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Persuasive Product Companies and Empathy Reversal

Evolution of XD Principles

Challenging XD conventions

A column by Dashiel Neimark
October 23, 2017

Good design patterns require a foundation of thorough user research, usability testing, and iterative design refinements. Fortunately, other companies—particularly early promoters of particular design patterns—have sometimes laid the groundwork for us. Depending on the perceived level of risk in implementing a new design pattern, it could be advantageous to simply sit back and see what happens when the developer of a competitive product tries something new. The efficacy of waiting and following, however, is highly dependent on the number of competitors within a product space and how much influence they have over society.

For example, take Apple’s launch of the iPhone 7. Their removal of the headphone jack in combination with the release of wireless earbuds constitutes an industrial design pattern whose intent is to encourage new physical interactions. Yes, you can still plug in your old earbuds, using a different type of connector. But, considering the inconvenience of lost compatibility for the vast majority of users, the excitement around this new AirPod movement—that Apple has tried very hard to instill in its customers—makes a strong statement: Apple is gambling on the wider adoption of a nascent design pattern that had already existed to a much smaller extent in other products, but is entirely new to most users of their product ecosystem.

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I interpret this statement, at least in part, as meaning: regardless of how this design pattern has worked out on a smaller scale for other companies, Apple believes they have the leverage to push this design pattern into the realm of popularity. Will users be upset that their $300 Beats no longer work without an ugly dongle? Or will the user experience of going wireless be so incredibly awesome that users’ delight overrides their frustration? Only time will tell. However, adopting this pattern was certainly not a safe play in terms of design-pattern innovation. Of course, risk and reward tend to go hand in hand.

So why did Apple do it? Perhaps to sell more accessories. But maybe they felt that, in the long term, going wireless truly offered a better interaction—or that the world would soon move in that direction anyway, even if they were a bit early. For better or worse, a company’s having more leverage with their customers does let them justify riskier design-pattern implementations. Companies with a lot of leverage can be trendsetters and innovators. On the other hand, they might just be the creators of failed products such as the Segway and Twitter Peek—products that their makers touted as pioneering new ways of interacting with digital products. While having more leverage can’t ensure that would-be flops emerge as giant successes, it certainly can mitigate potential negative reactions—at least visceral reactions.

However, users eventually become frustrated by poor interactions, given enough time and exposure to them, even if an impressive visceral experience initially distracts them from issues. Consider Don Norman’s three levels of design: user experiences whose visceral, behavioral, and reflective designs all shine form a more complete model that provides more accurate user insights. But I can’t imagine any world in which a product designer would be happy with capturing anything less than all three design levels—at least for any experience they expect a user to engage in more than once. All good product designers want the products they create to be innovative and easily gain market acceptance. These are almost stereotypical goals in the UX world. What’s in question is not designers’ motive in wanting to achieve this goal, but their method of doing so.

Traditional Empathy and Its Reversal

Traditional UX design methods hinge on a fundamental principle: at the core of a good product experience is a deep understanding of and empathy for the people who will use the product. UX designers, therefore, bear the responsibility of engaging in methods that elicit user empathy and enable them to better understand how to craft design solutions that ultimately lead to a better product for people.

Traditional thought also assumed that users, at any given point in time, have a fairly well-defined, static set of needs, desires, habits, goals, and painpoints. Working under this assumption, the cardinal goal of an experience creator is to do everything possible to identify this array of insights.

Most people believe that achieving that goal leads to nearly guaranteed success—but they are wrong. While discovering these insights is vital, utilizing them in a product-design vacuum would be to ignore another key goal for companies: creating products that transform people’s lives.

Thus, in isolation, user empathy can be misleading. The by-the-book UX research approach tells us that a better understanding of the user automatically leads to our designing the right product for that user. This is a common mindset at companies that have not yet identified the power balance between a product and the people who use it—whether their own product or those of competitors.

