The follower strategy

In many industries it is important to have a good user experience, but does your company have to deliver the best UX in the industry? Also, is it even realistic to believe you can produce the best UX in the industry? More often than not, it is more realistic to produce a user experience that is slightly behind the best in the industry – in essence, to be a follower instead of a leader.

Why being a follower is the right thing

Let’s start with basic math. Independent of how many companies there are in any given industry, there can only be one that delivers the best user experience. So if there are 10 companies in an industry, 9 of them aren’t UX leaders. Basic probability makes it much more likely that your company will be among the followers rather than the leader. Don’t set a goal you can’t reach.

At this point you might think, “but it is better to aim too high because it will push us to advance and do better work.” Unfortunately, the results often become reversed and you actually become worse off. The reason for this paradox? In order to be a UX leader, you need to have different processes in place than if you aim to be a follower. As a UX leader you are doing a lot of discovery work, exploring many ideas that might later on be scrapped, and going through many iterations. If the budget is too small and you are cutting corners, the result will be suboptimal.

For example, let’s say you want to create an online retail store (or redesign an existing one). If you try to come up with a new innovative way to design the product page, you will be spending resources on exploratory design. The resulting designs might be new and flashy, but you probably haven’t succeeded to create a page that outperforms Amazon’s product page. In addition to creating a design that is not outperforming the others in the industry, you have also spent a lot of valuable resources that could have been spent on other UX efforts like the customer support (increased staffing, redesigning the ‘customer support’ section of your website, educating staff, etc.).

Here’s another way to look at it. If your UX budget is half of the UX leader’s budget, how can you possibly deliver better user experience for half the budget? In my mind, every company’s aim should be to deliver the highest quality experience possible within their budget. Understanding how to spend that UX budget is paramount. If the aim is wrong, you’ll spend it on the wrong things. This, in turn, allows other followers who allocate and spend their UX budget appropriately to outperform you.

How to be a follower

Broadly speaking, the follower strategy is founded on the fact that most companies can’t be the UX leader and instead should focus on delivering as good of a user experience as possible within their own constraints. The exact approach a company takes might vary – just because one approach works for one company doesn’t mean it will work for yours. One important thing to keep in mind is to try to make all choices align and work together. Here are some examples of what a company can do if they are a follower and want processes to align:

  • Limit introductions of products that require you to build up or change customers’ mental model. It is very difficult (and expensive) to do this. For example, let’s say you introduce a new, more secure money transfer method where users need to create an online ID before they can make any transactions. You will need to build up a new mental model for the customers and it may take a lot of effort in order to make sure each transaction is still is a seamless experience. However, if you come up with a clever way to create a new mental model, you can reap huge first mover advantages (for example, when Apple created iTunes and its App Store). It is critical for a follower to limit the amount of discovery projects in order to minimize risk. Only try leading the way when you’re positive that the idea is revolutionary enough to change an industry and you can reap large financial benefits.
  • For products or features the UX leader has already launched, the follower can cut out a lot of early exploratory design. For example, as leading banks introduced remote check deposit, followers did not have to design the experience from scratch. Instead, they could look at the UX leader and evaluate the experience the leader provided. From there they could try to address any potential issues found in the leader’s design. In the same way, if a grocery store receives a lot of complaints about long checkout lines, follower companies can look at the leader to see how they have solved the problem instead of starting from scratch.
  • By primarily copying elements/functionality/service protocol/etc. the follower can have more standardized processes. If you are creating a new ride sharing application, you might be better off to do some usability testing of the leaders (Uber, Lyft and Fasten). Take those learnings and create a new design. In these types of cases the user research team only needs to do usability tests and can be set up as a usability test factory. In the same way, the UX designer might be able to go straight to implementation and skip the prototyping phase. This results in both the researchers and the designers becoming very efficient with these specific methodologies and tools, making them highly productive. The drawback is that they might not be as well versed in other methodologies and tools. Because of the standardized and limited methodologies and tools used, the followers can develop a smooth on-boarding process for new UX hires to quickly get up to speed. Standardized processes and easy on-boarding also allows the company to hire more junior UX professionals since they can be taught the specific methods and tools quickly. All of this allows the company to run a cheaper, still very efficient UX group.

As mentioned earlier, these specifics might not work for your company. You might need to have a mix of follower and leader strategy where you primarily apply the follower strategy, but in some specific areas you aim to be the leader.

When to use the follower strategy

The first case where the application of the follower strategy might be useful is when the UX division is underfunded. This might happen in a centrally funded organization that has too many projects to support appropriately or in embedded teams when the UX professional have too many engineers/developers to support. This leaves the UX team with two options:

  1. Focus on a few specific projects/features where they can apply the UX leader processes and leave other less critical projects without support;
  2. Adopt a follower strategy in order to support as many projects as possible even if they are stretched thin over all projects.

The second case where it might be beneficial to adopt a follower strategy is when competitors are investing heavily into user experience and there is no way your company will ever be able to match the spending. In this case, it is better to adopt a follower strategy for the user experience since it is almost impossible to beat them.

The third case in which a follow strategy should be adopted is when your industry is not driven by the quality of the user experience. For example, if you are a coal production company or producing some other commodity. Your customers are large corporations and they will primarily purchase from companies that can provide the best price and deliver the goods on time. Sure, they will appreciate a rewarding customer experience in the form of you taking them to a football game, etc., but you don’t need to come up with new or innovative experiences. It is more important you are on par with other suppliers’ experience.

Dangers of being a follower

By assuming the follower role, you will continuously be behind when it comes to user experience. This, however, doesn’t equate to having a poor user experience. UX has a correlation to revenue so forsaking it completely would be a huge mistake.

You also need to evaluate the industry you are in. For some industries UX is much more important, so assuming a follower role can be very unfortunate. An obvious example is if you are a stand-up comedian – you are delivering an experience. That is the single most important thing you should focus on. Here you have to be a leader and create your own jokes. How fun would it be to go to a comedy show where the comedian only told old jokes you already heard? In the same vein, it is important for entertainment companies like Disney to be a leader.

