect, and create something truly unique, relies on the teams skill set and experience.

All of this leads me back to my belief that UCD as a philosophy and UX (and especially IA) form the foundation for the best products and service design. A whitepaper was released as I wrote this, defining UX – written by academics, practitioners and industry. It would be good if this were a full stop to the infighting and misinformation the discipline faces, but somehow I doubt it.

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