UX Design: People over features, outcomes over output

Picture yourself in a meeting with a client who wants to build something new and innovative. There are a variety of stakeholders at the table and everyone’s arguing over features. Each person has their own idea of what to build and how to build it, but no one can agree where to start. Finally, someone turns to you and says “UX, what’s your professional opinion?”

This is the moment to pump the breaks and ask yourself, “Why are we arguing about solutions when we don’t understand the people, problem, or product yet?” Think about it this way: when you are sick, you start the process of getting better by going to the doctor and talking through your symptoms. Then, a series of tests may be ordered to get a clearer picture of the problem. Finally, the doctor builds a diagnoses and prescribes an appropriate treatment plan. Drafting a list of features before analyzing your users is like walking into the doctor’s office demanding a random cocktail of medications that may or may not solve any of your ailments...and could result in some interesting side effects.

“Designers can design a solution to a problem, but they can’t design a solution to a disagreement.”
-Mike Monteiro, Speaker, Owner of Mule Design Studio

It’s too early in the process to be arguing over features. How can you determine what features your users want without a clear idea of who they are? By its very nature, building something “new or innovative”  means that it has never been done before. You are blazing a new trail. The hypothesis is that somewhere on the other side a business objective exists, but at this stage, the goal, the users, and perceived problem(s) are all fuzzy.  Many people will have ideas of what the right direction looks like, but it is important to remember that those ideas are all hypothetical. At this point, you are guessing and guessing is risky. So how do you mitigate that risk?

State Your intent.

“Design is the rendering of intent”
-Jared Spool, Writer, Researcher, and expert on Usability

First things first, everyone needs to get on the same page about what this project is trying to achieve. What is the intended outcome, for whom, and why?

One way to gain a shared understanding is to have each stakeholder write out what they believe the goal(s) are.  Have them do this as individuals, rather than as a group will ensure that the ideas remain uninfluenced.  Then, bring them back together to review the results. You will often find that everyone has a completely different idea about what the goals and desired outcomes are. It is this lack of shared understanding that usually leads to contention over what to prioritize. Once everyone is one the same page, the next step is to gain a consensus around what will be tested. LeanDog’s downloadable Agile Discussion Guide covers a number of tools and techniques, such as Fist-To-Five and Six Thinking Hats, that can help facilitate this type of discussion.

Define Your Users.

Who do you believe will benefit from the product or service you are designing? What do you currently know about them? How will you craft experiments to test your hypotheses with actual target users?

“…your job is to minimize output, and maximize outcome and impact.”
– Jeff Patton, Agile, Lean, UX and Product Design Evangelist

The goal of building out personas first is to minimize unnecessary output. Output, in this case, refers to all the work put into a project. Building the wrong things due to a lack of quality data will certainly result a high amount of output, but the things that will be delivered are likely to be of low business value. In order to minimize output and maximize value, you have to first understand the behaviors and goals of your target users. This can be accomplished by conducting interviews and observations with enough users to provide the qualitative data necessary to draw accurate conclusions. So, how do you know you have interviewed the right users, or the even right amount? Kim Goodwin’s book, Designing for the Digital Age: How to Create Human-Centered Products and Services,  has some excellent guidelines on how to go about this:

  • First, identify likely user roles
  • Start with a minimum number based on how narrow the roles are
  • Multiply for the factors most likely to affect behavior
  • Look for ways to condense your schedule and incorporate other factors
  • Adjust for possible no-shows and poor interviews

Generally speaking, you will need 5-8 participants from each role. Once you have conducted your research, synthesized the result, and identified patterns, you should have what you need to form your personas.

What are personas good for?

Personas are a project’s guiding light. When questions arise about what to do, build, or test, the first place to start is the user personas. Will this thing you are creating maximize outcome and impact for your persona, or will it be perceived as irrelevant and useless by the very users it was intended for? It may be tempting to forge ahead on assumptions and educated guesses in the interest of getting the ball rolling, but the cost of starting over at or near the end of the development cycle will likely incur ten times the cost of taking a more thoughtful and deliberate approach.  Remember: the more risky the assumption, the more validation is needed. Innovation happens when there is a constant build, measure, learn loop (see Lean Startup)

Think back to your meeting at the beginning, but this time, imagine that you have done your homework and developed well-defined user personas – all with pains, needs, wants, and desires identified. Now, when stakeholder disagreements form over project direction, you can refer back to your research findings, validate assumptions, and prioritize highest value features.

Personas allow you to take the opinions and self-referential thinking out of the equation. This is not to say that the team’s input should be completely ignored. Rather, all input should be measured against the quantitative and qualitative data you have, to ensure that what you build supports the goals of your personas.

The more you can advocate for the needs and goals of users, backed with supportive quantitative and qualitative data, the better the resulting product will be. It is critical to remember that people are at the center of design. Visual design, code, marketing, and UX are all supporting elements that are ultimately focused on meeting the needs, wants, and desires of the user.

People over features, outcomes over output.

Want learn more about how we apply UX Design principles when building innovative solutions? Let’s talk! We’d love to hear from you!