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.

© David Juhlin and www.davidjuhlin.com, 2016

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