Winning in the Marketplace: How Much User Experience Effort Does It Take?

By Sean Van Tyne

Published: November 22, 2010

“Prioritizing user advocacy from the beginning of a product design process puts users at the center of the process and ensures their needs are foremost in all UX design decisions.”

User experience encompasses all aspects of users’ interactions with a company, its services, and its products. Prioritizing user advocacy from the beginning of a product design process puts users at the center of the process and ensures their needs are foremost in all UX design decisions.

To meet your customers’ real needs and deliver simple, elegant solutions that are a joy to use, you must do much more than merely giving them what they say they want or fulfilling a checklist of features. You must have a deep understanding of your product’s market and the needs of its target users. Plus, your business objectives should provide clear metrics for the success of your product’s user experience design. You must develop an understanding of what motivates your users and manage their expectations, while consistently representing your organization’s brand and message.

In today’s marketplace, solutions need to be easy to use. Customers have come to expect this. Good technology is ubiquitous or invisible. Easy-to-use solutions increase customer effectiveness and efficiency and reduce the need for training and support. Ultimately, they increase customer adoption and retention and, thus, result in increased market share and revenue.

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

If you are a small- or medium-size company, you must balance your user experience investment against other company needs.

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
  • prototyping
  • 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.”

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?

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.

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.

Prototyping

“Developing prototypes and reviewing them with target customers and users is key in designing easy-to-use solutions.”

Developing prototypes and reviewing them with target customers and users is key to designing easy-to-use solutions. You must spend some time validating workflow, navigation, information grouping, information hierarchy, terminology, labels, and interactions to ensure they meet the needs of the market and your users. Your understanding of various customers’ needs, users’ workflows, and content overlaps and differences determines your design direction.

Early in the product development lifecycle, share user research that reveals both customer and user needs, as well as your UX design solutions with the technology architects and engineers on your product team. Confirm the feasibility of your user interface prototypes with Engineering as early as possible to enable them to provide the best technical solution. Many times, engineers know of components or pieces of technology that can reduce or eliminate the need to develop a new component or screen—enhancing a workflow’s ease of use.

Develop low-fidelity prototypes such as paper prototypes or wireframes to facilitate content layout. Their focus should be on a product’s information architecture and information design—determining the correct labels, content groupings, hierarchies, and navigation. These early, rapid prototypes should be devoid of graphics and color to narrow the focus to information design.

Once you’ve completed the information design, add visual elements such as color, fonts, icons, buttons, and other graphic elements, creating medium-fidelity prototypes to explore your solution’s interaction design. “Interaction Design defines the behavior of how your customers and users interact with your solution. Interaction design is focused on making products more useful, usable, and desirable.” [1]

Work with your customers and users and conduct reviews of your prototypes to obtain their feedback. If you are in a mature market, with a longer product release cycle, you can wash, rinse, and repeat as necessary. But if you need to move quickly through your development cycle, do as much as you can to facilitate development, and do as much as you can in parallel for the next release.

There is always a next release, and you have the opportunity to learn things now that you can apply to later releases.

Usability Testing

“Once you have validated that your product’s overall workflow meets customer and user needs, do usability testing to evaluate individual tasks to ensure they are easy to complete.”

Once you have validated that your product’s overall workflow meets customer and user needs, do usability testing to evaluate individual tasks to ensure they are easy to complete. Usability evaluation assesses the degree to which users can operate a system and their efficiency and satisfaction when using the system. Such evaluations validate that tasks are easy to complete—and test an application’s ease of use, not the intelligence of users. If tasks are difficult or impossible to complete, a system is not easy to use. [1]

Large companies in mature markets may have several usability labs and teams of specialists who are constantly testing design solutions with users. Smaller, more agile companies may have someone who is doing usability testing, but not with the same rigor or formality as a larger, well-established company would.

Usability testing is at the heart of making a solution easy to use. Early solutions in a market tend not to be easy to use, but this is changing as more progressive, agile companies are doing usability testing early and often and incorporating usability evaluation into their product’s design and development lifecycle.

