The Importance of Strategic User Experience (UX)

Part of what I do is helping business software companies to embed user experience (UX) in their strategic software development. I do this not as a user experience specialist, but as a user experience evangelist and change agent. There is a lot of interest from companies into the subject and there is awareness on the importance of improved user experiences. However not many companies manage to successfully transform from an engineering focus toward a user focus and embed user experience into the strategic product development process. While I'm preparing another workshop I realized that it would be good to share some of my learnings from the last few years.

I've always been told, and for long I believed it, that the reason is that the business software buying process is based on comparing features and the buying decision maker is not one of the actual users. These facts are true, but aren't the main reasons why it's hard for companies to transform.

First lets look at some general characteristics of these business software companies. They come in two flavors, those that have a long track record and often already existed during the first internet bubble and those that are younger and more recent companies. Lets call the first category the establishment and the second category the challengers. You can easily recognize the different categories by looking at their Software as a Services solutions: Old versus new world SaaS

The establishment
  • Their current success is a result of their technology and engineering advantage in the past
  • The focus was always on using technology to improve efficiency and productivity
  • User experience is the number of clicks to efficiently reach a goal
  • Have accumulated a significant and loyal customer base (otherwise they wouldn't exist anymore)
  • Helped many customers through the various stages of technology evolutions and learned the importance of compatibility and comparing features
  • Believe customers are conservative and risk avers
  • Innovation is based on evolution 

The challengers
  • Their current success in most cases isn't proven yet
  • The focus is on improved effectivity by doing things differently
  • User experience is how it looks. 
  • Have customers, but need to expand the customer base significantly become sustainable
  • Convinced customers to start doing things differently
  • Believe customers want to innovate their business
  • Innovations is based on disruption

I'm well aware this is a generalization of the two groups, the reality will be in most cases somewhere in the middle, but it helps to explain a few things.

Another way of looking at this is from a strategic perspective, are you serving or steering?
  • Tactical versus Strategic
  • Efficiency versus Effectivity
  • What is your problem? versus What is your strategy?
  • What do you want? versus What do you need?

Most software companies today are serving their customers and focus on the tactical operations by improving efficiency and solving problems. Customer feedback is used to determine what a customer wants. This is very logical, because it's easy and low risk, just listen and improve. The establishment is very good in doing this and maintaining the status quo. Is there an incentive for them to change?

The alternative is to investigate how a company can become more effective by asking about the strategy and research the companies and user needs. This research requires specialist expertise for doing user research and is the area where user experience begins. This way you can move to become a strategic partner by making companies more effective. This is what the challengers aim for, sometimes successful, but more often not. It doesn't matter as long it's a wake up call for the establishment to realize the need to transform.

It's a company DNA change from an engineering focus on efficiency to wards a user focus on effectiveness. To illustrate this point: CRM and Time tracking systems are introduced to increase the efficiency and productivity in the company, but there is no sales guy or consultant in the world that loves using those systems. The only reason they use them is because their bosses, or the bosses of their bosses, tell them they have to use them in order to get their commissions. However the same sales guys and consultants use Foursquare to constantly check-in into places, while nobody is telling them to do it, meaning it's possible to motivate them without using a stick. The sales guy or consultant has no advantage in becoming more efficient or productive, all they want is to become more effective and make a bigger impact for the customer, themselves and the company. User experience shouldn't be aimed on efficiency and productivity but on effectiveness.

Now you know why user experience is so important, it allows you to become a strategic partner by making the business more effective. It's actually the next maturity level for a software company that can be reached.

Now the key question is how to get there. In the first alinea I already mentioned that not many companies succeed in implementing user experience in their strategic product development cycle. I'll give you a few points to get started with and feel free to use the comment section below for a further conversation:
  • It's strategic so you need to start to evangelize at the C-level in the company. You can start telling this story or hire me for a more independent opinion
  • Realize you need specialists, not only for user experience but also in engineering. The generic engineer is a thing of the past, you need web front-end engineers, back-end logic engineers, API engineers, database engineers, test engineers, etc. all with a clear focus and skill development plan and organized in multi-functional teams. 
  • Cluster customer feedback and research he why question. Don't make assumptions, but research the facts. Do customers want SaaS or a pay as you go business model? Do you want a camera with more pixels or do you want to better capture you memories? These are two different things.
  • Make things beautiful, the first advice a start-up gets applies also for an established business.
  • Technology advance move fast, what might not have been possible 2 years ago might be a commodity today. Be alert on what is going on and keep your skill sets and product offering up to date. 

In a later article I'll give more in-depth information about multi skilled and functional engineering teams.  With platforms and technology becoming more and more divers building the right engineering team becomes also more of a challenge, but that is a subject in itself.

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... and don't hesitate to join the conversation below.


Recommend reading: Aad's follow on article on user centric design. Then its clear, reaching customers by design changes everything. Product architectures, product teams, product revenues, and product orchestration a.k.a management.

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