The middle years of the 18th century brought us to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution; remnants of the same are the old, defunct textile factories that dot our cities. The Industrial Age began in Britain with Thomas Newcomen inventing the steam engine in 1712, which James Watt improved in 1776. These new machines accelerated the manufacture of textiles, improved transport and soon d other products and services.
The industrial age was a push towards manufacturing efficiency by generating the maximum goods in the shortest possible time. In this chaos of new technologies, no one thought about what the customer wanted. It was a technological breakthrough. Even customers did not know what they wanted because they could buy products at a lower price than they could not afford before.
Before the dawn of this industrial age, humans consumed products or artifacts made by skilled craftsmen of their time. Artisans had customers who knew their needs due to their wealth and access to different artisans and products. Craftsmen varied from a cobbler, goldsmith, blacksmith, weaver to cabinet maker. There was a craftsman for every conceivable product of that time, and they were able to meet their customers’ needs. It was a precursor to user experience design.
But the industrial age has created a huge disconnect between the customer and the manufacturer of the product. Organizations focused on efficiency and soon followed the “assembly line” method of Henry Ford, who had borrowed the idea from Chicago slaughterhouses. The operator who assembles one of the hundred components of a product most often bears no resemblance to the customer for whom the product is manufactured. The same may apply to members of other functions of an organization.
We are currently in the 4th industrial revolution or Industry 4.0. And due to the democratization of technology, primarily through the Internet, customers have matured and expect organizations to meet their explicit and implicit needs. Additionally, organizations now have unprecedented data on the attitudes and behaviors of their customers. To benefit from this data, organizations need a process to extract relevant information and use it to create innovative products and services.
Over the past few decades, many leaders have struggled to put the customer at the center of the design process. One of them is Don Norman. He was the user experience architect at Apple and coined the word “user experience”. He is also famous for his book “The Design of Everyday Objects”. Over the years, many organizations have realized the importance of putting the customer at the center of their design process. This is evident from the Design Value Index maintained by the Design Management Institute (dmi.org). Design-driven companies outperformed the Standard & Poor’s index by 228% over ten years in 2014.
While the benefits of customer-centric design are staggering, not all organizations have embraced the user experience design process. One of the main reasons is that many organizations still limit their focus to manufacturing efficiency. Many look like copy machines producing their output efficiently and consistently. But there is a limit to the efficiency we can achieve with man, machine and materials in the manufacturing process. Except for the lower price and quality, there is a lack of customer-centric innovation with this approach.
The customer-centric design process is vital for any organization looking to innovate and lead the industry with products and services that can delight its customers. To become a customer-centric design organization, it must understand the value of design and develop a team that can spread the practice of user experience design. This practice is not limited to a set of design practitioners in the organization; it requires the active participation of the various functions of the organization to make it a success.
One of the most common methodologies is “Design Thinking” to practice user experience design. Although this method is not new, it was popularized by Tim Brown, ex-CEO of the design consulting firm IDEO, through his book “Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation”. Although there are many variations of Design Thinking methods, the most popular is the one developed by the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University. The method consists of 5 phases which do not need to be sequential and can be adapted according to the current project. The different phases are “Empathize”, “Define”, “Ideate”, “Prototype” and “Test”.
Consider a hypothetical example of an urban bus company. He wants to improve the experience of using their buses for the segment of office users who currently depend on their car.
In the empathy phase, design thinking practitioners plan and conduct user research using qualitative research methodologies such as user interviews and background surveys. Qualitative methods help to “know why” of customer attitudes and behaviors. They can also talk to subject matter experts, such as urban transportation scholars, about past research. The team can also use quantitative methods like online survey to assess a larger sample of users and measure customer attitudes and behaviors that have been uncovered in qualitative research.
The definition phase is launched on the basis of the information gathered during the empathy phase. Practitioners use the information gathered to synthesize and define the problems to be solved from the customer’s perspective, because we focus on the user experience. Multiple techniques such as user personas, user journey maps, etc., are used to discover and define the problems to be solved. In this example, practitioners found the following key issues for the desktop user segment. These users found it cumbersome to purchase a ticket; there was overcrowding at peak times and a lack of comfortable bus shelters.
The idea phase is launched when the problems are defined. It involves stakeholders from different functions to use ideation techniques such as brainstorming, sketching, storyboarding, etc., to imagine solutions. To focus, it is best to work on one problem in one session. Ideas are posted and voted on discreetly to avoid bias. If there are many ideas, the key stakeholder decides on one idea for prototyping. In this example, the problem of buying tickets has been imagined for solutions. Ideas like using e-ticketing through an app, paying through digital wallets have been proposed. It was decided that paying via digital wallets can be a quick fix in the short term and was taken for prototyping.
In the prototyping phase, the selected idea is transformed into a tangible product or service using inexpensive techniques for rapid implementation. The goal is to create a facade for the idea and not a fully functional product or service. The prototype creation phase can again take the help of stakeholders to make the most compelling prototype in the shortest time. Before moving the prototype to the testing phase, it is tested internally to resolve any issues. In this example, it was proposed to create a QR code to be displayed inside the bus to allow payment through digital wallets.
Before beginning the testing phase, design practitioners should organize at least five users for whom the solution is designed. Jakob Nielsen, Usability Advocate and Director of the Nielsen Norman Group, through research, has found that beyond five users per session or segment, returns decrease by finding unique user feedback. Also, an appropriate test method is chosen for the tested solution. Observation during testing is documented and forms the basis for key stakeholders to make decisions about the project.
A bus route is chosen in this example, and the idea is tested. Key metrics such as time taken, transaction success rate, and user feedback are collected. Based on the test, it was found that the idea was good, but sometimes the mobile network connection dropped and the QR code was not scannable due to the constant movement on the bus. The main stakeholders may decide to pursue the search for solutions depending on the problems encountered during the testing phase.
These five phases of the Design Thinking method are iterative; the undergraduate result will yield three results according to Jake Knapp, co-author of “Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days”. Result 1: The tested idea becomes an effective failure, saving time and resources. Result 2: The idea is an imperfect success, and a few areas need improvement, so more iterations are needed. Result 3: The idea is successful and becomes an epic victory in which you have met all your user needs, and it is ready to be implemented.
User experience design can seem like an unstructured process for organizations that follow standard operating procedures designed for efficiency. Innovation through “Design Thinking” is fuzzy because the identification of the problem to the evaluation of the solution is based on human emotions. And failures are part of this process because we test ideas quickly, but the time to fail is short. Design Thinking is also a tool for controlling development costs because it allows ideas to be tested before committing a colossal investment.
In his book “Change by Design”, Tim Brown mentioned that at the intersection of desirability, feasibility and viability lies the most promising product or service. Most organizations are strong in the feasibility and viability of their products and services. But remember organizations of the recent past like Kodak and Nokia, they were once at the height of their success. But they haven’t connected with their customers because their needs have changed. They were no longer desirable to their customers.
Every organization seeks to go beyond its competitors to find and retain customers. User experience design will help these organizations innovate and be desirable with customer-centric offerings and help them stay in touch with their customers.
The opinions expressed above are those of the author.
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