Service Design + Lean UX + Disruptive Design = UX Strategy?

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By Mona Patel

This article was originally published on May 20, 2013 at The original article can be found here.

If you were moving to New York City, what would get you excited? You might say the nightlife or the food. But for the geek in me, it was getting Verizon FiOS (Fiber Optic Service). I mean, who wouldn’t want blazing fast Internet speeds? My new condo is FiOS-ready, so I thought it would be easy. I called Verizon weeks before the move, so I would have Internet access on Day 1. But there was a snag: after about two hours on the phone, trying to figure out why we kept getting an error, the sales representative said that she would have to call me back. I never got her call.

Since I had gotten nowhere trying to order FiOS by phone, I next tried ordering FiOS online. Then, two days before my move, I again tried calling Verizon. That sales representative also hit an error and couldn’t help me. I called again on my moving day and asked to speak to a manager. While I waited for a response, I tried using my iPad to see whether I could complete the task online. It turns out that Verizon had run out of phone numbers in the 212 area code. No error messages alerted them to that fact or offered any alternative way of proceeding. Okay, so who cares about an area code? (It turns out, I do—and by yelling and screaming, I ended up getting one—but that’s beside the point.)

The point is that it was one of the most frustrating customer experiences that I’ve had to date. Finally, after three Web site attempts, two mobile app attempts, a whopping five hours with customer service reps on the phone, then a bunch of struggles with the on-site scheduling department, FiOS got installed. Verizon scores a point for acquiring me as a customer; I score a point for telling hundreds of people that Verizon made me feel like I was in “the pit of despair.” It was the totality of a poor customer experience that completely missed the mark on meeting my expectations that led to my dissatisfaction.

Verizon needs a better user experience strategy. What exactly does that mean?

What Is UX Strategy?

It seems like the UX community has been struggling a bit to reach a common definition of UX strategy. Is it a framework or an approach? Is it a methodology or a philosophy? For me, it is all of these things; but the most important thing is that UX strategy is fluid, not fixed. Companies pay a lot of money to hire UX Strategists to prepare UX strategy documents, without realizing that a UX strategy needs to be alive and current to be valuable.

So, what is on trend now? There are three concepts and perspectives that are all the rage in our larger design and development space:

  • lean UX—Read Jeff Gothelf and Josh Seiden’s book.
  • disruptive design—Read Luke Williams’s book.

My proposal is that, cumulatively, these three trends give us a solid working definition of UX strategy.

My friend and colleague Tony Brinton, Experience Design Director at Motivate Design, says:

“As usability or user experience practitioners, sometimes we get hung up on the U, or the user. If we drop the U in UX, then we are left to focus on Experience. Experience defines a person’s perception of a brand, and brand is defined by the sum total of all their interactions with the brand.”

User experience is not just how a user interacts with a user interface. A well-designed experience leads to consumers that love a brand. Love of a brand usually leads to more money for a business.

Eleven years ago, when I was taking a Marketing course for my Master’s program, a professor who worked at Ogilvy walked in and asked, “What is a brand?” We all had a few minutes to write down our definition and share it. Once we finished, he gave us a hard stare and said, “Wrong. Brand is everything.” Then, he walked out.

Brand is everything, offline and online. Therefore, the overall experience is what gets people to engage, buy, use, and connect with a given product or brand. The UX strategy defines how this happens.

And UX strategy actually makes it happen. The UX leaders in any company, whether C-level executives or consultants, have a strategy and use processes, tools, methods, and people to create user experiences. They make sure that the experiences users have are easy, efficient, satisfying, engaging, and compelling. They help prioritize features and make sure that technology can enable their ideas. They establish metrics, measure performance against those metrics, and demonstrate success in the form of bottom-line improvement.

However, the UX Strategist’s job is not to own the user’s experience. (Many people get hung up on this. If you are busy trying to own the user experience, your focus is on your ego and needs, not the users.) For example, if I were the Director of UX at Disney, the late and rude bus driver, the super-sweet ticket lady, the waitress at the overpriced restaurant, and even Mickey Mouse might have a bigger hand in determining the user’s experience than I would.

The UX Strategist’s role is to help an organization want to consider and understand the user’s experience first and foremost. The UX Strategist’s job is to create a connection between the people who work in an organization and the people who might purchase its products and services or otherwise engage with the organization. It is to teach an organization how to embrace design thinking.

