In 2007 I met Nancy Dickinson, who was at the time director of User Experience at Ebay. Nancy occupied an important role, and was a leader within the UX design community, a group that stood out as one of Silicon Valley’s most influential – and which stole some of the spotlight from developers. More than four years on, the concept of user-centered web design has come from San Francisco to Europe, arriving first in London and Scandinavia, and then in France. Like the other capitals, Paris now has its own UX community groups, and many Parisian businesses are integrating user experience leads into their organisations.
But what, at the root, does “User Experience Design” really mean?
Simply put, user experience consists in considering end-users first, instead of focusing on the client’s needs alone. Doing this implies using a variety of methods to analyze users behaviors and understand their needs and expectations. This understanding guides the design of digital experiences that make people’s lives easier and better.
This approach gave birth to the concept of “user experience design”. Stéphane Vial, in his “Short Treatise on Design” (1) defines it as “a design that is lived, felt, experienced. The user feels its effect immediately because his experience is instantly transformed, improved and augmented.” In short, this design approach has a dual ambition: to go beyond the formal and functional value to the user, and to impose a culture of change within businesses by making listening to the user a core value.
Despite its value and subtlety, the “user first” approach can be difficult to install within an organisation, as it runs counter to two dominant business cultures:
- First is the “creative” culture, a product of consumer culture and its handmaidens, marketing and advertisement. In this model, very few “creatives” are responsible for the design, and the “storytelling” rests in the hands of communication agencies.
- The second obstacle is technological culture, where the product dominated by engineers and developers. New technologies or products are often launched with an excess of functions, either because features have not been prioritized according to user needs, or in order to create platform lock-in.
Whether the creative or technological approach dominates, it is self-centered and usually imposed by one or two of a client’s departments, or else by a forceful contractor. Design is done by committee and then – maybe – tested. The end-user is thus made to adapt to the product or technology they are given. These top-down models were central to the economic development of the 20th century’s latter half, but the overabundance of choice introduced by the Internet is revealing their limitations.
The culture of user experience offers a new way to overcome the limits of old approaches and, far from being a passing fashion, has become a crucial process in designing web and mobile products. A recent study (2) on e-business investments in the US shows that UX is likely to become one of the biggest budget items for digital actors, surpassing SEO, mobile app development and more in the years to come.
Integrating a user-centered approach has three competitive advantages that can’t be ignored:
1. In a time of overabundant choice, our digital behaviors remain poorly understood. A discipline privileging the analysis of our motivations and apprehensions can help us better discern our needs.
2. This discipline is based on a central value: that ease of use is a key success factor in digital products. It prefers easy, understandable user flows, usable layouts and ease of interaction to visual effect or feature creep.
3. Last but not least, “UX culture” – unlike marketing or technical approaches – is well adapted to projects that mobilise many departments or impact an entire enterprise.
By integrating the user’s perspective before conceiving a product, user-centered design helps build shared vision, accelerate internal decision making and shorten product launch times, all of which add up to a sustainable competitive advantage. Welcome to the UX era!
(1) Stéphane Vial, Court traité du design [Short Treatise on Design], Paris, PUF, 2010.
(2) Endeca Study: 2011 B2C survey
Illustrations by Mathieu Avons