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In this article by Ezra Schwartz the author of the book Experience Design for Beginners, will cover topics on how can designers help organizations form an experience strategy.

It is a common mistake to believe that companies are formed to create products or services. The primary objective of any company is to be as profitable as possible. Profits are any funds left after all obligations of the company are paid off. Profits help attract new investors and fuel investments in new products–new products that will help make more profits –and the sequence repeats. Without profits, companies just shut down.

The question how will our product/s make us profitable? is the generic survival challenge shared by all companies, regardless of its size, industry, or product. The business context of each company, however, may be very unique, based on its circumstances. That business context will influence its product experience strategy, and here is why:

Suppose that you are the CEO of a small unknown company, which is similar to Pure Digital, maker of the Flip and that you want to take advantage of cheap memory cards to create a tapeless camcorder. Here are a couple of options for a product approach:

  1. Create a camcorder that has all the features of a tape-based camcorder, and a similar look and feel, except that no cassette-tape is need. The product will have a competitive edge–fewer moving parts will make it lighter, cheaper, and more durable, and transfer to computer will also be much simplified. However, the product will have to compete with the established giants in the camcorder market, such as Sony, Panasonic, or Canon. If your product begins to show signs of success, these other companies will release products similar to yours, well before your company could recoup its initial investments
  2. Create a product that is a complete departure from typical products. Your product will address all the frustrations that people have with current products, and be a compelling, highly competitive alternative. If it becomes successful, its distinctive look and feel will be associated with your company. By the time the competition release their own products, your product will dominate the market for this segment. However, the product will require coming up with a new design, which will unify the various experience features into a product solution that is attractive and profitable

Which option will you choose? Both have their risks and opportunities, but the context may call for option two, which depends on a successful experience design, and indeed, thanks to its experience design of its Flip line of products, Pure Digital was able to popularize and dominate the pocket camcorders market and win over many customers from the tape camcorder market.

Another question all companies face is “What’s next?”. The question may emerge as a result of changes in leadership, opportunities to implement new technologies, new ways to implement the existing technologies, decreased sales of its current product/s, customer dissatisfaction with existing products, or numerous other reasons. Again, it is a matter of each company’s business context.

Whatever the motivation, although the organization and its products are currently very successful, company leadership may feel that it is necessary for them to invest profits in either developing the next generation of their product/s or creating new ones.

Another common aspect of most companies is limited funds and resources for future products. Short and long term priorities must be aligned:

  1. Pressures to increase spending: Investing in the future requires spending in the present. Long-term vision requires companies to make significant investments in product research and development, with no guarantee that hopes for future profits in the form of a competitive edge, larger market share will materialize
  2. Pressures to reduce spending: Investing in future reduces the funds necessary to compete in the present. Immediate budgetary constraints and competitive pressures require companies to focus on maintaining quarterly profitability, by investing in advertising and other methods, which can improve the performance of the existing profitable products.

How well future and present priorities are aligned is a measure of multiple factors. Some would argue that the most important factor is a mutual trust between employees and management. Trust is established with transparency, good communication, fairness in compensation and treatment, and a belief in a shared vision for the present and the future.

Mutual trust plays a critical role in flattening the hierarchical structures inherent to companies. Whether any experience design strategy, even a good one, can be a success, also depends on internal company dynamics of trust, because designers, whether employees or consultants, operate within the hierarchical organizational structure.

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Companies are hierarchical. The preceding diagram reflects a couple of common characteristics:

  1. This is a hierarchical, top-down structure. The larger the company, the more layers separate senior decision-makers from the product. Some executives may not be familiar with critical issues with the product or may disagree about priorities, which sometimes leads to internal fragmentation.
  2. There is an unavoidable compartmentalization and specialization, as each group within the company must focus on their responsibilities for a specific aspect of the organization. Regardless of the company’s size, this natural division of roles and responsibilities is often the culprit of dispute over issues of product vision and priorities.

Experience design is often hierarchically nested under marketing, product management, or engineering department. In highly compartmentalized organizations, trust is sometimes an issue, and designers, who need the cooperation of all units, have a hard time aligning competing visions for the product. 

Some departments are highly influential, whereas the participation of other departments can be minimal. In such circumstances, it is very difficult to emerge with an experience strategy that satisfies everyone. Consequently, the end result is an unsatisfying shadow of the original vision. Moreover, it is not uncommon for projects to be canceled midstream, due to internal infighting.

The following diagram shows the flatting effect a culture of mutual trust has on successful design. Experience strategists, with a mandate from leadership, can reach out to each of the groups within a company, synthesize the various inputs, identify internal gaps of vision and priority, and help all stakeholders embrace a unified vision forward. This unified vision is referred to as the voice of the business

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Over the past couple of decades, a growing number of organizations recognized the value of integrated design by forming in-house experience design departments led by a senior designer who reports directly to the CEO. Celebrated examples in the automotive tech and manufacturing industries include BMW, Apple, and Herman-Miller. The results of an integrated design are expressed in the quality of their products, improved sales performance, and increased customer satisfaction.

Although the trend points toward fully integrated design capabilities, there are still many organizations–that for reasons, such as size, budget, or lack of skilled resources–prefer to partner with design consultants, to guide their product experience strategy. Design consultants can be effective when given autonomy and active support from leadership.

Business needs – research activities

Experience strategists conduct a number of research activities during the first phase of their experience design project. The purpose of the research is two fold:

  1. Help designers understand the company’s vision and objectives for the product, that is, what is at stake. Based on this context, they work with stakeholders to align product objectives and reach a shared understanding on the goals of design.
  2. Once an organizational alignment is achieved, use research insights to develop a product experience strategy, which is aligned with agreed company objectives.

The included research activities are as follows:

  1. Stakeholder and subject-matter expert (SME) interview
  2. Documents review
  3. Competitive research
  4. Expert product reviews
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Stakeholder and subject-matter expert interviews
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<ol<

  • 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:
  1. Objectives and obstacles
  2. Prioritized goals for the project
  3. What does success look like
  4. What kind of obstacles the project is facing, and suggestions to overcome them
  5. Competition
  6. Who are your top competitors
  7. Strength and weaknesses relative to the competition
  8. Product features and functionality
  9. Which features are missing
  10. Differentiating features
  11. 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.

Product expert reviews
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 <span class=”KeyPACKT”>heuristics</span>.
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:

  1. Subjectivity of the evaluator
  2. Expertise and domain knowledge of the evaluator
  3. 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:

  1. Visibility of system status:The system should always keep users informed about what is going on, through appropriate feedback within reasonable time.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Consistency and standards: Users should not have to wonder whether different words, situations, or actions mean the same thing. Follow platform conventions.
  5. 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.
  6. ecognition 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. Help and documentatio: 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.

Competitive research and analysis:

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:

  1. How does a product or service compare to the competition?
  2. What are the strength and weaknesses of competing offerings?
  3. 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,
All the activities described so far were meant to enable designers to fuse business and audience perspectives, and emerge with a product strategy that is focused on user experience as means to product success.

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