There used to be a time, specially before and until the late 1990s, when the user-oriented design (of which user experience is a core part) was something one would usually come across in artistic and philosophical circles. For instance, painters, designers, and architects have always wondered what it is that the observer or the owner seeks to have and wants to feel?
The rise of technology and specially the internet, has brought these questions to the forefront of almost every business being developed or re-invented today. For instance, we have come a long way from 90s sketchy websites that were made with a sole purpose of providing basic information to gateways that are designed to indulge into deep experiences for the user.
Figure: Evolution of design through the lens of websites from 1990s to 2021. Left: Apple website around 1995. Right: Apple website in 2021.
Why has the user experience become so important?
Let us ask what has pushed design and especially the user experience to the forefront. Well, in simple words, it is the realization that the customer (or the user) is the center of almost every technology business, i.e., it is about customer-centricity. It is that simple and as we shall see it is that profound.
There is no starker example of it than the software tech giants themselves, and it can be seen from the kind of people they hire and how they value them. Today, user experience designers or in general designers are considered to be no less than a top software engineers. In fact, design-first companies like Apple and others organize special flamboyant events to show off their design-first culture to attract great designers to their teams. On the other hand, user experience and product design have evolved from being a part of the customer experience management to a major component of it that holds on its own due to its impact on the life and success of the product. It is not a coincidence that 86% of buyers are willing to pay more for a great customer experience. Realizing this shift in the mainstream economy, more and more universities have initiated courses in design and user experience (separate from customer experience management), customer centricity, and mobile customer experience addressing the demands within the industry.
Major trends behind the evolution of user experience based design in recent years
But how did it come to pass? We explore two trends that turn out to be extremely impactful factors that answer the question.
Digitization – software is eating the analog world one spoon-full at a time
Marc Andreessen’s words – software is eating the world, cannot be more true if we look at the last two decades. More importantly, his words do not seem to lessen in truthfulness anytime soon in the future. The advances in web technologies and communication technologies such as networking protocols and wireless communication networks have made the cost of transporting the data cheaper over the internet and across all geographies of the planet. On the other hand, advances in storage technologies have made it possible to drive down the prices of hard disks to such low levels that paying for storage is almost a thought of a bygone era. In addition, improvements in computing power have increased the capabilities of the end-user devices (such as mobile devices, etc.) enormously more than their predecessors about a decade or even a few years ago.
The advances in the above mentioned technologies have pushed digitization into several industries across the board which has not only forced humans out of the loop by increasingly automating the business processes but also created the need and space for much higher sophistication for the software tools. As a result, more and more manual or analog business processes move into software, and more and more software is needed to be designed for sophisticated human needs. Consider an example, let us look at human resources areas of almost any business today. Most of the applicants are reached out through social networks – which are highly sophisticated apps providing complex services, the early interviews are usually done on Skype or Facetime – which are quite sophisticated services that almost reduces the need to travel and at the same time attempt to imitate real life contact, and last but not the least almost all HR communication, documents, and processes are digitized using SaaS. This is not only true for software or tech companies but also across all other industries, including defense and military.
Figure: The intersection of the 4 technologies gives rise to the tech that makes delivering enhanced and superior customer (or the user) experience to the clients.
The same argument could be extended for marketing and sales as well. The increase in automation of basic human tasks has moved the barrier for human centric software to a much higher level. And this is a major reason why design and user experience have become central to product development in any consumer business. The customers of these sophisticated software services/apps are users who have choices, she lacks tolerance for sloppiness and has much higher expectations of how she feels while using the software app. Today, and I can confidently say in the foreseeable future, there is no way to win in an increasingly digitized business without keeping the customer at the center of the product development.
Rise of the social networks
Another trend that has been an important factor and massively influential is the rise of social networks. It has been the cause of a phenomenal shift in the digital world in the last little over a decade. Not only has it increased the collective digital real estate by increasing individual user’s digital footprint by orders of magnitude, but in addition, this explosive growth has created the space and the need for the community tools. Community tools are a playground where the user is at the center and she is not alone, i.e., her experience is dependent on the quality of experience of other community members. For this reason, user experience oriented design is at the core of the building of any modern software service.