Finally, your company also needs to have some other unique value proposition to the customers if you adopt the follower strategy. In other words, if you don’t beat the UX leader on anything, why should someone buy your product? The unique value proposition can be many different things, but one example is price and another is product quality.

Conclusion

A follower strategy can be very powerful for some companies. It allows the company to produce good UX with a small budget. However, the follower strategy is not for everyone so make sure you analyze the industry and company before deciding to apply it. It is also important that you do not confuse a follower strategy with providing a poor UX. It only means you might have a bit lesser UX than the leaders in the industry.

Can UX create a sustainable competitive advantage?

In my opinion, I don’t think sustainable competitive advantage really exists, so the answer is no. More accurately, it exists according to the following definition:

Sustainable competitive advantages are company assets, attributes, or abilities that are difficult to duplicate or exceed; and provide a superior or favorable long term position over competitors.”

How long is “long term”? From the evolution of economy is that the “long term” time frame is becoming shorter and shorter. According to Professor Richard Foster from Yale University, a company’s average time on the S&P500 is about 15 years today, in comparison to 67 years in the 1920s (http://www.bbc.com/news/business-16611040). This indicates the competitive advantages are sustained for a shorter period today than about 100 years ago. If the timeframe of competitive advantage becomes shorter and shorter, is any advantage really sustainable?

Keeping up with the future

The more that technology advances, the faster the competitors catch up. Therefore, the only way to create a competitive advantage is to evolve faster than the competitors. In other words, instead of relying on sustainable competitive advantage, innovate a newer advantage that the competitors will then need to catch up on.

Because of this, I don’t think UX, Design Thinking, Lean Start Up, or any other competency can generate “sustainable” competitive advantage. Instead, I believe these competencies can generate an advantage until competitors catch up with the competency. In the same way, enhancing the work environment by offering childcare in the facility, free food, or utilizing the 80/20 time model (where 80% of the employees’ time is used to work on projects assigned to the role and 20% of the time is dedicated for the employee to work on a project of their choosing) can lead to happier employees, with better work morale who will work harder and have a personal investment in the company’s growth. Still, these advantages may only be temporary, as competitors who apply the same models may have similar results.

UX is a part of today’s advantage

Forester research have done research showing that customer experience (basically the same as user experience according to Don Norman’s definition) is an important driver of companies’ revenue and can function as a determinant to revenue growth among companies in an industry. Based on this, I can say with confidence, that UX is an advantage for today and will be important in the future as well, but I cannot say a company investing in UX today will sustain that competitive edge in five years.

The company of the future

So how does a company make sure to evolve faster than their competitors? I believe it consists of three steps: extract ideas, nurture the ideas, and evaluate harshly.

Extract ideas
Promote and encourage ideas from where ever they may come. It doesn’t matter if it is the CEO or the intern, make sure the company can foster a culture that extracts and respects these ideas from everyone. In the same way, it does not matter if specific methodologies are used such as The Lean Startup, Design Thinking, or something else. Also, these ideas can be anything from a new revolutionary service or very basic, such as how the scrum meeting can be run more efficiently.

Nurture ideas
Whenever an idea emerges, make it a priority that the organization look into it. This should be done even if the idea is completely irrelevant to the core business and outside their comfort zone. An idea that is not entirely consistent with expectations of one company can be the beginning of a collaboration with another organization.

As the idea has emerged, make sure to protect it and nurture it so that there is a chance for it to evolve before critically evaluating it. I am not saying to keep a bad idea around for a long time, but allow it to live for a little. You don’t need to build anything, but make sure to talk to different employees about it and see how they think it can flourish into something stronger. At this point it can also be beneficial to detach the “founder” of the idea and to make sure it becomes an idea of the organization. This will help it grow and possibly morph into something better than what the “founder” had in mind. In addition, this will help evaluate the potential of the idea by assessing others’ interests in being a part of its growth.

Evaluate harshly
Once the idea has grown just enough to sustain some criticism, make sure to put it to the test and be brutal. At this point, you want to make sure you don’t waste resources on a poor or even mediocre idea. You want to be able to focus the maximum amount of resources to the great ideas. If the idea passes the “good on paper” state, the next step is to keep on evaluating it harshly throughout the project.
Begin to solve the most challenging task first. If you can’t solve the most challenging task, there is no reason to solve the others. As an example, back when the space race occurred, the most important thing they had to solve was to be able to launch something into space. It would not have mattered if they had been able to design a space suit if they could not get a rocket up into space.

Conclusion

User experience is currently providing a great competitive edge, but we don’t know for how long this will last. Because of this, it is important for companies to evolve faster than their competitors. My suggestion is to focusing on extracting ideas, nurturing them, and evaluating them harshly.

Just remember that sustainable competitive advantage does not really exist. Hence, my suggested approach (of extracting ideas, nurture ideas, and evaluate harshly) also needs to evolve to maintain a competitive edge in the future.

© David Juhlin and www.davidjuhlin.com, 2016

Transforming Interfaces

The first time you meet a person you’re likely to interact in a way that is appropriate for that setting. If that person is someone you meet on a regular basis, as time moves on you will come to interact in another (more evolved) way. For example, you might not shake hands anymore, conversations would be more personal, and you will be more likely to disagree with the person and give constructive criticism. In other words, your interactions have evolved as you have gotten to know each other better. What if interfaces of systems could do the same?

The ideal interface for a beginner and an expert user might be very different. The most common design principle is to create a simplified, stripped down version for the beginners, and then another version with more complex features such as advanced search for the experts. This solution provides a binary interface for either beginner or expert.

The person-to-person interaction on the other hand is not binary; it is a gradual transformation over time. Is there a way we can create a design that gradually transforms over time to accommodate all of these intermediate stages? In this blog I am going to provide a few thoughts on how we could think about interface design in a different way.

Transformation from beginner to expert

Some of the differences between beginner and expert users include:

  1. Beginners need more prominent navigation so they don’t get lost in the system. As they use the system and progress towards experts, they will want more focus on the content so that the navigation doesn’t need to be as prominent once the users learned the system.
  2. Beginners don’t use all the features of the system and want unused features out of their way to decrease clutter. As they learn more about the system, they’ll want more features upfront and will no longer consider the experience as cluttered.
  3. Beginners want to start exploring the system, as familiarity increases, they will be more prepared to customize it to their liking.
  4. Beginners need the interface to limit the amount of data provided. Later on, they will want more data, and experts constantly asks for more information.
  5. Beginners need basic explanations and advice, but as the user becomes more skilled they need less advice. Still, when highly skilled users do need advice, they are seeking more in depth explanations or suggestions about how to use the system more efficiently.

