But how much market and user research, UX design, prototyping, and usability testing does it take to ensure your product wins in the marketplace and meets your business objectives? Every company has different needs, depending on its size, the maturity of its market, and the lifecycles of particular products.
Large Versus Small-to-Medium Companies
Many large technology companies like Apple have invested heavily in user experience for many years. Successful companies have well-established UX departments and have set the standard for ease of use. Such companies have defined many aspects of the user-centered design process we follow today. These companies have the capital to make big investments in user experience and reap the benefits. They can attract the best talent, invest in resources, and take as much time as they need to develop elegant solutions.
But what if you are a small- or medium-size company? How much should you invest in user experience? How much can you invest?! Sure, you would love to develop elegant solutions like Apple, but you may not have the time or resources—or really even know where to begin. You can’t afford to make the wrong investment in an inappropriate resource or dedicate precious time to researching, validating, and testing your product’s UX design. You have to get your product to market fast and hope it delights your customers, but you’re happy if it just works and has the features you think it needs.
If you are a small- or medium-size company, you must balance your user experience investment against other company needs. Some companies have made user experience a part of their core corporate strategy and it has paid off for them. But you need to answer these questions in light of your own company’s needs: Where does user experience fit in your corporate strategy? Where does it belong in your organization? How does user experience integrate with a product’s overall lifecycle?
You must ask yourself: Is our marketplace mature, commoditized, and moving at the speed of large institutions, or is it new, innovative, and moving at the speed of the Internet?
Technology solutions in mature markets become commodities. Consumers take such products’ basic features and performance for granted; instead, they look at price, value, appearance, and convenience as distinguishing factors. Winning in mature markets requires a company to view user experience as a distinct and important corporate competence. To win in a mature marketplace, you must get the basics right—the right price, value, and convenience—along with providing an elegant solution that is effective, efficient, and exceeds customers’ expectations. User experience is the key to designing elegant solutions.
New markets are fast and innovative. You must be agile and adapt to rapid changes in your market space. This is where having a strong understanding of your product’s market and the needs of its target users are essential for you to have a chance at success.
Stages of User Experience
There are several stages at which you should consider incorporating user experience and user research into your product development lifecycle:
- market and user research
- UX design
- usability testing
Market and User Research
The first step in developing solutions that are easy to use is understanding customer and user needs within the context of the market and existing competition. It takes market and user research to
- define the problem your product must solve and design an optimal solution
- understand the strengths and weaknesses of competitors’ solutions in comparison to your own
- determine how various customers’ workflows and users’ tasks are similar and different from one another
While some large companies with well-established user experience teams may spend a great deal of time and significant resources on research, small- to medium-size companies need to determine how much time and money they can afford to spend.
In a mature, slow-moving market, you have more time to do thorough research and analysis. But new markets change quickly—and, in a fast-moving market, spending too much time conducting market research doesn’t pay off. Markets sometimes change so quickly that research data becomes stale too soon to warrant the investment in it. For new markets, conduct just enough research to get you started—understanding you’ll probably have to do ongoing research and use your findings to make modifications to your goals throughout the product development lifecycle.
Envisioning short-term and long-term product solutions is key—whether yours is a large or a small company and whether you’re in a mature or a new market. The amount of research you need to conduct varies, depending on how fast the market is changing and its complexity. For mature markets, you have more time to consider your vision and short-term and long-term take on different meanings than for a new market. In fast-moving, new markets, you execute to your short-term vision as it evolves.
Companies who have been in a market for a while—and may have several offerings in their product portfolio—should consider several factors when defining their products. Is this a first-to-market product? Is it a major release for a mature product? Is your goal just to gain a foothold in the market with your current product, then replace it with your next version or even make it a component of a larger application? Will your new product cannibalize another product in your portfolio?
The most common techniques for user research that informs the design of your product solutions are
- surveying customers and users
- interviewing customers and users
- observing users using their current solution
During UX design, develop diagrams of various users’ workflows, noting where they are similar or different. Next, based on your findings, group your customer and user types by similar roles, and create profiles or personas that synthesize users’ skills, patterns, and goals to better understand their needs.
Companies in mature markets may not need to conduct user research to better understand their users. They may already have a good understanding of them. However, when they do conduct this type of research, they typically can take their time, be thorough, and use the data they obtain to create a roadmap for many years ahead. Companies in new markets must be more agile, conducting just enough generative research to come up with good design concepts and get their product solutions to market quickly. They should understand that their market data will most likely change, perhaps requiring them to take measures to rapidly modify their design solutions during product development.
When endeavoring to develop product solutions that are easy to use, it is up to the UX designer to bridge the gap between customer and user needs and the technology solution that meets those needs. The real value the UX designer brings is the ability to interpret user research data to elicit users’ needs and deliver a solution that meets or exceeds their expectations.