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Sunday, September 7, 2014

Design Matters: Putting the User First

Sell the Experience using user centered design, not just Products and Services.
How easy is it to check your data balance? Given that you may either have your SIM in a phone or modem (most of which do not have USSD functionality), is it even possible to buy data bundles, share airtime or share data bundles with your other devices, family, colleagues or friends?

Customers do not primarily base their purchase decisions on price alone. The experience a product offers is what in most cases leads to customers preferring costly services over cheaper alternatives.
How then can a rich user experience be realized?

First off, our scope in this edition is limited to desktop, web and mobile applications that we interact with every day at work, at home and while on the move.
Software architects and product makers must put the user first by upholding the core principles of user centered design.
User centered design is defined in Wikipedia as a type of user interface design and a process in which the needs, wants, and limitations of end users of a product are given extensive attention at each stage of the design process.
In other words, business goals, fancy design and extolling the technological features of a product or service should never take center stage. All that matters is helping the user get what s/he wants, in the shortest time possible and with the least effort by the user.

To gain a better understanding of how to put users first, we spoke to Tom Makau, the Chief Technology Officer at Callkey East Africa Ltd and Harriet Ocharo, IT Business Analyst at Ernst & Young. They each blog at TomMakau.com and SavvyKenya.com respectively.

The User Experience

On the importance of HOW a product or service meets a customer's needs, Tom says that “the user experience and satisfaction derived from any product or service should be  higher than the direct cost of the product plus its opportunity cost. Opportunity cost here comprises the cost of a foregone alternative, and the cost of not using the product or service in question. Interestingly, users are driven to the alternative once the experience is not worth it.”
“Addressing the user's needs is of great importance,” says Harriet. “The ease of using said product, more than it's functionality, is what keeps the customer hooked.”

The Customer
Putting the customer first has to happen at some stage in a product's design. “This should be at the conception stage of the product, in this case software. Actual design should only start after it has been determined what problems have to be solved, what goals are to be met.” Harriet adds. “Design should always precede development.”
On how to achieve a rich user experience and satisfactory  interaction with a software, Tom says that “software needs to fit into the users life, not the other way around. The interfaces have to adapt to the user's environment.” He goes on, “Software developers must be  cognizant of this fact and aim to satisfy this need from the onset.”

How then can one anticipate customer choices and address them?
“Customer choice is determined by not only the desire to satisfy a need but also the desire for status and self actualization, however premature.” says Tom. Harriet also speaks of testing the waters. “You can carry out user surveys of your target customers to find out what they would require and this feedback will help the user experience (UX) designer to come up with something that will satisfy your customers. This particular designer should be involved from the very start.”

The User, First.
What is the best way to learn how to design with the end user in mind?
“To be forward thinking is the best way,” Tom quickly asserts. “Developers need to be visionaries and not reactive churners of whats in fashion.” He goes ahead to give a most fitting example: “When Apple released a touch screen phone, no one thought they would need to use a touch screen phone. See what that did to the phone market?” Harriet concurs than one has to learn and adjust on the go.

Can this skill then be learned in school, and if not, how does one acquire it?
Shaking his head, Tom simply says no. “Just like swimming, this cannot be learned by reading a manual, good user interface design comes with practice.” Harriet reckons that class only offers basics, just the starting point. “Although one might learn design skills in a class, experience will always be the best teacher.” she says. In addition, she sees collaboration as a viable alternative. “In cases where you're designing for a specific audience, it's best to work with someone who has in the past developed a successful product with a satisfactory user experience.”

The Trail Blazers
Asked to name companies that show great care and consideration of the customer's experience in their systems and products, Tom named Safaricom, Amazon, Apple and Microsoft. Harriet immediately mentions Apple, Google and Safaricom. She even goes ahead to explain: “Apple Inc leads in its products that offer users a great user experience. Google places emphasis on simplicity of their products, most famously in gmail and google search. Locally, Safaricom leads among the telecommunications service providers (telcos).”

Getting it Done
Those in management have the enviable position of being able to actually do something and thus effect change. When we asked how they can find out what experiences their
customers are having with their products or services, Harriet pointed out sampling and user testing. “Management needs to ensure sufficient user testing is carried out on products or services before being released into the market. User testing should involve (a sample of) the actual end users of the would be product so that the feedback is both relevant and useful.”
About products already in the market, Harriet ably advised. “User surveys are also important after a product has been launched. In addition, management can ensure that there are feedback channels for users to report their experiences, negative or positive.”

Tom says that the best way managers can find out about user experience is to first use these products in their daily life. “Occasionally in the case of services, managers can also pose as customers and get a first hand experience of the service.”

Tom however, disagrees on Management influencing design. “I don't advocate management to influence the design of products and services, it should simply offer an environment where ideas from everyone in the organization are taken and analyzed for usefulness and how visionary they are, since not every idea is useful and not every useful idea is visionary.” He goes on to add that management 'influence' can stifle many great ideas.