Brands no longer just sell products and services – they offer experiences. The strength of the relationship between a consumer and a brand is not only measured by the ringing of the cash register, but by the customer experience at every touchpoint. This makes the role of user experience (UX) designers crucial. But they have only emerged as a force in design over the last decade.
Companies are now scrambling for UX talent – which is hard to secure, as demand outstrips supply. It’s a very complex job, and as UX designer Andy Budd warns a one-size-fits-all approach is not the recipe for success:
Power to the people
There’s another crucial reason behind the demand for UX designers: the relationship between brands and customers has undergone a fundamental shift in power.
Back in the old days, account planners used to be the voice of the consumer. They would try to anticipate customers’ needs and then set about creating products and services accordingly. The emergence of “UX”, however, has flipped this approach on its head. When you’re designing a user interface, it’s now more important than ever to put the customer first – in very literal terms. That’s interesting, because including the end user at the start of the creative process means your ideas are more likely to be challenged. It’s a shift in thinking. A change in dynamics.
This shift is similar to the way engineering and manufacturing systems have developed. Concepts like “Kaizen”, “Kanban”, “Prince” and “Agile” – buzzwords for project management and continuous improvement – are all used throughout the creative industry. They all started in engineering as ways to better operate plants and production lines, and to manage people more efficiently when they’re building a product.
UX also came from that industrial world and has since been adopted in creative industries. When we build a product or service where there’s two-way feedback – be it a website, an app or a display billboard – we need to employ UX testing.
The UX mantra is: what would the user do? For example, if a technical designer is tasked with making a mug, they might give it two handles to ensure both left- and right-handed people can use it. But a UX designer would just give it one, knowing the end user will instinctively flip it around according to personal preference.
We’ve been building websites like two-handled mugs for too many years. It takes a UX expert to come along and say: “simplify here”, “set clear goals there” or “cut that because you don’t need it”. We weren’t really doing that properly before UX designers arrived.
Why so special?
Because UX is developing so quickly, having up-to-date skills and knowledge is invaluable. You might study human-computer interaction (HCI) at university, for example, but it doesn’t adequately prepare you for real UX work. In fact, you can build websites for 20 years and still never understand UX…
A lot of the really great UX experts have learnt (and continue to learn) on the job. They’ve realised that by testing and talking to people, they get a better end result. But until now, not many working environments have allowed people to develop in this way. Historically, startups across various digital industries have been siloed and closed – teams would build a product in secret and not show the end user until it was finished. UX experts need to operate in far more collaborative environments where they’re allowed to test and share ideas, and where development is iterative. Creative industries are heading in that direction now.
The way agencies have built and billed projects in the past also hasn’t supported this approach. At the start of a project, a client will often outline a very clear list of tasks. The challenge with integrating pure UX is if you follow that list of tasks and at a later point UX testing dictates you need to go back and make a change, then you run the risk of going over budget.
Our modern development team counteracts that by incorporating UX at the very beginning of a project. That involves (among other things) extensive prototyping before we even think about writing code and designing. We factor in UX requirements during our Think and Frame phases, and those considerations continue to influence the rest of the project.
Brands are now recognised by their user experiences as much as – if not more than – their logos. It’s a fact that emerged several years ago, but some teams are still playing catch-up. Ultimately, it’s more important than ever for companies to live their brand values and deliver truly exceptional user experiences.
How do you improve customer experiences? What would you do to better understand your customers? Please post your thoughts in the comments below.
Please post your thoughts in the comments below.
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