Deciding How Much Effort

“You need to decide how much user research, design, and usability testing you can afford. This depends on your competitive market, business objectives, and release cycles.”

You need to decide how much user research, design, and usability testing you can afford. This depends on your competitive market, business objectives, and release cycles.

During the early phases of a product development lifecycle, activities include conducting market, customer, and competitive user research. User research may include surveys, focus groups, interviews, and contextual inquiries. Other research activities can include preliminary, internal research with Training, Support, Field Services, and other Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) for a particular market, market segment, and solution. Verify business needs with Sales. Verify your technical assumptions with Engineering.

During the design phase, activities include the development of low-fidelity prototypes to validate that user interfaces and workflows are appropriate for your target customers and users. Review prototypes of your design solutions with stakeholders: Product Design for usability best practices; Engineering for the best technology solutions; business stakeholders to ensure your designs meet business needs; and SMEs to ensure your solutions meet market, target customer, and target user needs. Continue validating your design solutions with target customers and users, and iterate your designs until they have achieved a high level of satisfaction with them.

During the development phase, continue to evaluate your design solutions’ ease of use with target customers and users. Develop a Usability Test Plan, schedule and conduct usability studies, compile and analyze data, and refine your user interface design as necessary. Develop or revise your UX Guidelines and create UX Specifications.

Types of Releases

The level of user experience effort that is practical for a given release depends, to some extent, on the type of release—that is, whether it is a major release, a minor release, or an update. Table 1 provides a summary of guidelines for the UX effort that is recommended for each type of release.

Table 1—UX effort guidelines by type of release

Type Release ID UCD Recommendations

New

1.0

  • Substantial market, customer, competitive, and user research
  • Substantial validation of workflows with customers
  • Substantial user interface design
  • Substantial usability testing with users

Major

X.x

  • Market, customer, competitive, and user research, as necessary
  • Validation of workflows with customers
  • User interface design
  • Usability testing with users

Minor

x.X

  • No market, customer, competitive, or user research unless absolutely necessary
  • Minimal validation of workflows with customers
  • Minor user interface design
  • Minor usability testing with users

Update

x.x.X

  • No market, customer, competitive, or user research
  • No validation of user interface workflows with customers unless absolutely necessary
  • Minimal user interface design
  • Minimal usability testing with users

New Products or Major Releases

“For major releases, you must ensure UX designs for new features are effective, efficient to use, and delightful to customers and users. Conduct user research as necessary to ensure you have a deep understanding of your target customers and users.”

For major releases, you must ensure UX designs for new features are effective, efficient to use, and delightful to customers and users. Conduct user research as necessary to ensure you have a deep understanding of your target customers and users. Validate your product’s workflows with target customers and users. Develop user experience designs that support the market, business, and customer needs. Conduct usability tests with users to ensure ease of use. Work closely with Development to ensure design integrity.

Minor Releases

For minor releases, if time and resources permit, ensure new features adhere to industry-standard best practices. Validate your product’s workflows with SMEs, Development, customers, and users, as necessary. Develop your user experience design, along with business use cases. Conduct usability tests with target customers and users. Work closely with Development to ensure design integrity.

Updates

If an update includes revisions to one or more features to solve known usability issues, ensure those features adhere to industry-standard best practices, if time and resources permit. Validate workflows with SMEs, Development, customers, and users, as necessary. Iterate your user experience designs, as necessary. Conduct usability tests or reviews with target customers and users. Work closely with Development to ensure design integrity.

Conclusion

“User experience is the key to designing elegant products, establishing distinct competencies, and winning markets.”

Each company must determine their user experience investment, depending on the size of their company, the maturity of their market, and the lifecycle of their product solution. User experience is the key to designing elegant products, establishing distinct competencies, and winning markets. Companies in mature markets must consistently get this right to maintain their leadership, while companies in new, fast, and innovative markets must be agile, adapt rapidly, and adopt accelerated usability methods.

Ultimately, it is up to your company to decide how much user experience effort makes sense in support of its overall business strategy. Many large companies have made heavy investments in user experience for years, but smaller companies must balance user experience investment against other demands on corporate resources.

