Research shows big payoff when design includes voice of the user

Research shows big payoff when design includes voice of the user



A recent McKinsey report outlines the ROI of UX research, offering a business case to invest in building designs centered around the user.

Arriving at a fantastic design rarely happens by magic or luck. More typically, it occurs through a great deal of work … including revisions, iterations, and seeking out the voice of the user. We know this. It makes sense. Yet, stakeholders still cut design cycles short because they can’t be sure that one more iteration, or that running a user study, will have a positive return on investment. Being in the field of user experience research, we know the positive impact that user experience (UX) research has on product design, but it can be challenging to convince a board room to invest. But now we have evidence! McKinsey recently released a report showing the business benefits of design.

The report found a robust correlation between companies that are strong in design and the financial performance of each company. These results held true across the industries they studied, covering physical products, digital products, and services. As you read into the report, UX research was at the heart of what put companies in the top quartile.

The report goes on…

“The importance of user-centricity, demands a broad-based view of where design can make a difference … In practice, this often means mapping a customer journey (pain points and potential sources of delight) rather than starting with “copy and paste” technical specs from the last product. This design approach requires solid customer insights gathered firsthand by observing and—more importantly—understanding the underlying needs of potential users in their own environments. … Yet only around 50 percent of the companies we surveyed conducted user research before generating their first design ideas or specifications…

And on…

… many companies have been slow to catch up. Over 40 percent of the companies surveyed still aren’t talking to their end users during development. … With no clear way to link design to business health, senior leaders are often reluctant to divert scarce resources to design functions. That is problematic because many of the key drivers of the strong and consistent design environment identified in our research call for company-level decisions and investments.

In our experience, designers are amazed by the many ways consumers interpret their designs. Knowledge of consumer interpretations empowers designers to improve their designs in subsequent iterations. Thus, design benefits from the voice and interpretation of the people who will adopt it.

Plain and simple, companies that invest in user experience research perform better financially than those that don’t. This data has been anecdotal in the past, but McKinsey’s report should serve as the foundation for any UX manager trying to build a business case for UX.

UX and sustainability: What is our role as researchers?

UX and sustainability: What is our role as researchers?



As UX researchers and designers, we should consider the entire product lifecycle, including disposal. If possible, also thinking ahead to future product iterations and how product replacement will be handled.

Earlier this year, I was a part of a formative study for a pharmaceutical manufacturer to investigate patients’ opinions about a new liquid medication delivery device. It was a daily dose that came in one-time-use bottles made of plastic, meaning patients would have to dispose of approximately 30 bottles per month. One of the unexpected insights we gathered from this study was that participants were highly concerned about the waste involved and almost unanimously voiced the desire for the bottle to be reusable, recyclable, or smaller at the very least.

This is an interesting first-hand example of sustainability becoming a factor in user experience (UX). Users often want the latest technology, not only because the capabilities of new devices are helpful in critical ways, but also because our society sees newness as fashionable. And design is often structured around that concept. For example, new software often can’t be run on old devices, requiring the purchase of new hardware – and resulting in a continuous cycle of disposal. This frequent disposal of goods has a significant impact on the environment, and technology may have further environmental effects in the form of energy-demanding websites and electronic waste. So how do we as UX professionals consider the needs and desires of users while also factoring in the broader human value of environmental sustainability? Should that be part of our responsibility?

Design with sustainability in mind from day one

Some experts, including the reputable Don Norman, suggest that designers should consider the full life-cycle of a product as they build it, with the end goal of creating well-cared-for systems. This kind of design not only has a positive impact on the environment, but it can often ultimately improve the user experience (as noted in the example above) and therefore contribute to commercial success.

There are some actionable ways that sustainability can be included in design. For one, product innovators and designers can think ahead to the disposal of the product. How will users get rid of the product when they no longer need or want it? Furthermore, does the invention of this product displace an older model, and what impact will the disposal of the older version have on the consumer? On the environment? Considering these concepts early in the innovation cycle means avoiding greater problems later down the line.

