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Build a product experience strategy around the needs of stakeholders

Product experience strategists need to conduct thorough research to ensure that the products being developed and launched align with the goals and needs of the business. Alignment is a bit of a buzzword that you’re likely to see in HBR and other publications, but don’t dismiss it – it isn’t a trivial thing, and it certainly isn’t an abstract thing. One of the pitfalls of product experience strategy – and product management more generally – is that understanding the needs of the business isn’t actually that straightforward. There’s lots of moving parts, lots of stakeholders. And while everyone should be on the same page, even subtle differences can make life difficult.

This is why product experience strategists do detailed internal research. It:

  • Helps designers to understand the company’s vision and objectives for the product. It allows them to understand what’s at stake. Based on this, they work with stakeholders to align product objectives and reach a shared understanding on the goals of design.
  • Once organizational alignment is achieved, the strategist uses research insights to develop a product experience strategy. The research is simply a way of validating and supporting that strategy.

The included research activities are:

  • Stakeholder and subject-matter expert (SME) interviews
  • Documents review
  • Competitive research
  • Expert product reviews

research context


Talk to key stakeholders

Stakeholders are typically senior executives who have a direct responsibility for, or influence on, the product. Stakeholders include product managers, who manage the planning and day-to-day activities associated with their product, and have a direct decision-making authority over its development. In projects that are important to the company, it is not uncommon for the executive leadership from the chief executive and down to be among the stakeholders due to their influence and authority to the direct overall product strategy.

The purpose of stakeholder interviews is to gather and understand the perspective of each individual stakeholder and align the perspectives of all stakeholders around a unified vision around the scope, purpose, outcomes, opportunities and obstacles involved in undertaking a new product development project. Gaps among stakeholders on fundamental project objectives and priorities, will lead to serious trouble down the road. It is best to surfaces such deviations as early as possible, and help stakeholders reach a productive alignment.

The purpose of subject-matter experts (SMEs) interviews is to balance the strategic high- level thinking provided by stakeholders, with detailed insights of experienced employees who are recognized for their deep domain expertise. Sales, customer service, and technical support employees have a wealth of operational knowledge of products and customers, which makes them invaluable when analyzing current processes and challenges.

Prior to the interviews, the experience strategist prepares an interview guide. The purpose of the guide is to ensure the following:

  • All stakeholders can respond to the same questions
  • All research topics are covered if interviews are conducted by different interviewers
  • Interviews make the best use of stakeholders’ valuable time

Some of the questions in the guide are general and directed at all participants, others are more specific and focus on the stakeholders specific areas of responsibility. Similar guides are developed for SME interviews.

In-person interviews are the best, because they take place at the onset of the project and provide a good opportunity to build rapport and trust between the designer and interviewee.

After a formal introduction regarding the purpose of the interview and general questions regarding the person’s role and professional experience, the person is asked for their personal assessment and opinions on various topics. Here is a sample of different topics:

  • Objectives and obstacles
  • Prioritized goals for the project
  • What does success look like
  • What kind of obstacles the project is facing, and suggestions to overcome them
  • Competition
    • Who are your top competitors
    • Strength and weaknesses relative to the competition

Product features and functionality

  • Which features are missing
  • Differentiating features
  • Features to avoid

The interviews are designed to last no more than an hour and are documented with notes and audio recordings, if possible. The answers are compiled and analyzed and the result is presented in a report. The report suggests a unified list of prioritized objectives, and highlights gaps and other risks that have been reported. The report is one of the inputs into the development of the overall product experience strategy.

Experts understand product experience better than anyone

Product expert reviews, sometimes referred to as heuristic evaluations, are professional assessments of a current product, which are performed by design experts for the purpose of identifying usability and user experience issues.

The thinking behind the expert review technique is very practical. Experience designers have the expertise to assess the experience quality of a product in a systematic way, using a set of accepted heuristics.

A heuristic is a rule of thumb for assessing products. For example, the error prevention heuristic deals with how well the evaluated product prevents the user from making errors.

The word heuristic often raises questions about its meaning, and the method has been criticized for its inherent weaknesses due to the following:

  • Subjectivity of the evaluator
  • Expertise and domain knowledge of the evaluator
  • Cultural and demographic background of the evaluator

These weaknesses increase the probability that the outcome of an expert evaluation will reflect the biases and preferences of the evaluator, resulting in potentially different conclusions about the same product.

Still, expert evaluations, especially if conducted by two evaluators, and their aligned findings, have proven to be an effective tool for experience practitioners who need a fast and cost-effective assessment of a product, particularly digital interfaces.

