I've been thinking lately of the varying levels of attention that software product companies seem to pay to user experience. It seems the nature of this attention and, what's most important, from whom in the company it originates, is the key to a product's success. This article that goes on how designers have no seat at the table helped me shape the message.
There are three influencing forces that form a landscape of a product UX: design, development, business. Business domain covers product strategy and marketing, and is supposed to include repercussions of the clients' voices. As for landscapes, we know that in hard geological times they are formed by volcanic activity, and volcanic activity brings lava along with it. Considering how fateful the quality of user experience is for digital products, we can compare it to a lava lake, with fire bubbles bursting when at some point they cannot hold the tension anymore.
Look at it this way:
- Development. That's when developers have no seat at the table, and product UX decisions are in the hands of business folks and designers. This scenario is called "putting a lipstick on a pig", and it happens in companies that want to give their product a facelift, as they refurbish it with slick colors, smooth pixels, or neat shadows, ignoring major functional changes that would revolutionize the way in which users experience this product. Why would a product company want to decorate their pig? It depends on personal preferences and backgrounds of stakeholders in the company, as well as on some organizational constraints (not enough skilled developers to do the work, for example). If an important stakeholder comes from business background (strategy, marketing, etc.) and believes that graphical design is what matters most, then the lipstick is wanted. I'm intentionally making this look very black-and-white; it's hardly that real life would have it that way (I hope).
- Design. That's when designers have no seat at the table and are regarded as "expensive pets" (quoting from the article referenced above). The lava of UX in this case will have the bubble bursting in the design point. If a product with powerful functionality has poor graphics, or bumpy interactions flow, that's the case. Enterprise software is the first thing that comes to my mind in this regard. It often has powerful functionality enmeshed in poor design.
- Business. Under this one, I tuck such cases when stakeholders act more from design and development standpoint, rather than from strategy and marketing, and have difficulty looking at their product with the eyes of users. This scenario may occur if stakeholders trace their humble beginnings to development, and the first thing they consider about better UX is: how hard would that be in terms of development? Will it take developers long? Not that such stakeholders would completely ignore strategic considerations; this is just the wiring of a software developer. Passionate geeks might be so preoccupied with the supposed coolness of a functionality, that they'd completely ignore the needs of mere mortals, the customers, who might not actually need it all that much. In this case, marketing-minded folks that are concerned with how the product appeals to users will have their bubble burst.
How is then everything supposed to work well in this lava lake of UX? How to keep it simmering just enough to produce the smooth landscape for clients? Think empathy and observation, on a larger scale. There's no too small detail, and no too small consideration. Unless the creators of product want it solely for themselves, the highest priority has to be given to the way others experience it. If designers or developers are bestowed with the power to decide, they need to have their minds (and hearts) open to the voice of customer proxies, people who interact with customers in the field and collect their feedback. Or, with people who steer the product in the required strategic direction. If a functionally powerful product has a clumsy operation mode, this gets many points off of the product's score. If a graphically immaculate product has no real power in it, and lacks competitive edge, it's hardly worth anything real, except that it looks like a glossy ball they hang on a Christmas tree. If a powerful and cute product does not attend to user interactions and flows, if stakeholders are deaf to what customer proxies (or customers) are saying, this negligence will backfire, sooner or later.
The lava has to simmer, and there's no way to keep those bubbles from bursting. Products do not live in a sterile environment, they develop and change, often in line with how stakeholders switch their accents from development to design, or to marketing. With this in mind, we need to stay alert and take action if those influencing powers are going out of balance.