In case you haven’t noticed, user experience design has become the darling of the business community.

Thanks in no small part to the success of Apple, companies have woken up to the selling power of good design.

Early Apple iPod

Apple has taught many companies that selling on features is not as effective as selling on good design. While other MP3 players sold on storage capacity, Apple sold on how it empowered customers by putting one thousand songs in their pocket.

Finally there has been a realisation that simply adding more features will not make a product or service sell better. It is about providing a better ‘experience’.

Whether that experience is how the product looks and feels in your hand, or the details of the customer service people receive, user experience design can transform how a customer ‘feels’ about a product.

Unfortunately, although many businesses recognise the benefits of user experience design they often start from entirely the wrong premise.

Starting from the wrong premise

Many organisations who are embracing user experience design are asking how it can make their products or services better. Unfortunately that is the wrong starting point.

The problem with this approach is that it is actually still company focused, rather than user centric.

It says ‘we have this product or service and we want to make it appear more attractive to consumers so they buy it.’ It starts from existing features and looks to make them more attractive.

This kind of approach is only ever going to make superficial changes. For example, if you take this view when designing a website, you may improve the site’s usability and make it visually more appealing, but if the content doesn’t address users questions then it will still fail.

True user experience design takes a step back and asks one fundamental question.

The essential question behind user experience design

Before a product is designed, a service shaped or a website conceived, one fundamental question must be asked – what problem are you solving for the customer?

Ultimately that is what user experience design is about – it’s about solving problems for users. It should empower users, making them feel they can do something that they were previously unable to do.

All of the products and services I use make me feel like this…

  • Amazon Prime makes me feel anything I need can be in my hands almost instantly.
  • Evernote makes me feel I will never forget anything.
  • Omnifocus makes me feel in control.
  • Feedly makes me feel I am keeping up-to-date with the world around me.
  • My iPhone makes me feel in touch with my friends and business.

And hopefully this website makes you feel like a web expert.

Evernote iPhone App

Evernote understands I don’t need another note taking app. It knows that I need to be sure I will never forget anything. It understands that I care about my problems, not the features.

Each starts from the premise of empowering users, not just making an existing product or service more appealing. They make me feel like a better person.

Ultimately user experience design should help solve user problems and facilitate them in achieving their goals.

Of course, this means that user experience design has to shape the fundamental offerings of an organisation. That means that design needs to be represented at the highest levels of a business.

Design at the top table

With the exception of Silicon Valley startups, few companies have people with a design background on their board.

I am not just talking about graphic designers or web designers, but service designers too, people who have experience of shaping products and services to meet customers’ needs.

It is a skill lacking in the 21st century. There was a time when a company would create a product or service and if people needed it they would buy it.

However, with so many competitors only a click away, it is vital that the product or service is carefully shaped around the users needs from its initial conception. That means having people with the authority to shape the products and services that are being sold.

And one of those services that you offer is your website.

How this relates to the web

Too often we approach our websites with the attitude – we have these messages to communicate, how can we persuade users to view them.

Even when we are being more ‘user centric’ we still tend to think in terms of content or functionality users supposedly want.

Rarely do we step back and ask ourselves what users ultimate goal is or what problem they are trying to solve. Rarely do we think about how we can make the user feel empowered. And rarer still are the times when we look at how the website fits into the bigger picture of what we are offering customers in terms of products or service.

If we are going to adopt the principles of user experience design, we must look at our websites within the context of the organisation’s products and services.

We must focus on what problems we are solving for users. Until we do that, we are doing little but scratching at the surface.