Notes

1. Tyne, Sean Van. “Easy to Use for Whom: Defining the Customer and User Experience for Enterprise Software.” The Pragmatic Marketer, Volume 5, Issue 3, 2007.

11 Comments

Hi Sean

Very informative article, which covers the practical aspects while designing for UX.

Nice approach you showed in your writeup, right from user research till actual development.

I had a great take way. Thanks for such a wonderful insight.

I generally like the article, Sean, but it doesn’t incite action. I think what it needs is a comparison or a contrast to help readers identify with where their organization is with respect to UX maturity. For instance, you could have described what happens if you don’t include UX processes versus companies that do. Apple is, as you know, replete with good examples, but you could give a discrete example in the introduction. Without such comparisons, the article reads a bit too academic.

In the large versus small company section, you touch on mature versus new markets. I think you could have focused on that instead of company size. Market and/or product maturity tends to be a better predictor of how teams should employ UX principles and practices than does company size.

I like the stages you describe. I think this could lead into a discussion of how to fit them into different product-development environments. That said, I think you could have broken out task analysis and optimization from UX design. Task analysis is still a problem-definition step whereas design is a solution step. I think it’s important to keep the two separate to avoid creating solutions looking for a problem to solve. It’s too easy to justify an early design—and often, an incorrect design approach—if you don’t clearly define the problem first.

By the way, I completely disagree with the notion that you don’t need to conduct user research in mature markets. That’s usually the market that benefits the most from good user research. Most mature markets are mature only in the sense that they have stagnated and the products all reflect the same solutions approach. The book Blue Ocean Strategies agrees that you need a new analysis of a market in order to develop a new approach. Look at what Whole Foods and Wild Oats have done to the otherwise cutthroat grocery market. While Safeway, Vons, and others were fighting for pennies over a 79-cent loaf of Wonder Bread, Whole Foods identified a different value proposition and now sells bread for dollars instead of cents. It’s still bread, but they found a way to make the customers perceive it as something more valuable.

Though I realize that you can write a whole book on user research, I think that section deserves a bit more than just a few paragraphs. Again, a comparison approach might help readers understand that the market research approaches that are common to typical marketing efforts are not the same as the user research approaches UX practitioners take. This is a common misperception that leads to poorly performing designs.

“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.” Well said. This is the art of applying our science.

You make the point of distinguishing between customer and user, but I think you could have expounded on this a bit more for the benefit of readers. People are typically aware that they are different, but not so much how they differ in their needs or that they could be the same person at different times of their product usage.

I think you missed an opportunity to describe the general flow of user-centered design: that you begin by creating an idealized notion of the problem domain, then work down towards a general solution approach, further refining it to a specific solution, which then and only then describes the technology to use. More often, companies do it completely backward, first creating a technology as a solution, then finding a problem to wedge that solution into. This is the comparison between technology-oriented design and user-oriented design.

“Usability testing is at the heart of making a solution easy to use. Early solutions in a market tend not to be easy to use, but this is changing as more progressive, agile companies are doing usability testing early and often and incorporating usability evaluation into their product’s design and development lifecycle.” This is a good example of how to help readers identify how mature their UX efforts are.

The “types of releases” table can be misleading. It assumes that the product was developed with UX processes from the beginning. Most companies have several products on the market, each at different stages of maturity. The truth is, regardless of the stage of maturity, they will need to employ UX practices with a different rigor than the table suggests. For instance, for a mature product getting a minor revision, if this was their first application of UX practices, they would need to conduct a greater degree of user research just to make sure they understand their users well. Without it you may just be automating current frustrations. As you’ve heard me tell before, every client I’ve had thought they knew their customers and were surprised at how little they actually did know once we conducted some user research.

Overall, the article flows well and comes to a nice conclusion. It also raises some good points and questions that could launch into sequel articles. Despite my comments, well done.

Larry

For those who don’t know, Sean and I are good friends and co-authors, so he probably knows that my intentions are not to throw tomatoes at him, but to engage in a meaningful discussion about a topic that he has so eloquently raised.