Transformation

Think about your favorite shoes. You’ll notice they don’t look like they did when you first bought them, but you likely never noticed how they changed from day to day. In the same way, users will not notice small and incremental changes over an extended amount of time on the interface. Therefore, by slowly moving an element 1 pixel at a time, it would be possible to slowly transform a system from the beginner interface to the expert interface as users progress in their learning. This progressive change would allow the system to be user friendly to beginners in their initial interactions with the product and continue to support them in their progression towards becoming expert users.

Designs

With this in mind, let’s look back at the first two differences between beginners and experts I listed above. How might we be able to create transforming designs that support both beginner and expert user groups as well as the stages in-between?

Obvious navigation is more important than screen real estate for beginners: The system can start up with a large and clear navigation structure that later on becomes smaller and less prominent. In this example I have provided 4 snapshots of a transformation of the navigation. It starts out with a clear structure to the user so she or he can easily find everything.

The site starts with normal navigation links across the top of the page

Initially, the system has a very clear structure for the navigation to support beginners.

As the transformation progresses the navigation bar becomes smaller and splits up the navigation items into a left (Stocks, Bonds, Portfolio, Benchmarks) and right section (Settings, Profile).

The navigation in the top has started to become split up in two sectoins with space in between each other.

The navigation has become smaller and split up in a left and right side.

In a much later stage, the “settings” and “profile” can be hidden under the “username”. This transition will be more noticeable to the user. Since both “settings” and “profile” were located close to the ”username”, users are more likely to start their search around that area. In addition, it would be beneficial to make the ”username” more prominent as this hiding takes place. The reason for making it more noticeable is to make sure users find this collapsed menu.

The settings and user name is not visible anymore and the username is larger in size . there is also a small arrow next to the username.

The “settings” and “profile” has been moved under the “username”.

In the final stage, the username has become smaller and less prominent to allow users to focus on more important tasks.

In the final stage, the navigation is now smaller again to allow more space for content.

The username is now smaller and less prominent.

Hide features for new users: The system can initially have some features hidden and later on display more as the user becomes more experienced with the system. In this transformation the system initially only shows some features and keeps the rest hidden. As the user progresses in their skills, more features become visible. In the final state, all features are visible to the user.

Picture of a software with only a few tools visible to the user.

Initially the system only displays some tools to the user.

The same software now displays more tools upfront to the user.

As the user becomes more familiar the system shows more tools by default.

The Software now displays all tools to the user.

Finally, all tools are displayed to user.

The benefit of this transformation is that the user will learn to use the most frequent features first without becoming overwhelmed. Once they are experts, all the features are then made available and are easily accessible at all times. For these type of tools, the system might also want to start off with labels under each icon that later transform into “on hover” labels/tool tips.

Challenges

As with all new design ideas there will be challenges to overcome. Some of these challenges include:

  1. How will we determine the users’ beginner/expertise level? Should we consider everyone a beginner as they start out or could they potentially have some learning from previous systems?
  2. How fast should the transformation happen? Is one pixel movement for each time they use the system too slow/fast?
  3. How will we account for individuality? Some users learn faster than others. Does it mean we need to have some smarter algorithm making the transformation?
  4. Are there instances where transformational interfaces cause more harm than good?

Conclusions

For me, the question is not “will transformational interfaces be a part of the future?”, instead the question is “in what way will transformational interfaces be implemented successfully?”

There are two areas where I think this transformational design will begin to emerge. One of the areas includes expert systems such as the software commonly used by financial advisors. Another area will be semi frequently used interfaces such as online banking, Netflix, and infotainments in vehicles. The power of transformational interfaces is how they can support beginners, experts, and all stages in-between in a similar way a human evolves and adjusts to interpersonal interactions.

© David Juhlin and www.davidjuhlin.com, 2016

Agile user experience challenges

Bringing user experience into an agile development process can be challenging, and at this point there is still no cookie cutter formula for implementing it successfully. It is very tempting to believe this formula exists, especially when attending a conference and some presenters speak about how they successfully incorporated UX into the agile process. The reality of integrating user experience in to an agile development process is challenging and it is not done overnight. In this post, there are a few thoughts to consider.

Diana DeMarco Brown’s article “Five Agile UX Myths” posted in Journal of Usability Studies (http://uxpajournal.org/five-agile-ux-myths/) highlights many important points. In my opinion, the most important point was how there are multiple ways to do agile UX and just because the “one sprint ahead” works for one organization, it may not work for others. I think the best thing to do is to gain inspiration from other organizations, and then try different approaches to find out which way works best for your unique situation. To make the transition successful it can be good to be prepared for different issues and problems that may arise. Here are my top 3 things to keep in mind:

  1. UX sprints works fundamentally different than development sprints
  2. Upfront work is important for both UX and developers
  3. User research can still be done even if you move at the speed of light

UX sprints work differently

Sophia Voychehovski, brings up an important point in her UX week 2013 presentation (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bbPTbN4Q_pw). Her point is that development teams normally split their work into sprints according to functionality (see picture to left), while UX sprints usually cut across functionalities as the fidelity of the design improves with each iteration (picture to the right).

Image showing how development sprints are split into features while UX sprints are split into fidelity level

The reason for this mismatch is that design is approached holistically to make sure the different elements fit with one another across different areas of the design. If the design process is forced to work in development sprints, inconsistencies and suboptimal interactions can occur between different parts of the system. This could cause inconsistency, if one feature might be optimized for the first function, and later on as the next functionality is built, some parts need to be reused (to maintain consistency). However, to support both functionalities the feature may need to be tweaked a bit. Now that tweak has to be in the backlog (on a “to-do” list) of changes for the first functionality. As the process goes on, the backlog will grow even more.