Let us take a step back in order to understand how it came to pass. The success of Facebook followed by Twitter, Instagram, etc. has taught the consumer and enterprise businesses around the world one thing that the users don’t want to exist in isolation, rather they want to thrive in communities that share and are unapologetic about expressing their opinions and feelings. The ability for a user of an app to share her experience, forward a piece of content, and invite other users are critical parts of her experience and significantly impact the product design. This has the fundamental implication and can be directly linked to the growth and revenue of the services the users use today and would use tomorrow, they will inherently allow and possibly contain their own community networks. As a second-order effect, it implies that the channels and platforms used to market and communicate product features to the users are not only achieved through one to one emails, phone calls, and so on but also and increasingly importantly through one to many channels such as social media platforms, social messengers, etc.
Rise of the communities and the community tools
Communities have become ubiquitous, almost every app or SaaS service has a community of users that they cater to and must enable. With the exploding content on the internet, engaging with communities has become essential for consumer businesses to reach out and communicate to their users. This has not only put the user at the center but double down-ed on the centrality of the user experience in the product development process.
But why are the communities important to consumer and enterprise businesses? Communities and in general social networks work because of network effects. Network effects simply mean that the value offered to the users of the network increases with the size of the network. For instance, for the telephone networks the value of the network increases squarely, i.e., a network of n nodes has the value proportional to the square of n. But for a social network of n nodes, the value of the network could easily be exponential to the number of nodes in the network. This means that each new user that joins the social network brings in much more value to the network compared to traditional networks such as ethernet, telephone, etc.
Sharing and communicating
Communities are built on two fundamentals, a sense of belonging and trust. Both, the sense of belonging and trust are built on the ability to share and communicate freely, easily, and securely. Most services and apps achieve this by building features and call to actions that allow users to communicate and share with each other effortlessly. This is especially critical for the apps that are designed for enhancing the mobile customer experience which has quite often conversational features. In fact, according to the Gartner Research report several of the top companies in various sectors have implemented conversational voice applications: 48% of companies in the automotive sector, 23% of consumer products and retail companies, and 17% of retail banking and insurance companies. And in addition, 50% of businesses will spend more on conversational applications than mobile apps by 2021. It is no surprise that conversational designers are important resources for every business to have in their repertoire.
Product adoption and feedback
Product managers count the communities associated with their products as a given part of the user experience. Developing a community for the product is not a forethought but a necessity that must be addressed before the product is designed. It is one of the primary resources that startups and consumer businesses use to reach out to their customers and generate revenue. These days, even a single player app, like a to-do list, has a few multi-player (or a community) features such as invites and the possibility of sending emails.
Having excellent user experience not only impacts user adoption through user engagement but also impacts user or customer retention. And this has a direct relation to customer loyalty. A good design based on customer centricity not only helps gather valuable insights but also the critical customer feedback.
On the other hand, community tools and features are a great way for the product managers to gather customer feedback from the users by directly engaging with them. For example, almost all apps and services have a community channel on a social media platform to inform the users of the update, share news and engage in direct feedback. Evolving from the FAQ based static websites of the 2000s to discussion forums and chat channels of today where users or customers can ask and share their experiences quite vividly has only been the result of the evolution of user communities.
Integration with other apps
Another central aspect to the user’s experience within an app is the ability to access other services (platforms or apps) in order to share content, complete a task at hand, etc. without switching contexts. What makes this aspect extremely important is that it helps peak the feeling of accomplishment, without interruptions, within the user pertaining to the task at hand. It is important to note that, it is not only about providing a positive customer experience but a delightful experience that results in forming the trust between the user and the product leading to an increase in customer confidence. An increase in customer confidence is what helps achieve customer satisfaction. This is specially important in enterprise settings, where the user is a customer who often uses multiple apps to accomplish their job related tasks and these apps must speak fluently to each other in order to avoid interruptions or delays within the task the user is trying to accomplish. It is undoubtedly a core aspect of any user or customer experience today.
Looking at the bigger picture – how will a good UX impact the client businesses
It is important to note that advances in technology and the needs of the society push and pull each other from time to time to give birth and rise to businesses. Incidentally, it is not a straight line of innovation in tech that gives rise to businesses, or the other way round that businesses push the innovation of the future. But what is certain is that in the end the customer must enjoy and be delighted by the product in order to reliably trust it. And this is what brings the user experience at the center of the product design for almost all tech businesses and beyond. In a soon to be coming post, we will explore what makes user experience core to certain software services and how to get it right. Until then, stay hungry 😉
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