Winning in the Marketplace: How Much User Experience Effort Does It Take?
Published: November 22, 2010
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
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.
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.” 
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.
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. 
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.
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 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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.