One way to overcome this issue is to allow designers enough time in the beginning of the project to get a holistic view of the system (can be low fidelity). Once they have the overview of the system they can be much more effective working in the developer sprints and most likely decrease the backlog.

Upfront work is important

Many agile projects don’t want any upfront work since that is the “waterfall method” (which is the devil himself). Once the project starts the team has some planning time to create an overview of the project and the product they are creating. The UX project also needs this planning time, the difference is that the UX project often needs a longer planning and exploratory phase than the development team. Unfortunately, most of the time everything has to happen according to the development team’s timeline, so the UX team is super rushed and may not have enough time to prepare and do proper user research.

With incremental improvements of an old system this issue may not be as severe. If only minor tweaks are required, the UX designers already have a holistic view and can therefore jump right in to the development sprints with ease. So, the primary factor for determining the magnitude of this issue is how drastically the system will change.

One client I worked with was both the main UX person in the project as well as the project manager. His general approach was to create a high level design and discuss it with his development counterpart, before a project kicks off. This ensured that they both got a clear estimate of the development possibilities and the effort required for the project. Once they were done with this general planning, they took it back to management for approval of the project. As they presented the project they were able to provide more accurate estimates. (It can be hard to work in this method if you have internal billing, because if the project is not approved no one will pay for the upfront work).

As the project kicks off, he did not disclose to the rest of the team he had already created an overview of the design. Instead, they only discussed use cases and potential issues. He purposely stayed away from discussing solutions, since he did not want the engineers to start focusing on technologies and lock themselves into narrow thinking. After they all seemed to agree about use cases, issues, and features to include, he revealed the design and asked what changes would need to be made to deliver what they discussed. After the team made tweaks, they all had a high level overview of the system. As they started to work in their sprint, everyone understood how the different parts would come together and be presented to the end users in a cohesive way. This method also helps facilitate discussion between developers and UX professionals and enables the developers to provide good interaction ideas and be a valuable asset in the UX process.

Another company handled the upfront work in a completely different way. They included the developers in the upfront UX work. This company worked in tight teams so during the research and design phase, the developers worked alongside the UX lead and became her assistant. This allowed the developers to help develop test scripts, design concepts, etc. and once it was completed they set off to start implementing the new solution. This way of working has many benefits. For example, the developers have a better understanding of the users, they need less clarification regarding the design, and they will have an easier time communicating if any changes are needed.

User research can still be done

Some UX designers who are working in sprints may feel as if they don’t have time for everything. They need to develop designs for the next sprint at the same time as they are answering questions and making sure the current sprint’s design is implemented correctly. Unfortunately, since they don’t have enough time, they sometimes have to sacrifice the inclusion of the user (interviews, usability tests, surveys, etc.).

The best way to solve this issue would be to split up the workload and have one UX designer and one UX researcher. The researcher can set up all research, conduct the research and debrief the designer (or the whole team) in the end. If in-person research is conducted, the key thing to keep in mind is that the researcher will need to plan and schedule participants before they know exactly what the state of the design artifact will be available.

Another solution is to rely heavily on online tools and conduct all research online. Some benefits of online research include rapid turnaround time for participant recruitment, and many of the tools provide good analysis capabilities. If online tools are the solution, make sure to still include a final test, which is conducted in-person. It is important to conduct the final in-person test because many of the panels consist of professional test takers, who tend to be more computer-savvy and overly positive toward system/product, which could skew your research.

Final words

Independent of how you are planning to implement agile UX in the workplace, expect the need to iterate on the process since it will not be perfect from the start. It is also important to try different methods and critically evaluate what worked and what did not work, and how you can improve the process of becoming more agile.

© David Juhlin and www.davidjuhlin.com, 2016

Outsourcing vs. in-house

In general, there is a trend among many companies to outsource more work, but user experience seems to go against this trend. Instead, companies are bringing more UX in-house. Why is user experience brought in-house, while other functions are outsourced? In this article I’ll try to highlight a few key factors companies consider when making these decisions.

How important is user experience?

The basic principle in deciding if a function should be outsourced or not depends on how important the competency is in order for the business to stay competitive. The more important functions should be kept in-house, while the less important functions should be outsourced. This competitive focus can be broken down into two factors:

  1. How important is user experience in the industry? If UX is not that important in the industry, it might be a good idea to consider outsourcing.
  2. If UX is important in the industry, is your company the leader? If you are the leader, you should consider keeping the UX in-house.

The simple reason for keeping functions with superior knowledge/processes in-house is that you want to make sure this knowledge does not leak out to competitors so you maintain your competitive edge. If you outsource, there is a risk some knowledge is being transferred to others.

For example, Ecco produces and sells shoes. One of the core principles of the company is their focus on high quality. Because of that, they keep their superior leather production (upper part of the shoe) and high pressure molding technique (to produce the bottom of the shoe) in-house. If they outsource these to a supplier, Ecco would have to train the suppliers to be able to produce at their quality level. Once the suppliers learn this higher standard of production, how are they supposed to work with other shoe companies (one supplier often produces shoes for many different brands)? Should they somehow “forget” the better methods? This is very unlikely. Therefore, outsourcing these processes to a supplier would result in Ecco’s superior processes leaking out to the competitors. On the other hand, Ecco does not have any special competencies when it comes to producing other types of shoes such as flip-flops, so it would make perfect sense to outsource these. The supplier may have more competency and gain new knowledge as they work with multiple shoe companies.

So, if your company, for example, has built up superior procedures around ideation, make sure you keep it tight to your company. On the other hand, if you don’t have any specific processes around validation, make sure you outsource it to gain high quality results from consultants.

Even if UX is not that important in your industry or your company is not the UX leader in the industry, there are circumstances where you should still keep UX in-house. An example is if your company has built up a strategy where you copy best practices from the UX leaders in the industry. By taking this approach, the company has probably created unique processes that efficiently copy these best practices. Therefore, the company should make sure other competitors using the follower strategy do not gain access to this competitive knowledge.