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Typically, businesses aim to understand their users or customers to better please them. But what if we reversed this dynamic? What if users looked to companies for guidance on what they should want? Let’s call this empathy reversal.

Certain companies have achieved empathy reversal and demonstrated their recognition of the leverage it gives them by pushing the boundaries on what is known to be acceptable. This is a very interesting position in which to be—one that allows them to dictate the norms for industrial-design or interaction-design patterns such as setting the standards for the sizes of mobile devices, the amount of personal information signing in requires, or the frequency with which advertisements appear in users’ personal space. Thus, companies that produce products that engender heated desire in the marketplace are at the forefront of defining experiential norms.

For companies whose customers await their next product announcement in a state of nervous excitement, traditional user empathy should not solely dictate design decisions. These companies must also recognize the power structures between their products and their users, within the context of the greater landscape of their product space. When and how often have we—or competitors or partners in our product space—been powerful enough to create bold, new design patterns that have led to a new norm? Knowing this will give you the insight to answer these questions:

  • What new or uncommon interaction-design patterns should we push and to what extent should we push them?
  • What do we estimate to be the effect of a bold, new move on the balance between our business goals and our responsibility to keep users happy?

Progressing from Leverage to Norms

This notion of power structures is important to understand. When companies and products we believe in put forth new design patterns, we adopt them because of the power these highly influential companies possess. For example, you may have done or reviewed some solid, quantitative, statistically significant human-factors research that indicates, ergonomically, the perfect size for a mobile phone is 4.7 inches. If you’re particularly worried about user acceptance of your product, you might think the safe bet would be to stick with the insights you’ve gained from this research. But then, how is it that research once said the right form factor for mobile devices was 4 inches, then a few years later, 4.7 to 6-inch mobile devices became the norm? People certainly didn’t grow bigger hands.

While some believe that changing user perceptions and shifts in the popularity of certain design patterns evolve naturally, there is a more probable cause: we trust certain companies and avidly desire their products, so we adopt the new design patterns they put forth. Thus, new norms result from both user desires and business goals. The idealistic notion that users will simply reject experiences that don’t fulfill their wants and needs is not always true. The influence of companies can be powerful. Therefore, users sometimes make compromises.

The problem with relying solely on traditional user research is that user desires and painpoints are not static. While user research can uncover useful information, it exists within the context of an ever-changing technological landscape and an influential business-to-consumer dynamic. Product designs must take all of this into account. New interaction norms result when we combine users’ existing mental models and contexts with the persuasive plans that highly influential companies share with the public.

Until now, educational programs in human-computer interaction or interaction design and the UX professionals they produce have focused almost exclusively on traditional foundations for user behavior: human factors, psychological theories, quantitative and qualitative research, and the design principles that prominent figures in the UX world have put forth. While these are great tools, they fall short of the complete picture.

This is not to say that the influential companies who produce mobile devices solely dictate trends in technology design patterns. Without a doubt, meeting the demands of users’ ever-increasing libraries of digital applications—which let users read, view videos, play games, and even, occasionally, focus on work-related productivity—has had a lot to do with the rise of larger mobile devices. So app developers have perhaps had as much influence on this shift in phone-size norms as prominent companies producing mobile devices. Still, a key factor in this popular shift to larger mobile form factors was the influential power that companies such as Apple, Samsung, and LG exercised when they released—and confidently expected us to adopt—their new wave of larger mobile phones.

Product-Space Empathy

Companies aren’t just attempting to measure the true value of a design choice, they’re trying to predict what everyone else will do and why. Keeping that in mind, both user empathy and product-space empathy should influence the design of user experiences. Mix value design and predictive design.

Start by furthering your understanding of the leverage your competitors have within your product space. What have they created that was completely new? How did their innovations do in the marketplace? What companies were quick to play copycat? Are there any notable similarities to other product interactions? What other products within the space might initially have been influential in crafting these new norms? What key players do they depend on?

This sort of analytical web can quickly become tangled. Analyzing such trends is very subjective, so never leads to objective answers. Nevertheless, this type of analysis will give you a better foundation for understanding how to better predict key influencers and identify existing or soon-to-be experiential norms.