Sean,

I appreciate your clarity of process and the pragmatic approaches that will help widen the audience, as well as inform existing practitioners. Companies that do not get that user experience encompasses all aspects of users’ interactions with a company, its services, and its products risk becoming legacy-only players in their markets. By understanding and delivering great user experiences in all the interactions, companies become positively different and better than their direct and indirect competitors. Additionally, they slow down margin compression and increase profitability relative to their industry benchmarks within the company, product, or service lifecycle.

I have observed this with companies such as Apple, Pure Digital Technologies Flip Video Camera (now owned by Cisco), and Netflix. NetFlix is one of my favorite examples that supports the steps in the process you outline, since they architected the experience and left the DVD product (at the time) the same. You know the rest of the story…. Now, if Blockbuster does not reposition itself profitably and pay off its large debt balloon due in 2012, they’ll be gone. They’ll be gone because they did not get the strategy, tactics, and delivery of user experience. They were busy managing a library model that produced a costly, customer-irritating experience instead.

The stages you outline are farther reaching than mere product or service developments. They are critical parts of company disciplines leading to winning and profitable strategies. I have witnessed this up close from my experience with companies like LPL Financial (they just went public last month!), I Drive Safely, and ComplianceMAX, to name just a few. One of the many things they have in common is that they got user experience as a complete strategy and tactical solution, then delivered it well. Each of these firms has the equity and sustainability to show for it, relative to their unique business objectives, of course.

Notably, this small list includes Fortune-sized corporations and small companies like the 80 people at I Drive Safely in Carlsbad, California. The process you describe is applied in part or in its entirety by Websense, ProFlowers, and SkinIt, too. Some of these players were opening new markets. Others were reinvigorating tired, mature markets that had razor-thin margins. These markets and margins were redefined with great end-to-end user experiences attracting customers with a high willingness to pay. Nice!

Each of these companies determined their user experience investment, the maturity of their market (or lack of it!), and the lifecycle of their product solution. They delivered elegant products, and some even went end-to-end (all interactions!). They then created distinct competencies and won in their markets … sounds familiar Mr. Van Tyne? Well done! What’s next?—Jeofrey Bean

Excellent article, Sean. While I disagree with some of Larry’s comments, and I do think it will incite action, I echo and extend his thoughts on the benefit of comparison and contrast to establish reference points for the reader, amongst a few critiques of my own:

  • It would aid the implementer if you provided meaningful examples to illustrate your points—for example, representative products in mature markets and in new markets.
  • Neither market is forgiving of clumsy, inept, or unintuitive user experiences, which means that, at a minimum, establishing and maintaining standards based on market and industry experience, knowledge, and best practices are key to survival; the less time one has to devote to research, the more critical is one’s reliance on standards and best practices.
  • Table 1 provides a summary of guidelines for the UX effort that is recommended for each type of release. However, �substantial� has no meaning in the abstract; is this 100 hours, 1,000 hours, 15% of development budget, what? The table provides relative guidelines by release type, but there is no benchmark, and therefore, no starting place; examples would make it usable.
  • In terms of release types, for an “Update,” one should adhere to product design templates and style sheets—an application should not gradually deviate from the UX architecture of the product line.
  • Lest your very comprehensive article be taken as the last word on UX design, sources for further reading might be cited at the end of the article and at relevant points within the narrative.

These critical observations notwithstanding, I will use your article to educate and to motivate clients and design and development teams. Thank you, nicely done!

Tom

Excellent article, Sean.

Your discussion of doing the “right (UX) thing” versus the practical everyday challenges is a topic about which I wish more UX practitioners would share ideas and experiences. Very rarely are we ever given the luxury to fully perform all of the UX activities that would be ideal for a given product / service due to constraints on time, budget, resources, product maturity, company size, and so on. There’s the ideal UX world we strive for, and then there are the realities of the world we live in. So how do we make the best of it?

I can’t wait to see your follow-on to this article, and if I may suggest, I’d love to see a forum of fellow UX practitioners discussing how they dealt with commonly faced constraints and challenges.

Cheers!

It continues to amaze me that companies do not see that Apple’s success is almost entirely due to their investment in UX and are unwilling to make a similar commitment.