Jacob Nielsen developed the method in the early 1990s. Although there are other sets of heuristics, Nielsen’s are probably the most known and commonly used. His initial set of heuristics was first published in his book, Usability Engineering, and is brought here verbatim, as there is no need for modification:

  • Visibility of system status: The system should always keep users informed about what is going on, through appropriate feedback within reasonable time.
  • Match between system and the real world: The system should speak the user’s language, with words, phrases and concepts familiar to the user, rather than system-oriented terms. Follow real-world conventions, making information appear in a natural and logical order.
  • User control and freedom: Users often choose system functions by mistake and will need a clearly marked “emergency exit” to leave the unwanted state without having to go through an extended dialogue. Support undo and redo.
  • Consistency and standards: Users should not have to wonder whether different words, situations, or actions mean the same thing. Follow platform conventions. Error prevention: Even better than good error messages is a careful design which prevents a problem from occurring in the first place. Either eliminate error-prone conditions or check for them and present users with a confirmation option before they commit to the action.
  • Recognition rather than recall: Minimize the user’s memory load by making objects, actions, and options visible. The user should not have to remember information from one part of the dialogue to another. Instructions for use of the system should be visible or easily retrievable whenever appropriate.
  • Flexibility and efficiency of use: Accelerators–unseen by the novice user–may often speed up the interaction for the expert user such that the system can cater to both inexperienced and experienced users. Allow users to tailor frequent actions.
  • Aesthetic and minimalist design: Dialogues should not contain information which is irrelevant or rarely needed. Every extra unit of information in a dialogue competes with the relevant units of information and diminishes their relative visibility.
  • Help users recognize, diagnose, and recover from errors: Error messages should be expressed in plain language (no codes), precisely indicate the problem, and constructively suggest a solution.
  • Help and documentation: Even though it is better if the system can be used without documentation, it may be necessary to provide help and documentation. Any such information should be easy to search, focused on the user’s task, list concrete steps to be carried out, and not be too large.

Every product experience strategy needs solid competitor research

Most companies operate in a competitive marketplace, and having a deep understanding of the competition is critical to the success and survival. Here are few of the questions that a competitive research helps addresses:

  • How does a product or service compare to the competition?
  • What are the strength and weaknesses of competing offerings?
  • What alternatives and choices does the target audience have?

Experience strategists use several methods to collect and analyze competitive information. From interviews with stakeholder and SMEs, they know who the direct competition is. In some product categories, such as automobiles and consumer products, companies can reverse-engineer competitive products and try to match or surpass their capabilities. Additionally, designers can develop extensive experience analysis of such competitive products, because they can have a first-hand experience with it.

With some hi-tech products, however, some capabilities are cocooned within proprietary software or secret production processes. In these cases, designers can glean the capabilities from an indirect evidence of use.

The Internet is a main source of competitive information, from the ability to have a direct access to a product online, to reading help manuals, user guides, bulletin boards, reviews, and analysis in trade publications. Occasionally, unauthorized photos or documents are leaked to the public domain, and they provide clues, sometimes real and sometimes bogus, about a secret upcoming product. Social media too is an important source of competitive data in the form of customers reviews on Yelp, Amazon, or Facebook. With the wealth of this information, a practical strategy to surpass the competition and delivering a better experience can be developed.

For example, Uber has been a favorite car hailing service for a while. This service has also generated public controversy and had dissatisfied riders and drivers who are not happy with its policies, including its resistance for tips. By design, a tipping function is not available in the app, which is the primary transaction method between the rider, company and, driver.

Research indicates, however, that tipping for the service is a common social norm and that most people tip because it makes them feel better. Not being able to tip places riders in an uncomfortable social setting and stirs negative emotions against Uber. The evidence of dissatisfaction can be easily collected from numerous web sources and from interviewing actual riders and drivers.

For Uber competitors, such as Lyft and Curb, by making tipping an integrated part of their apps, provides an immediate competitive edge that improves the experience of both riders, who have an option to reward the driver for their good service, and drivers, who benefit from an increased income. This, and additional improvements over the inferior Uber experience, become a part of an overall experience strategy that is focused on improving the likelihood that riders and drivers will dump Uber in their favor.

[box type=”note” align=”” class=”” width=””]You read an extract from the book Exploring Experience Design written by Ezra Schwartz. This book will help you unify Customer Experience, User Experience and more to shape lasting customer engagement in a world of rapid change.[/box]

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