Adding options to reduce waste

On the other end, designers can also look at the ramifications of behavior induced by a certain product or system. For example, food delivery apps might promote waste because of the large amount of plastic and packaging that are often inherently involved in the process. Building in options that provide the user opportunities to reduce waste or save energy is a simple way that designers can promote sustainability and allow users to make more informed decisions about their consumption, which at least for some users, elevates their overall experience with a product.

As UX researchers, we are responsible for investigating what is important to users in order to improve their overall experience with products and services. But humans are complex, and their desires are not always straightforward. Sometimes, the insights we uncover remind us that technology does not exist in a bubble, it exists in societies with values and norms (like concern for the environment). What are some other ways UX professionals might be able to address the intersection between sustainability and design?

Four things to keep in mind when conducting on-the-road UX research

Four things to keep in mind when conducting on-the-road UX research



To successfully execute on-the-road driver experience research, it’s important to account for factors unique to the driving environment, such as the route or geographic location.

There are many facets of the technological renaissance currently underway in the automotive industry. Development in areas such as infotainment, connectivity, and autonomous driving are fundamentally altering the in-car experience; the extent to which these developments are implemented successfully hinges in part on informing their design with a thorough assessment of impacts to that experience. While it is possible to test vehicle systems in a parked car or on a closed track, neither will fully simulate the experience of driving on the road. Conducting UX research on the open road allows stakeholders to test product or system performance in dynamic conditions that match those faced by drivers every day.

There are several factors UX researchers must consider before conducting an on-the-road study, and by thinking ahead, researchers can ensure they will capture the richest data possible. As is the case with any simulated-use research, many of these factors bubble up to understanding the importance of context of use. That being said, there are some unique considerations for the driving environment so here are four things to keep in mind when conducting on-the-road UX research:

1. Know your route

Just as we (UX researchers) know the products and systems we are researching inside and out, when conducting on-the-road UX research we should also know the test routes and roads equally well. To do this, drive the route multiple times prior to your research. Become aware of how the route drives at different times of day to account for variables such as street parking. Make note of detours and alternative routes in case drivers are unexpectedly diverted from the original plan during your research. If the product or system of interest is meant to be used on the highway, plan a route that goes on the highway. If it’s meant to be used on rough roads, seek out a road with potholes, speedbumps, or rough patches. This will result in a more realistic simulation and ultimately in richer data. Aside from accounting for these factors when planning routes, becoming comfortable with the routes beforehand ensures the research team can focus more on observing behavior and interaction and less on getting research participants from point A to point B.

2. Time of day can impact driver experience

The time of day during which on-the-road UX research is conducted can considerably impact the context of use for in-vehicle systems. When conducting a highway road test in metropolitan areas, research conducted during evening rush hour versus earlier in the day may result in fundamentally different experiences. One driver may experience bumper to bumper traffic, while the other may be able to speed down a relatively open highway. The amount of cognitive bandwidth available to devote to interaction with onboard systems can vary greatly depending on external environmental factors such as traffic, and it is important to account for this variation and how it could impact the driver experience.

3. Location, location, location

Depending on how the system is meant to be used, some regions will be better than others in which to conduct the on-the-road research. If the system is meant to be used over rolling hills, Southern California could be an ideal test site. If the system is meant to be used in snow, testing in Chicago in December could be ideal. The vehicle category should also play a role in selecting an appropriate test site. A system only available in luxury vehicles should be tested in more affluent locations where sales of luxury vehicles are higher, thereby making recruitment of research participants easier. This is where you utilize the expertise of your recruiters to ensure it’s possible to locate the desired population.