Nice article.

I think it’s important for product teams to understand and keep in mind the difference between a core feature and a bell or whistle throughout their process. How do your designs affect the company’s bottom line?

For example, in a freemium or tiered-pricing business model, a good UX person will know which features they need to make free and which they can charge for. With that knowledge, the user experience can be designed to be simple and modular.

I also think good research looks for, understands, and does not group outliers, just in case an outlier can be transformed into a best practice.

Great job, Sean. I just had a few comments I wanted to add.

I definitely agree with you on the importance of user experience for a successful product. To be truly innovative, I would also consider broadening the scope to more than user experience; what is needed is a total solution discovery team. Solution discovery involves user experience, technology engineering, or architecture, and product management. All three elements have to be considered simultaneously for a winning product. This is especially true of today’s most innovative product companies such as those in the medical industry, clean-tech, and information technology.

So what’s really needed for a winning product is a solution discovery team—a cross-functional team of user experience, engineering, and product management—in order to prototype solutions that will win in the marketplace. The prototype this team builds will not only be tested by users for usability, but the core underlying technology will be feasible and buildable by engineering.

Sincerely, Armond Mehrabian

CEO, Portofino Solutions, Inc.

@armond_m (on Twitter)

Very well thought out article, Sean. Here are a few of my thoughts …

  1. You clearly touch on the crucial point that companies need to understand their product’s market and the target users. This is where I have seen many products or Web sites failing, because companies do some quick user forums to gather user feedback and then define the product around those features without doing any in-depth market research and study.
  2. I agree with Tracy regarding developers many times ending up adding features that were more bells and whistles and making a product heavy with rarely used features.
  3. Unfortunately, most small to mid-size companies are always in the agile mode, know they have to change products quickly, and hence, have little budget for serious UX analysis. So they end up just building what users want.
  4. I also agree with Thomas that it would help to provide some range of hours using some concrete example of a product as a scenario. That would have more impact and value for readers, I think.
  5. If you could add a valid case summary from your portfolio just before the “Conclusion” section, that would probably give a good overall perspective.

Other than that, I still feel this is an excellent overview of the development process, with a UX emphasis, and it was fun reading it. Happy Holidays!

Best wishes, Sanjiv

Sanjiv Prabhakaran, Bytes, Inc.

Great article. One of the things I think needs to be touched on is the importance of benchmarking the before and after state, so you can measure whether the new enhancements actually achieved the users’ and customers’ goals—for example, time on task (TOT). How long did it take for a typical user to complete the task prior and post?

It never fails to amaze me how few companies measure this and lay out concrete goals around this. Considering that most of us are in the productivity business, TOT is a key selling feature and can be easily translated into cash value for customers. By identifying the importance of TOT, abandonments, requests for assistance, and so on, you can build an economic argument for focusing on softer UX enhancements versus adding more features. Without that, it may be hard to build the alignment required to ensure UX isn’t considered just a nice to have.

Kevin Mireles

Sean, I enjoyed this article a great deal, especially the part that took the pragmatic view of small to medium-sized companies. You brought out the key reasoning stream at the start, when you talked about prioritizing. Regardless of whether the company in question is Apple Computer or Granny Smith Apple Farms, each of those entities has a budget to deal with. In the former case, it is gigantic. In the latter case—a company I made up—it might not include much, if any budget for user experience research or design—and frequently cannot, in light of their constrained budgets. I deal with companies like this all the time. They recognize the need for user experience and would love to utilize it. But they have to weigh its expense versus that of many other expenses they have. I even frequently hear that they would like professionally drafted content, but simply cannot afford it, beyond the cost of having a Web site designed. Are they doomed to poorly functioning sites? Most of the time, no doubt.

Small to medium-sized companies also typically suffer from the lack of several other things besides budget—most notably sophistication and understanding of this subject matter. And no, I am not making a universal condemnation of smaller companies, which would be patently silly. But if you ask them, and I frequently have, they feel they have bigger fish to fry. Speaking of which, it is striper season. Hope to catch up with you soon.

Chandler Turner

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