Other factors

Apart from this main high-level approach, here are some other factors to consider:

  • What is the demand? If there is a variable demand, it might be better to outsource the activity so you transfer risks associated with idle capacity. For example, if your business usually has a variable demand of user experience resources due to project schedules etc. it might be a good idea to outsource.
  • Can pooling create benefits? If you and other companies outsource, the supplier might be able to gain cost advantages by implementing large scale operations. For example, Android is used on multiple smart phones models.
  • Can quality be maintained? If your company has created high quality standards, it can be hard for the company with which you choose to outsource to maintain them. For example, if you outsource the design, they might not include the sufficient validation steps throughout the process in order to cut costs.
  • What is in the future? If you have it in-house and decide to outsource, will you ever need to bring it back in-house? For example, if you decide to outsource design, you might let some of your designers go. If you then later on decide to bring the design back in-house it might be difficult to build up this capability again.
  • Are your strategic goals to become a leader in UX? If you want to be a leader, you should keep the UX in-house so you can build up a superior competency.
  • Does your current UX division have the necessary skills? If they don’t have the skills and it is only a one-off project, you might want to outsource it. If it on the other hand is something that is recurring, it would probably be better to acquire this skill.

Conclusion

So why is UX going against the trend? I believe it is because more and more companies understand how important UX is to stay competitive. This leads to inclusion of UX in more projects, which in turn increases the demand of UX in the organization. Therefore, even if there would be a variable demand of UX in the organization, the overall demand is growing, so no UX person is ever without work or the potential to take on additional UX work. In addition, it is hard to find cost savings since pooling is rarely an option, largely due to each company wanting to have their unique look and feel that correlates with their brand.

It might be beneficial at times to outsource UX, especially if there are one-off projects and no competency exist in-house, or if specialized competency is needed in a project. If you do outsource, it is important to still have knowledge in-house to make sure you are able to evaluate the suppliers and the quality of their deliveries.

© David Juhlin and www.davidjuhlin.com, 2016

Benefits of the coffee break

The work day for most companies in Sweden is between 8am to 5pm (9 hours), but they actually only work for 8 hours. The breakdown of a day often looks something like this:

8:00-10:00 am: work
10:00-10:15 am: coffee break
10:15 am-12:00pm: work
12:00-12:30 pm: Lunch
12:30-3:00pm: work
3:00-3:15 pm: coffee break
3:15-5:00pm work

To some this might seem like an odd practice with a coffee break especially at predetermined times. Some questions that tend to pop up are:

  • If they only work 8 hours, how can they stay competitive?
  • If they only need to work 8 hours, why don’t they work from 9am – 5 pm and work while they eat so they can sleep one more hour (or leave one hour early)?

In this post, I am going to try to explain the magic behind the coffee break.

Dual benefits

The many benefits of the coffee break can be grouped in to two categories; Efficiency and Well-being. To understand the dual benefit, it is important to understand we, Swedes, don’t sit in front of our computers/smart phones and drink coffee by ourselves. The coffee break is a social gathering where many employees sit together at the same table, where there is an informal agenda consisting of a mix between work and leisure discussion.

Efficiency benefits

As employees meet for the break they usually have work on top of their mind. This often results in the first part of the break is being dedicated to work discussions. During this initial time you often hear someone asking a work related question or updating someone about their progress. It is kind of a mini-scrum session. Since there are 2 coffee breaks and one lunch break the employees are actually engaging in 3 mini-scrum sessions throughout the day!

The three main efficiency benefits of the coffee break are:

  • Less interruptions in the work day. Since you meet everyone at specific times, you can save up all your questions or comments for the break and don’t need to disturb them during “regular work.”
  • It is an ideal place for knowledge transfer. All your experts are gathered there with junior employees, and if one of the experts receives a question, others are listening in to the conversation and can either learn or add value to the conversation.
  • The brain has a chance to reboot. The break allows employees to gain new energy so when they go back to their “regular work” they can be more efficient.

Well-being

After all the work stuff has been discussed, the conversation naturally slides in to talking about personal life. These conversations can vary a lot, and I think you’d be surprised over the intimacy and details employees know about each other’s lives. The breaks allow you to get to know your coworkers as friends in a similar way as when you grab drinks after work with them. The difference is that everyone has the ability to join the coffee break, while some might not be able to or want to go for a drink after work (family obligations, don’t drink alcohol, etc.).

The benefit of getting to know your coworkers is tremendous. When you understand how they think and what makes them tick, you’ll have greater empathy towards their situation. Imagine this: one of your coworkers always proposes remote testing and you two are supposed to work together in the next project. As always, he proposes remote testing for the project. You on the other hand think it is completely wrong, and in this specific study it is imperative the research is conducted in person. If you don’t know the other person as well, you might present a multitude of arguments for conducting it in person, but your colleague will not budge. What are you to make of this? Is he just an idiot?

If you on the other hand knew this person well, he might have felt comfortable enough to tell you he is afraid of flying (unless you already knew it). With this information, you can tackle the situation in a completely different way. His desire for remote testing has nothing to do with selecting the best methodology, it has to do with his emotions. In this case you might be able to say something like “I think we really need to do in person testing, but I can do the travel and you can support from here” because he felt comfortable enough to share his fears with you knowing they would fall on the ears of a trusted colleague.

When you know someone well, it allows you both to have more open conversations, which will help you understand each other from the other’s perspective, and allows you to emphasize with each other. This in turn will build trust, which produces more open conversations, and the prosperous circle continuous. This prosperous circle will often lead to strong relationships that becomes close friendships.

In addition to getting to know each other better, the coffee breaks also help new employees become a part of the group. During the break, new employees can sit and listen to the conversation between others in the group and thereby get to know more about them without having to interview every person.

Social interactions are linked to happiness, in turn, producing another benefit. Thereby, the coffee breaks actually help you in foster a happier work place where employees want to work.

Efficiency from well-being

There are also efficiency benefits that stems from the social side of the coffee break. The first one is the increased productivity in teams. If the employees already know each other (even if they have never worked together on a project), they will have moved further along in the stages of team formation and might be able to go through the storming process faster.

Employee retention is another efficiency benefit of the coffee breaks that stems from the social aspect. Employees that wake up in the morning and are excited about going to work, because it includes that element of fun and they get to see colleagues they regard as friends, are less likely to leave the company.