4. Focus participants on the stimuli

While this is a standard expectation for any research study, during on-the-road studies, keeping participants focused on the vehicle systems being tested can be particularly challenging. Participants’ attention can be pulled in several directions, from systems inside the vehicle to road distractions. If participants are meant to provide feedback on the experience of the infotainment system, it doesn’t help if they discuss the seat warmers or the slick roads. Conducting in-vehicle UX research on the open road can yield great insights to operational context of use, but it does come at a cost. It can be difficult for research participants to separate out the individual aspects of the in-car experience when providing qualitative feedback, so it is essential that researchers specify and clarify the elements for which feedback is relevant. Something as simple as mentioning the system being tested in follow-up questions can help keep participants focused on appropriate parts of the vehicle during their session.

In summary, context of use is key and the above are just a few examples of elements that are important to account for in a driving environment. Whether the artifact of interest is the infotainment system, or a mechanical system intended to improve the quality of the ride, it is essential to understand the context in which the system will be used so that context can be replicated in your research. Will the system be used while parked? On the highway? When going off-road? When research objectives include obtaining any sort of understanding around how a system will be used in operational context, researchers must attempt to replicate the road, traffic, and route conditions in which the system will be used.

There will always be factors we cannot control, like weather or other drivers. However, planning ahead and thinking through the points outlined above will enable researchers to get the most out of on-the-road UX research and obtain the valuable insights needed to develop best-in-class in-vehicle experiences.

Is customer channel-hopping hiding UX problems?

Is customer channel-hopping hiding UX problems?



Listen to reasons customers contact you and use those reasons to diagnose problems in your channels that may be hiding.

As a company with many channels, you should always be looking at the ways in which customers connect with you. Movement across channels often reflects customer choice, but it also may reveal poor UX in a channel. In other words, ‘channel hopping’ is often driven by a failure of usability or a lack of functionality.

I was recently speaking at a J.D. Power roundtable on the topic of employee experience in the contact center. The point of the presentation, one that I have given many times, is that good design is hard work, and good design begins with field research not in Photoshop. When doing field research in call centers, we want to understand the motivations of why customers call. It’s fascinating to listen to customer stories because you realize that, in today’s omnichannel world, a majority of customers do not choose the call center as their first point of contact to resolve a problem. Which is good to know except what often happens is that customers fail to get resolution in one of the other channels (often related to poor UX) and feel forced to call.

In one concrete (and very typical example), customers call because they don’t understand their paper bill. The root cause of this is that the bill is difficult to understand. Information is in the wrong place, numbers don’t appear to add up, taxes are confusingly represented, critical information may be missing, etc. They may try first to go online to get more detail and may or may not be met with success. So, the poor design of a paper invoice results in customers spending time trying to resolve and ultimately calling to discuss it. Then the customer runs headlong into an interactive voice response system (IVR) and gets even more frustrated by choices that do not match the reason for calling in his mind and with excessive hold times. By the time the customer gets to the agent, there’s a lot of pent up frustration. Much of this could be fixed by using a UX research approach to improving the usability and utility of the paper bill. We’ve fixed many paper bills and driven down both the volume of calls and length of calls regarding bill education from the call center.

This is but one example. There are others where poor design in one channel drives callers to agents (e.g., self-installation of modems, credit decisions, etc.). All of these are examples of channel-hopping due to poor attention to the UX. And, these are all self-inflicted wounds that increase cost to the business and reduce customer satisfaction.

One lesson for UX professionals is that when trying to understand the current ‘customer journey’ it is important to catalog the times when the customer channel hopped because the prior channel failed to meet needs. Doing this gets at a root cause of the problem and tells researchers, designers, and developers where to concentrate efforts.

Ultimately, you should listen to reasons customers contact you and use those reasons to diagnose problems in your other channels that may be hiding. Pay attention to all your channels and continue to monitor for channel-hopping, then focus on fixing the problems you find.

Confirmation Fatigue: Enough with the reminders already!

Confirmation Fatigue: Enough with the reminders already!



