Talking to Customers Isn’t a Part of an Organization’s Culture
Instead of finding out what customers really need, a product team goes off in a room where a lot of smart people start developing use cases, wireframes, and visual designs in a conference room. Months go by, the organization releases the final product, and it bombs. No one uses it, a lot of money has gotten wasted, and the product team gets fired.
Whose fault is it? It’s the organization’s fault.
No matter what your process is, your organization’s goal should be to have a clear understanding of your customers. This means customer visits or remote user interviews using Skype video and screen sharing or simple phone calls. If you fit the profile of the target audience, you can design for yourself, but beware of doing this if you don’t belong to the audience for a product.
There is no excuse for this organizational failing; no one should design a product in a vacuum. The assertion that “we shouldn’t show customers the product because competitors might see it” is stupid. If you’re creating a new product for which the barrier of entry is so low that a customer could steal the idea, maybe you shouldn’t be in that market.
Great organizations have a clear vision for customers. Your organization should work hand in hand with customers. This is an issue of organizational culture. It should be ingrained in your culture that talking to users is not only expected, but rewarded.
Manufacturers of physical products do extensive studies of their customers to maximize their profits. Supermarket store design is a great example of this, particularly the design of customer flows. Why don’t technology firms do this?
How to avoid this failing—Go on the road. Visit or talk to at least one customer a week. Users are your best subjects, from whom you can learn the most. Partner with your customers to grow your business.
Leadership Doesn’t Have a Clear Vision
“This week we’re going to build a product with viral features.”
“This week let’s build a comment system.”
“This week we’ll do ecommerce!”
If a company’s direction is always changing, and they don’t have a clear vision of where they are going, there’s no way that they can build great products. Achieving successful product management and user experience is highly dependent on understanding the context of the user. If that context is always changing, there’s no way to build an effective user experience.
Vision is hard to define, but not as hard as you might think. There’s an anecdote about a couple of MBAs who started a business. They did extensive research and pricing studies and spent lots of money on ever-changing priorities. Eventually, they sold the company to a small business owner who had a simplified vision of how to run the company. Under the new leadership, the company sold its products for twice as much as they cost and provided great customer service. The business became wildly successful.
Creating great products isn’t as hard as you might think: becoming clear about what you’re providing to users is about listening to them. That’s it.
How to avoid this failing—Articulate a vision, and stick to it. You may need to adjust your vision based on market changes, but the clearer your vision, the better you’re able to build products that reflect that vision.
Leadership and the Design Team Don’t Share the Same Vision
I’ve worked in a few organizations where we’d be making great progress on a product and getting really close to launch. Then we’d be asked to do a big demonstration for a Vice President or C-level executive, and our meeting would turn from strategy to “could you make this button green.” Or they might ask us to add a few more features that require a complete redesign, destroying months of work.
I’ve seen email messages from CEOs who were intent on hijacking the design process or going around design leadership to ask their go-to guy to make changes to a product design. This is toxic behavior and reflects poorly on leadership because it demonstrates that they have failed to build a design team that they can work with effectively.
If leadership doesn’t believe their design team can build a product that can grow the business, they need to make changes to the design team, not ask for a button in another color. The best designers work hand in hand with management to understand their vision and translate it into a viable product. If management can’t articulate a vision that is consistent with the needs of the market, this creates great conflict.
In truly great organizations, vision bubbles up from the lowest levels, then management synthesizes and articulates a clear product vision.
How to avoid this failing—Management must let designers do their job and recognize that they aren’t the target audience. Leaders’ responsibility is setting the vision and building their team. If they’ve done this right, they shouldn’t have to hijack the design process.
The Design Team Hasn’t Laid a Sound Foundation by Establishing a Design Process
“Let’s go straight to wireframes.”
Sometimes that might not be such a bad thing. You might need to get a feel for where you need to go by creating a bunch of wireframes. But wireframes are the end-product of a lot of other UX design tasks and are just one part of the design process. They provide documentation for your design projects, allow you to articulate your design ideas visually and functionally, and let you communicate your ideas to multiple audiences, including management and engineering.
I’ve seen design teams fail because there wasn’t a good foundation for the final design vision. Good designers should have at least a rough idea of where they are going, even if their destination could change.
A good process ensures consistency across all of your products and drives you toward a consistent product vision for your users.
How to avoid this failing—Put your design process in place. Establish your product vision and create branding standards, personas, patterns, and other design guidelines.