Originally published: Jun 18, 2009
"They hired me to create an easy to use design, now they won't let me do it."
The designer was frustrated and she had every right to be. When the organization hired her, they said that a great, usable design was their top priority. Yet with every suggestion the designer proposed, their response was either "not yet," "not now," or "once we get this first release out." The first release would be overly complicated and hard-to-use and the designer felt her talents were completely wasted.
It's easy to blame the rejection of good design on bad management priorities. Unfortunately, more often than not, it's actually a good sense of priority that's preventing a great user experience. That's because the market isn't ready for it.
In the early 1990s, we could see that design mattered. Good designs produced products that users enjoyed using. It made users more productive. And a product that delivered a great experience would enjoy success in the marketplace.
Yet we would meet substantial resistance when we tried to work with teams on their new designs. While they'd give lip service to producing a usable, delightful result, their attention was obviously some place else. We couldn't get their attention or time to make it happen.
That's when we stepped back and looked at the other factors. Was there another force that prevented teams from delivering on their desire of a great experience at the outset? Studying the evolution of dozens of products, from word processors to medical imaging devices, a pattern began to emerge -- the maturity of the market dictated the experience.
We started by looking at those products known for the best experiences. Each had pushed ahead of substantial competitors whose existing designs were overly complex and feature ridden. We could see that great experiences came by providing a simplified version with a great interface to the critical functionality.
But something else emerged in our analysis: none of these great products were the first in their product area. It was as if the previous generations, with their bloated functionality sets, were required for the simplified, better designs to emerge.
As we started to study this further, we could see there was a definite pattern underlying the process. We soon identified four stages that every product's market, hardware or software would follow. Some go through the stages very quickly, some take years to progress from one stage to the next, but every market would eventually mature, moving through each stage, one by one.
The external force we realized was the customer -- the individual making the purchase decision -- that determined the stage for the products that were competing in their category. Customers decide how bad of an experience they'll tolerate. Their tolerance starts high, but shrinks as the market matures and competitors start to offer better experiences.
Here we are, 15 years later, and we're still seeing the pattern continue. Cell phones, GPS units, bookkeeping software, and mapping services have all exhibited the same four stages. As each product category matures, customers demand a different type of experience. The producers respond with a new style of design and the market matures.
At first, we thought it didn't apply to web sites. After all, most people don't pay for most of the web sites they visit. However we realized that money wasn't the only way to assess a price. Attention is the currency on the web, and sites compete for each user’s attention. So, the pattern continues.
When a new product category emerges, something that the world has never seen before, people show extra tolerance for hard-to-use designs. After all, if the technology is something that's truly valuable, you have no choice but to put up with whatever interface it has. Easy or not, you'll do what it takes to use it.
We see this with any first generation product. Its interface is clunky and hard to use. Yet if it's something we derive benefit from, the early adopters will make the effort and make it work.
Turns out, this stage has more to do with customer choice than the novelty of the design. It's true that new and novel designs fall into this stage, but so do other designs, if the customer doesn't get any choice.
Making a reservation on the Cross Sound Ferry web site can be frustrating and difficult for many travelers. Many users require multiple attempts and some can't complete it without calling the ticketing office. Yet the site has remained the same for years.
For the company, whose core competency is in ferry management, not web site design, revising the design could be very costly. Since their customers really have no other choices, there's very little financial incentive to making that investment, even though everyone would agree a new site would be better.
Intranet designs and enterprise software often fall in this stage too. Because the employees have no available alternatives, they must use the design to complete their jobs so there's little incentive for change.
Designers find themselves in the Technology Stage when the design they're working on has no competitors or the users have no choice but to use it. It becomes very difficult to argue for design improvement, as that always takes an investment and it's unclear what returns the organization will see from the extra efforts.
In this stage, the priorities of the design team become one of launching the design and moving on. Some investment can help reduce initial design and development costs, by determining what features are unnecessary and will go unused.
Spending time watching users can also help pinpoint low-hanging fruit that can reduce calls to the support center and help desk. In many organizations, that means seeking a sponsor outside of the development organization, who will see benefit from an easier-to-use design.
Many designers don't survive long in a Stage 1 environment. They find the resistance to improvements very frustrating. It's really not the organization's fault, but it isn't fun or challenging for someone who has design talent. (At least, it's not challenging in a good way.)
However, those that do last may see the design transition to Stage 2. That's where things start to get interesting.
Once a competitor joins you in the category, your customers get a choice. Which design has the best functionality? Which functionality best matches the user's needs?
Stage 2 focuses on features. Features can catch you up to the competition. Features can propel you into new territory. Mostly, features become a line item on the checklist that compares your design to the competition.
In the early days of Stage 2, when customers don't know what they really need, they tend to go with the design that has the biggest checklist. Later on, as they've had experience with other products in the categories, they look to specific features.
The important thing about this stage is that every enhancement has to be explicit and measurable. "Easy to use" isn't a checklist item, unless you can specifically measure it.
This means it's still hard to get many user experience enhancements into the design process. Unless it can be expressed as a checklist item, it's likely to face resistance.
Stage 2 teams do have some good news. Competitive evaluations can help identify missing features and new opportunities. Testing out prototypes can discover if new features and attributes will be desirable to new customers.
Sometimes, there's functionality already built into the system that, once surfaced, becomes a feature with little implementation effort. For example, FedEx already tracked every package by computer. But by giving customers direct access to the tracking data with a clean customer-friendly interface, they created a feature almost instantly.
In part 2, we’ll continue exploring the remaining stages. In Stage 3, I’ll discuss the experience stage, and in Stage 4, I’ll cover the commodity stage.
Let us know what you've been doing to make your designs more invisible. We'd love to hear your thoughts on the Brain Sparks Blog.
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