Conclusion

The coffee break, if done correctly, increases both efficiency and well-being for employees. The reason for the efficiency benefits is that the employees can work 8 hours productively without being interrupted, but can still get questions answered by the experts and learn from their peers and leaders. In addition, the social benefits also influence the efficiency.

So why don’t employees just work through the lunch and the coffee breaks and finish one hour earlier? It is because of the social aspect of it. Humans want personal contact and we want connections with each other. Of course, there are some people that will prefer to work over the breaks, but the vast majority will want to join if they notice the camaraderie that comes from the breaks– everyone else laughing together and having fun can be a huge motivator for the team.

I hope more companies embrace the coffee break as something beneficial that will enhance their organizations performance and employee morale.

© David Juhlin and www.davidjuhlin.com, 2016

Inside-out vs. outside-in strategy

A company’s strategy can be driven either by internal or external factors. Even though it usually consists of a mix, the strategy usually tends to put more focus on one than the other. The model I use primarily focuses on the three lower levels in my Levels of UX Strategies framework: Company, UX division and project.

inside out_outside in_V2

Inside-out companies

These companies usually look at their internal resources and capabilities then try to find a way to leverage them to reach their business goals. The analysis they use can be Porter’s five forces, SWOT, etc. and from these form a strategy that leverages their strengths and downplays their weaknesses. As they go through analysis they might also identify areas of improvement in order to execute their desired strategy.

For example, a company might create a never-before-seen chemical composition. After discovering it, they have to come up with a utilization of this material in order to monetize it. University spinoffs are a good example of this type of company.

Outside-in companies

Outside-in companies on the other hand start by trying to identify what problems the customers have, then try to figure out how to solve it. After conducting marketing/user research, they might conclude that their customers want a certain product or service to fulfill their needs. Then they try to figure out how they can deliver that product or service to their customers. They might also be looking at competitors and world events that might provide ideas of how to better serve their customers.

For example, Amazon has realized free shipping and rapid delivery are important to customers, so they are continuously trying to improve the delivery time while keeping shipping costs low. Amazon did not have experience with alternative shipping methods such as drones, but they realized it would be a crucial step to deliver packages rapidly so they acquired this competency to satisfy their customers.

Basically, an outside-in company looks for ideas outside of the company, while inside-out companies look within the company.

Considerations at the company level

It might be easy to jump to the conclusion that it is better to be an outside-in company, but don’t be too quick to judge. In the events when customers don’t know what they want, the outside-in company might make the wrong conclusions. For example, would a hotel customer have verbalized they wanted a service such as Airbnb? Or would the cell phone customers have told Apple they wanted Appstore before it was built? These type of innovations usually have to come from ides within the company (or requires an organization with a very high design thinking maturity).

You can also run in to the problem with conflicting “wants” from customers. For example, if Southwest airlines finds out that passengers want to be served lobster on their flights, should they start to serve the lobster? It is true that the customers want it, but they also want a cheap flight. Since Southwest knows their cheap flights are of more value to customers than gourmet meals, the lobster is a “want” they should ignore.

As you can see, it is extremely important for outside-in companies to interpret the research accurately and to understand customers’ underlying desires and how they stack up against each other. This is a very hard task and giants such as Coca Cola made a tremendous fail when they introduced “New Coke”.

I can’t say that one or the other strategic choice is better than the other, but the important thing is that the mix blends well with other strategic decisions that the company makes.
The reason it is important to understand if the company is an inside-out or an outside-in is because it will influence the role of UX within the company. For the companies leaning towards an outside-in strategy, UX can take a more central role and bring new insights and ideas that can lead to initiation of new projects. On the other hand, companies that lean towards an inside-out strategy, the UX role is more as a supportive function that has a limited ability to drive change. Also, within the inside-out company, it might be hard to sell research or design that is based on insights gained from competitors since the culture are more focused on the internal parts of the company.

UX Division

When looking at the inside-out/outside-in scale for the UX division level, it is more about how the UX processes within the division are set up. An inside-out division has more of a focus on building their own methodologies for design and research, while the outside-in company have more of an inclination to search outside the company for inspiration of methodologies.

As an example, let’s say a UX division realizes they need to work in a more agile way. The inside-out division would look inside the company and might notice the developers are using scrum (an agile development method) and then decide to send some staff members to scrum training. This training might even be provided internally from someone in the development team.

On the other hand, the outside-in UX division might send a person to a conference in order to learn how other UX divisions successfully implemented agile methods. Afterwards, they decide if they should use scrum or some other agile method. Once they decide on the method, they can send staff off to third-party training.

In this example, the inside-out division would most likely implement something that works well when collaborating with developers and other divisions in the company, but might not be as efficient within the UX division. The outside-in division would instead find a method that works very well internally, but might not be as efficient when collaborating with other divisions in the company.

Further on, since the inside-out division has a tendency to build their own methodologies, they also tend to have well established processes and methods they rely on. The benefit is a more streamlined process that better predict time estimates. It will also be easier to communicate with other stakeholders that only know the very basics of UX. The outside-in UX divisions on the other hand, tend to allow designers and researchers more freedom in selecting methods and procedures. The benefit of more freedom is that designers and researchers can apply more appropriate methods if it is required.

The strategic choice between inside-out or outside-in will have an impact on the staffing of the UX division. The outside-in companies need more of the “A-type” individuals. Their employees need to be self-motivated, taking initiative, and have a broad skill set so they can apply the right methodologies for different situations. The inside-out company can have more junior employees as well as more of the B and C individuals that might not have enough self-motivation to expand their knowledge on their spare time. The reason the inside-out companies can get away with more junior employees is because they can lean on the processes to support them in their role. This result in the inside-out division being able to operate with a lower cost, not just from a salary perspective, but also since they train employees internally and might not have to send staff off to learn skills unfamiliar to the company.

An inside-out UX division is able to operate on a lower budget. It tries to maximize the value delivered through standardized procedures at the same time as keeping the cost down. Outside-in divisions can often deliver higher quality work for an additional cost. The decision regarding the mix of inside-out and outside-in strategy the UX division consist of depends on the company’s setup and what can provide the highest net benefit for the company. In other words, the UX division should strive for the mix that provide the greatest gap between the additional value created and the cost.