Going back to the example of Apple’s introducing an iPhone without a headphone jack and pushing the experiential pattern of using wireless earbuds: They weren’t the first to do this—and they weren’t the last. But, at least for Apple, they were unusually early to the party. Even with Apple’s incredible influence, there were initially plenty who criticized the lack of a headphone jack on these new phones.

Google drew public attention to these critiques. When Google launched their first Pixel phone, their advertisements blatantly made fun of Apple. When listing out all the new features of the Pixel in quick succession—from a 4k camera to fast battery charging—they suddenly paused, saying, “3.5mm headphone jack satisfyingly not new.” This was a clear jab at Apple. An interesting jab, though.

Above and beyond the immediate competitive tactic of attempting to capture more market share by exposing the weaknesses and areas worthy of critique in a competitor’s products, this ad influenced the perceptions of hundreds of millions who viewed it. Its purpose was to say: Not so fast. Apple doesn’t have it right. Headphone jacks are good. But a year or so later, Google announced the Pixel 2, and it had no headphone jack.

The moral of the story? It’s not that Apple was right and Google was wrong. Perhaps Google even knew they were wrong all along. The real lesson is that they were waiting for Apple to make the experience of using wireless earbuds the norm. Beyond that, Google knew that, if this proposed norm survived in the face of a powerful company like theirs betting against it—with their ads making public jabs at the iPhone 7’s lack of a headphone jack and incorporating a jack in their own phone’s design—it might have some staying power.

Google gave it one year—that is, one full generation for a phone, because new phones come out once a year from all the major players. During this time, Google sat back and analyzed Apple’s influence on the new experiential norm for phones without headphone jacks. Needless to say, despite there still being some critics out there, Google saw a wave begin to form, and they jumped on and rode that wave closer to its peak, avoiding the slow buildup. Will this norm last forever? Who knows. What we do know is that resistance to this new norm has diminished greatly since Apple bet on it. The change in public perception that Apple influenced is getting noticed by Google and other key players in the mobile-phone market and has become a major consideration in their new phone designs.

Deciding whether to include a headphone jack has had less to do with user or market research and has been more a matter of analyzing influential companies—perhaps including your own company—in the mobile-phone space and attempting to understand their goals for adopting proposed new norms, as well as the public reaction to these proposals.

The public won’t automatically welcome every interaction-design change that an influential company proposes with open arms. But given a norm that is on the edge of public acceptance or rejection according to a company’s own research and analysis, regardless of brand, the influence and goals of competitors may be the most relevant insights to discover. Your competitors may be a better focus for your empathy efforts than yet another statistically significant, textbook, user-research plan.

The Bottom Line

What I’m suggesting here is not to forget user research, but rather to supplement it with empathy for the companies and products that supposedly cater to user insights. The composition of any given user’s mental model is subject to the following influences:

  1. Who the user is up until the current point in time
  2. Emerging design patterns from companies who have the ability to change what that person supposedly wants

Once you realize that user insights are not static, but, instead, are highly influenced by persuasive companies and their products, you’ll see that, if you’re seeking user insights only by empathizing with users, you’re probably falling one step behind.

The evolution of experience design should take into account both of these influences in discovering users’ future mental models, as well as in understanding and analyzing empathy reversal to increase your awareness of shifts in the competitive landscape. 

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UX Design Consultant at Slalom Consulting

Chicago, Illinois, USA

Dashiel NeimarkDash designs usable, enjoyable digital experiences that are driven by research and guided by the needs and desires of internal and external stakeholders. In his work, he draws upon his past experience in startups, UX consulting, internships, and freelancing, as well as the wealth of UX knowledge he gained through his journey to earn an MS in HCI. From concept to launch, Dash incorporates Lean and full-cycle UX tools and methods. He is always excited by future opportunities to play his part in delivering innovative digital solutions.  Read More

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