While confirmations and reminders are essential and usually well intentioned, they are annoying. Organizations must uncover if and how their customers will use reminders and confirmations during user testing. Confirms should add to the user experience, not leave users feeling frustrated and tethered.
I just switched phones from iOS to Android. In re-creating my new phone environment, I was irritated by how many apps and settings I had to confirm. Later in the day, I got an email from my dentist office asking me to confirm my appointment. Then I made a reservation for dinner on an app, yet the restaurant still called (and emailed!) to confirm. What’s with all this confirmation?

If you believe the hype, digital media was supposed to make my life easier and more convenient. It hasn’t really. It’s just making me tired and crabby. It’s what I call ‘Confirmation Fatigue’. Confirmation Fatigue, along with its close cousins ‘Alert Fatigue’ and ‘Acceptance Fatigue’, are making me a slave to my devices: I get paranoid that if I fail to confirm my appointment it might be canceled (I am told, though I’m not sure as each hold an unclear consequence).

These are but a few examples in a normal day:

  • If my bank suspects that some credit card transaction I’m making is fraudulent, it will deny the charge and send me a text message to confirm (and I usually don’t see the message until after the embarrassment and I’ve moved on to another vendor).
  • Just about every site I visit in the European Union (EU) makes me agree to (i.e., confirm) that it’s OK to drop a Cookie on my machine as the EU Cookie Law requires me to consent. It’s as tiresome as it is annoying.
  • My pharmacy not only sends me texts, but also emails and phones to make sure I pick up my prescriptions. They have a mechanism to allow you to opt out of these aggressive reminders, but it has not worked for me.
  • My doctor knows that if I don’t confirm, I am less likely to show. So, they cyberstalk me to remind me and harass me until I confirm.
  • After requesting a rideshare, I still find that half of the drivers call me to confirm. Why?
  • Every time I start my car, my navi app makes me confirm that I won’t use my touch screen while driving. Every. Time. There are even web sites devoted to overriding the navi certain cars. (Yes, we’ve met your lawyer, we won’t hold you responsible, just let us use the app!)
  • Apple is notorious for confirming software updates to aggravating frequency.
  • Lastly, while writing this piece, Chrome asked me to confirm updates. Sigh.

How did we get here?

We got here, in many ways, because the user interface was made too easy. The apps allow us to quickly and conveniently set appointments because the machines are so good at reminding us, we are relieved of the burdening of remembering (I.e., we forget). While these reminders and confirmations are at one level reassuring, it tethers us to the tech in ways I wish we weren’t. I am the digital bitch – just the weakest link in the supply chain. And they know it.

A generation ago we might have to look up the phone number in the phone book, dial, speak to someone during business hours, and arrive at an agreed upon time. We had to make effort and that effort committed us to what we were asking: doctor’s appointment, plumber visit, or lawncare. Since the effort to agree on appointment dates and times are getting increasingly frictionless, our commitment and our memories are more fleeting. So the machines take over and set up alerts and reminders requiring us to (re!)confirm that commitment.

What can be done to reduce the need for reminding and confirmation?

There is no easy answer. Confirmations are here to stay and largely good, but they are annoying. The real question is: Does everything need confirming…and confirming…and confirming?

I have started to ignore requests in situations where I feel I am not required to respond, like my dentist or the pharmacy. In other situations where I am compelled to respond (like the bank example), I must give in to Skynet and confirm.

To bubble up critical confirmations from the noise, one approach might be to make people think and commit more deeply. For instance, and take a random example, if you are asked to confirm whether it’s OK to send a message to every mobile phone in the State of Hawaii about a missile launch, perhaps you should have to put in some effort. Be forced to think about things: for instance, “In order to confirm sending the SMS message, you have to enter the square root of the atomic number of Manganese”.

Obviously, I’m kidding, but the reality is, technology only works if it works for people. A little research can uncover if and how the user wants to be reminded – how strongly, how often, and where. So rather than inciting feelings of annoyance, it promotes a mental release of the burden of forgetting something in our cluttered minds or alerts us before we make a mistake which totally changes the experience.

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