UX Projects

Let’s face it, most UX projects (should) involve users to some extent so it is easy to think of them as outside-in projects where knowledge is gained from participants outside the company. However, UX projects also have inside-out attributes to them. Consider this example. An online company is concerned why their shopping cart abandonment rate is high. Therefore they initiate a project that will investigate this. A UX researcher investigates it and finds out their shipping time is too long.

Another company might launch a project with the goal to see how they can improve the experience for their customers. After the UX researcher has done some investigation they find out that the customers think their delivery times are unacceptable. This example is more of an outside-in project than the first company’s project since this one starts at the user, while the first one starts from the business analytics.

So why does it matter where on the inside-out/outside-in scale the project falls? I would say that it has to do with funding. A project based on internal data (more inside-out) and a concrete problem to solve is more likely to be funded since it is easier to make a business case and gain stakeholder buy-in. I.e. it is clearer what the return of investment will be. When selling the more outside-in projects (more exploratory), the business sponsors (or someone else), whose budget it is coming from, are taking a larger risk than if they invest in a project with a narrow focus. If exploratory studies are important to the organization, one way to circumvent this tendency (to pick the safer projects) would be to provide the UX division with a budget to conduct their own exploratory projects.

Conclusion

The inside-out vs. outside-in framework is very simplified, yet all companies fall somewhere between these two extremes. Even though the framework is simple, it is worth considering where your company/UX division/projects fall and how this impacts your company.

© David Juhlin and www.davidjuhlin.com, 2016

Levels of UX strategies

UX strategies exist in many different levels and here I have tried to break it down to a framework that I find useful. Even if some of the levels overlap to some degree, there are the five main levels: Global, Industry, Company, UX Division, and Project.

Graphic representation of the 5 levels of US strategy. The 5 levels has layers similar to an onion. The furthest out is the Global level, followed by the Industry level, thereafter comes the Company level and the UX division level. Finally the furthest in is the project level.

UX strategy at the global level

On this level we need to consider how UX can impact the entire industry by interacting with other industries. For example, if the grocery store industry makes it easier for farmers to sell their crops to stores through some online system, will more farmers sell to the grocery stores instead of going to the farmers markets? This type of change would most likely increase the number of suppliers and thereby also increase the competition among suppliers, which in turn would benefit the grocery store industry. On the other hand, if all grocery stores provide this system, large farmers may start to use the tool to compare which grocery store would pay the highest price. This will result in unwanted competition in the industry that benefits the farm industry instead.

It is therefore important to understand how your company’s initiatives might change the entire industry if competitors implement the same system. If you don’t consider this level, you might unintentionally make the industry worse off in the long run. It is perfectly fine to make this type of decision that makes the industry worse off, as long as it is a part of the overall strategy and has been planned for.

UX strategy at the industry level

At this level it is important to analyze the competitor landscape and how your company stands in comparison to them. Are you providing a premium product or are you primarily going for lower costs? For example, if you manufacture Mercedes, you might need to spend more on the infotainment system than Dodge. Another important factor here is also to understand if UX is really a differentiating factor. For example, in the coal manufacturing industry, will a better experience on the website really be beneficial?

The reason you need to think about UX strategies on this level is that you don’t want to waste your company’s resources on UX when it actually isn’t that important. What if one of the coal companies would spend a lot of resources to improve their website, when sales primarily is generated through representatives? Would it not have been better to invest in providing training for their representatives or alternatively hire another representative?

UX strategies on the company level

After understanding external factors such as industry effects and your position in the competitive landscape, you are now able to start looking inside your company. At this level, you would be looking at the company’s structure. For example, should the company have an internal UX division or primarily outsource the UX activities?

This is important because you want to make sure the structure inside the company is set up to support the overarching goals. If the UX is critical for the company’s success, but the website design was outsourced. It will be hard to make smaller tweaks and continuous improvements.

UX strategies on the UX division level

The UX division level can be referred to as a functional level in other strategic frameworks. Since we are focusing on UX, I am only looking at that specific function in the company therefore labeled the UX division. At this level you need to analyze things such as processes. For example, should the researchers only be included in the end to test the design? If you have an outsource strategy, this might be enough since the company you outsource the design to should do the upfront research. Another area of consideration should be your staffing. Do you have the right people to fulfill the planned strategy?

The reason this is important is because you need to be able to execute the strategies that you set up. If the company’s direction is to be the UX leader in the industry and you only have designers or only have researchers on your team, this may present great challenges for your strategy.

UX strategy at the project level

In this model, the lowest level is the project level. Sometimes the projects are linked together into a larger project and sometime they are stand alone. This is how UX practitioner traditionally thinks about UX strategy. We try to understand the business goals and the users’ goals, and then create a UX road map. Many times the roadmap needs to be flexible, within limitations, since the project is rarely as linear as you might want. For example, you may do some initial information architecture research and you struggle to get it right (users can’t find information for a critical business goal). This might force the team to spend more time on the information architecture. In turn, this results in not being able to fit the four planned moderated usability tests due to time and/or budget. This could lead to either cuting it down to three moderated tests or conducting two unmoderated tests and two moderated.

It is important to understand UX at this level in order to maximize the UX for each project even though there are constraints (budget, time, resources, etc.). If the company can excel at this level they are off to a good start. They will be able to produce a better UX than expected of a company with similar UX spending.

© David Juhlin and www.davidjuhlin.com, 2016

Know the company’s position in the marketplace before devising a UX strategy

There is not one universal UX strategy that is completely effective for every company. In fact, all businesses must carefully consider how to implement a proper UX strategy around their business and industry. Therefore it is imperative the UX strategy starts on a high level and take the overall business strategy in to consideration.

As the UX strategy is being developed, some of the really important questions that need to be addressed include:
• How important is UX to our company?
• How can we strategically position our UX, given our role in the marketplace?
• Do we have the necessary resources to build out the selected UX capabilities?

Industry can be a major determinant of the level of user experience needed. Online retailers, for instance, would likely want to consider a higher level of spending in UX since their online presence is the main vehicle for interacting with their customers. A local electrician, on the other hand, typically don’t need great UX since they often secure most of their work through referrals from existing clients and sites like Angie’s List. For the handyman, it’s better to focus on the in-person customer experience than creating a hearty digital user experience.