Service Design

It seems that this broader perspective on designing good, holistic experiences is now being called service design. (I know that some of us have always seen user experience as being this broad, while others are used to defining service design as designing a service instead of a product. Regardless, I think we can agree that UX professionals are delivering a body of work that is broader than designing user interfaces for products, and many are referring to it as service design.)

While we have methods and processes for understanding how humans interact with machines, service design is about going beyond a machine or user interface and looking at a whole engagement, across every touchpoint, and optimizing the entire experience. This includes both the service that an organization provides to customers in the front of the house and at the back of the house—that is, what customers see and what they don’t see.

As the authors of This Is Design Thinking put it, service design is what makes you go into one coffee shop over another when they sell the same product at the same price in the same location. This analysis extends to all the pieces and parts that make up an interaction with a brand. The end goal is to create an experience that is engaging, delightful, and even addictive—that, in attaching the experience to the brand, basically hits a home run.

For example, a typical usability project might be to improve the user’s experience with a mobile banking app. However, a service design project is about the app, the Web site, the person at the bank branch, the lighting and quality of the coffee at that branch office, the customer service rep you speak to on the phone, your experience at the stadium that the bank sponsors, the free museum tickets that the bank offers, and even the way the bank helps low-income, stranded Hurricane Sandy victims get access to cash when they don’t have credit cards and need to buy water, batteries, and flashlights.

Another way to think of this is that user experience is about redesigning, while service design is about reimagining. Just ask yourself whether you’re fixing, innovating, or disrupting? When you really understand that your company has something of value to deliver—and why the thing that you’re delivering is valuable or maybe even exciting to users—that usually requires broader thinking and serves as the entry point to looking at the macro experience that Figure 1 illustrates.

This leads to a broader definition of service design that is starting to resonate with me. Usability and user experience and service design are about improving a person’s interactions with a thing or a set of things. I like to think of Service design, with a big S, as being about improving how we live as a community. There’s an aspect of sustainability and community building to it—designing for people, profit, and the planet—or 3BL for those who know it.

Think of the common Service Design example, Zipcar, which provides a beautiful experience for each user. Yet, going beyond that, Zipcar has done so much for the environment, building a community and movement around the concept of mine versus ours. So, rather than focusing on that U in user, we are focusing on serving a bigger cause, across all users, and for a larger community.

Lean UX

You’d think with this broader approach to service design, we would have bigger budgets and bigger projects. But alas, we are living in a world that is pulling in the opposite direction. It’s all about lean these days. Lean UX is about adaptability and efficiency—finding a quick and smart way to inspiration and design ideas, then testing them until you get it right—or at least good enough.

With lean research, you focus less on creating deliverables and more on including the product team in the discovery and design process, so they can observe what users need firsthand, then run with it. So, now, instead of preparing PowerPoint presentations with methodology slides and sample-size slides that say, “Here’s why we think five participants are enough,” we succinctly summarize and synthesize our findings and actionable next steps, then just get to it.

After Lean UX, $50,000 usability tests should be obsolete. (But if you want to spend that much money, feel free to call us!) Lean UX is about knowing when and how to use the UX tools that we have in the most efficient way possible. Recently, my company had an opportunity to reinvent the infomercial. We talked with a potential client whose main source of leads and sales for their financial workshops is TV infomercials. However, they were concerned that the infomercials made the brand appear cheesy. They asked us to conduct a focus group with dial testing—participants turn the dial to the right when they hear something they like, left if they don’t like what they hear—to help them understand more about what people don’t like. Think about it—what would that really tell them? That people don’t like cheesy infomercials. Would finding that out really be worth the time and money?

Instead, we proposed doing quick, live user research at one of the client’s upcoming workshops, using body-storming techniques to understand what people like and don’t like about the overall experience, then co-designing a conversation that they could put on TV or another media channel to promote what people felt was the value of the workshop. Our deliverable was a two-page document stating key value points to stress in any advertising, a storyboard, and a customer journey map. So, the project may still cost $50,000, but the method is about getting quick, thorough customer feedback; using the budget to dive into the design process, and communicating the value of good user experience to each and every person in the organization.

Our team thinks of research projects as investigations, and we continue our investigation until we have a better idea about how to design a user interface or experience. We focus on observing and empathizing over interviewing. The goal of discovery activities is not to identify where people make mistakes with a product or user interface, but to have an opportunity to view the world or an experience from the user’s perspective.

