Working at a creative software agency, one of the most common things requests we receive from product managers is that they want their user interface to “wow” their users. Typically, everyone wants UI design that is “clean”, “sexy”, “wow”, “whiz-bang”. They think of user experience design in terms of visual eye candy and creative features.
And it makes sense. More than ever, a product’s user experience sets the stage for marketplace success. No one wants an ugly solution. They want something that is aesthetically appealing, creative – something that end users will instantly fall in love with, and communicates that their company is breaking new ground.
The only problem is – users usually don’t care about that stuff. They might initially care when they first look at the app or when they run through a sales demo. But they don’t care in the long run.
A Lesson from the Pepsi Challenge
I remember doing the Pepsi Challenge at a local mall as a kid. Two small cups of cola were poured for me – one was Pepsi and the other was Coke – and I was asked to pick which one I liked better. And sure enough, like most people, I chose Pepsi. Pepsi had incredible momentum with their campaign and started to win significant market share over Coke. And then somehow, things stalled.
In his book Blink, author Malcolm Gladwell presents evidence that suggests Pepsi’s success was the result of the flawed nature of the “sip test” method. His research shows that tasters will generally prefer the sweeter of two beverages based on a single sip, but in the long run they prefer a less sweet beverage over the course of an entire can. This explains why many consumers quickly reverted back to Coke. In other words, there was some value in the initial “wow” and “whiz-bang” of the sweeter Pepsi flavor, but in the long run consumers valued other things more.
“Design Wow” Gone Wrong
We once encountered a VoIP softphone application that had the most attractive visual design aesthetic and creative interactions that the industry had never seen. However, the application caused a lot of confusion among its user base upon release. Users frequently misinterpreted the icons on the phone and would accidentally hang up their call when they actually meant to put themselves on mute! Although this is an extreme example, design “wow” gone too far can actually detract from the user experience.
Smart managers know that the best way to drive sales in the long term is to build trust with customers. Trust leads to word of mouth, which leads to more sales. The above example is not the way to build long-term trust, obviously!
Design for What Users Really Want
Now think about the software apps you use on a regular basis. LinkedIn? Facebook? Google? These are systems with a modern, clean design but I would argue that the reason they are so popular has little to do with the “wow” of their visual design, and has everything to do with the value of the functionality they offer and the ease with which that functionality is presented (ie. the usability).
Real user experience design breaks into 3 distinct disciplines:
Design researchers specialize in uncovering user needs. They train for years to learn how to interview and observe end-users, and communicate those results to the other two designers. Their findings often yield fascinating insights that can be used to determine the exact point in the workflow where users are abandoning your product, or even help you uncover the next big innovation in your product line.
Interaction designers are the masters of information architecture, intuitive workflows and content prioritization. They work with product management and design researchers to obtain market and user research and translate it into a draft of what the product will look like, how it will behave, and how it ties back to the user’s goals—usually in the form of sketches called “wireframes”.
Visual designers are graphical experts that specialize in tools like Photoshop and Illustrator to add the right visual “wow” to software. Good visual designers can provide users with an instant emotional connection to a product even before they start using it.
Of all three disciplines, the most overlooked is the Design Researcher (also known as the User Researcher or the UX Strategist). A design researcher can be an extremely valuable asset to any product management team. They use a range of techniques to get to the heart of what users really want (and not just what they say they want, which can be misleading) and what to construct those designs in a way that will maximize usability. These techniques can include ethnography, contextual inquiry, focus groups, usability testing, journey mapping, etc.
It’s not an OR, it’s an AND
I’ve been a little unfair in this article, suggesting creative, visual/graphic design is not important. It is very important. But it’s not an OR, it’s an AND. Teams need to incorporate amazing visual design “wow” AND valuable features AND ease-of-use, which is something you can only get by combining all the right skills and process.
The Pepsi Challenge may not have had the long-term market penetration its execs were hoping for, but Pepsi remains a massive competitor to Coke in part because it turned so many heads by introducing their distinct flavor to the world in such a creative way.
Similarly, the “look and feel” of an app, the visual “wow”, is that first impression, that emotional connection that your product can make with a user that can mean the difference between turning heads at a trade show or just getting lost in the shuffle.
People will move to a new city because they were charmed by the architecture and bustling downtown, but stay for the good schools and job opportunities. People might go on a date because of what their partner looks like, but they stay married because of common interests. People fall in love with a software product for so many reasons, and stay long-term customers for other reasons still. You need to capture all of those reasons, and the full breadth of user experience design – research, interaction and visual design, and visual “wow” – can make it happen. It’s not an OR, it’s an AND!