Furthermore, different UX needs may exist for companies within an industry segment. For example, it may be more important for Uber to have good UX than for yellow cabs since Uber relies on in-app sales whereas yellow cabs simply pick people up off the street, with no online interaction.

This is not to say that developing a strong UX is not important for companies, rather that it’s a matter of allocating resources appropriately based on the company’s core competences and position in the marketplace. I believe that many companies underspend on UX as a whole, but even more importantly, they are spending money on UX resources inefficiently because they don’t understand how the UX strategy fits into the larger picture.

A major differentiator for McDonalds is its ability to find locations for new restaurants – a capability they have built up over time. Burger King, on the other hand, tends to follow McDonalds’ lead and expands to locations nearby new McDonalds spots. While there are drawbacks to Burger King piggybacking off of McDonalds’ strategic decisions, they can also enjoy the benefits of freeing up resources and spend elsewhere. Being a follower is not always a bad strategy, if the company can focus their efforts in another business area. In addition, it requires thoughtful consideration about how the UX strategy and team is developed in the company to leverage their position in the marketplace.

For some companies, this means they should abandon their attempts of pushing the boundaries of designs and accepting a follower role. Still we see many companies contracting design agencies to create something “new” and “better” than much larger competitors. For me, this is a puzzling proposition. A company with one-tenth the market cap as Amazon accepts the reality that they would be facing a large uphill battle in replicating Amazon’s delivery and distribution system, but for some reason, with UX, they still seem to believe they can become industry leaders.

Of course, for smaller company with big UX aspirations, there are tactics that can optimize UX spends and build up the necessary capabilities. For those looking to be leaders, such tactics may include properly assessing budgetary allowances for exploratory research and constantly iterating off prior designs through consistent user experience testing. Research is also important for those not seeking to become industry leaders in UX, only that these research efforts may want to start by looking at the UX of high-powered websites in order to understand which elements works best and which do not.

With a better understanding of their place in the market, companies can optimize a vision for their UX strategies. After determining whether to be a UX leader or follower, other things such as budgetary spending and team compositions can be considered.

© David Juhlin and www.davidjuhlin.com, 2016

5 participants is not enough

Many UX experts and gurus have argued that feedback from 5 participants is sufficient for evaluating usability. I think that this may have been true in the past but nowadays, given the changing demographics of tech users, at least 10 participants are usually required for meaningful results. There are many factors that influence the number of participants required for a study and I will try to present my view of these considerations.

5 people standing

The basic starting point is to have at least 3 participants from each unique user group for each task. I think 3 participants is a bit on the low side and my preference is to have at least 4, but ideally 5 participants. Since there may be unforeseen events, all 5 participants may not show up. There are two options for how to get at least 5 participants to show up for your study. The first one is to schedule a standby participant. This is a person who shows up to the testing and is only asked to participate if another participant doesn’t show up. The problem is that this person often has to arrive and wait for several hours. Once you know that you have sufficient participants he is dismissed, but it’s expensive to compensate for this extended time.

The other option is to over-recruit. This means that you schedule 6-7 participants and anticipate that some participants won’t show up. This still tacks on an extra cost, but it is cheaper than having standby participants. The recruit vendors I have been working with at the User Experience Center have a show-up rate (percentage of participants who come to the session) of over 90%. This means that if we schedule 6 participants the probability of at least 5 showing up is roughly 88% (and to get at least 4 to show up it’s approximately 98%). Therefore, scheduling 6 participants provides for the best result.

Now, I also stated “each unique user group to go through each task” so let’s talk about user groups. If a significant difference is expected between user groups it is necessary to recruit 6 participants for each of those groups. If the system is being used by both power users and less frequent users, for example, it is likely they will interact with it differently. Power users tend to rely more on recognition and learned sequences so they are more likely to be able to handle having a lot of information on the same screen as well as having all of the menu options in one large mega menu. Less frequent users, on the other hand, need more assisted direction, so if all the information is cluttered on the same screen they may have a harder time locating what they need. This means that to capture the unique experiences of these two groups, you’d need to double the number of participants for the test.

Another thing to consider when deciding participant count for user groups is age. I have observed over and over again that there is a significant difference between older (roughly around 55 and above) and younger (roughly under 30) study participants. One example is that almost all young participants understand the ‘hamburger menu’ in a tablet application, while approximately 25% of the older population don’t even find the navigation and often think the three lines are part of the logo. During the early ages of the Internet when the common approach was to schedule 5 participants (to have at least 3 show up), all tech savvy people were essentially in the same age bracket. Therefore, it wasn’t necessary (or possible!) to have a cross section of ages represented in the study. Besides familiarity with technology, we also need to consider another factor—vision decreases with age (The importance of accessibility).

Furthermore, the number of participants depends on the scope of the system that will be covered in testing. The more areas that are tested, the more tasks will need to be performed. If there are many tasks, the first thing to do is to increase session length, but I advise against a session longer than 90 minutes since the participant will suffer from fatigue. If all tasks can’t fit in a 90 minute session, one solution is to start to rotate tasks. If the tasks are rotated (each participant performs a randomized set of 10 out of 15 tasks, for example) it is necessary to increase the number of participants since it is desirable to have at least 4-5 participants go through each of the tasks.

Lastly, keep in mind how many platforms are being tested. If there are a few tasks on each platform, it may be possible to allow the same participant to test all the different platforms; otherwise the number of participants will need to be increased.

So far I have primarily discussed this from a “milestone test” point of view (final testing before moving over to the next phase of the design). But there is another type of testing that I call the “sanity check”. The sanity check is a quick test that designers should be doing as they design the interface. These can be conducted with 3 participants and can be done very cheaply though online testing (if there is no confidential information). These sanity checks are for the designer to make sure there aren’t any major issues while also working in a ‘lean’ way.

There are other factors to consider as well (budget, combinations of user groups, etc.), but if these basics are kept in mind the researcher should be in pretty good shape. In summary, most “milestone tests” should schedule at least 12 participants (unless the product only targets one user group), while a “sanity check” can be conducted with as few as 3 participants.

© David Juhlin and www.davidjuhlin.com, 2015