Ethnography, body storming, and participatory design activities, either in groups or with individuals, are fitting into our approach to lean UX because these activities are not about getting obvious answers to questions, but uncovering the questions that you never thought to ask. The only question you know you need to answer is “Why?” Actually, that’s not the only question.

Disruptive Design

That’s where the third factor, disruptive design, comes in. While service design is a way to think about UX strategy and lean UX is a smart way to approach or implement your strategy, there is still a missing component.

Let’s step back a bit. The reason I love what I get to do every day is because my work life is all about leading a team that loves creating game-changing, innovative, really cool, and delightful experiences. Our researchers spend their weekends observing people and their interactions, and our designers live for beautiful design in everything—from what they wear to their obsession with pixel alignment and appropriate font usage.

There’s something very magical about being around people who have intense passion and rely on their gut instincts to create good designs. More and more, I feel that passion is essential to being a great UX Strategist. First, you have to care, not just about a solution, but also about the problem it solves. You have to want to take the time to understand the problem. Yes, I said it. Time.

Brilliant ideas take time. Designers need time. They are perfectionists by nature, and often arrive at their big picture solution by studying the details thoroughly.

Disruptive design ideas take time. The goal of disruption is to flip, turn, and toss ideas around to identify game changers. On an Internet that is full of travel search tools, what is Hipmunk doing right?  Why are people at my company excited about a chipmunk dressed in a suit with glasses? (Yes, he is that adorable.)

Second, you have to command resources—meaning people, time, and money. Beyond time, a UX team has to have the resources necessary to craft a compelling story that positions their ideas, so the right people listen to and act upon them. A UX Strategist needs to earn the power and respect within an organization to really drive a meaningful strategy and get those resources.

Third, you have to overcome your fear. Disruptive UX strategies require time, resources, and mindset.

Too often, I’ve talked to VPs and Directors of UX who are frustrated that they can’t seem to get traction. They have a passive mindset. About a year ago, I did a round of 30 interviews with UX leaders at this level, and fear came up in 25 of the interviews. Fear of failure, rejection, accountability, being fired, having ideas that are not as great as they seemed, and having too much work to do all factor into the passive UX Strategist mindset.

I humbly offer that, when in this passive mindset, you cannot be a great UX Strategist, and you probably won’t have a great UX strategy either. Disruption and fear-averse thinking are key. You have to be willing to go against what you’re being told to do and be smart about adapting, iterating, and really hearing what does not work in your ideas, so you can make them better.

You have to be willing to ask, “What if?”

  • What if booking travel were fun?—Hipmunk
  • What if artificial limbs for the disabled were cool and beautiful?—Bespoke
  • What if you could bring the grocery store to consumers online?—FreshDirect and Tesco
  • What if you could rent high-end clothes?—Rent the Runway
  • What if we delivered news, but let people decide what was important and never displayed banner ads?—Buzzfeed
  • What if a furniture and home decor store had such a great brand and such great products at competitive prices that it didn’t matter that it was the most annoying store in the world and it took hours for people to assemble the furniture?—IKEA

In an active mindset, we understand that the role of a UX Strategist is about asking provocative questions and bringing important and sometimes difficult problems to the forefront of discussions—not working with other groups to make good design decisions.

“If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first fifty-five minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.”—Albert Einstein

By now, most of us know how to create useful and usable user interfaces. But that does not lead to compelling experience strategies. UX strategy is not about the styling of a user interface, but the overall experience that a consumer has with a brand, and how psychology and design can influence that experience.

I’ve heard UX Directors use lean and agile methods as an excuse not to innovate or disrupt. “I can’t, there is no time.” I’ve heard that it’s not a part of their job—there’s that fear again. Being disruptive can be fun! I understand that this is hard to do when doing things fast and cheap are the driving forces for your design process. Two factors, lean UX and disruptive design, need to be in balance in the equation.

In Conclusion

Putting these three factors together, as shown in Figure 2, means coming up with amazing ideas that change experiences, not interfaces, and testing your ideas early and often throughout the design and development lifecycle, so you can tie your work to business goals and the bottom line.

Is this UX strategy? Possibly. For us at Motivate Design, this definition has been good enough. We have helped clients establish their UX strategies and actually put them to use. After all, UX methods have always been about iteration and constant improvement. UX strategy should be the same.

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