Tis the season for annual predictions in the technology industry. I choose to ignore them, and you should too.
The 2015 roadmap for the kind of technologies such articles cover – smartphones and software and gadgets – was already defined 6 to 12 months ago. Those who know what’s coming aren’t at liberty to tell and those who don’t, by definition, are limited by their ignorance.
I’d rather think ahead to tools and techniques which might equip us all to deliver on the elusive goal at the heart of the MEX initiative – better user experience.
I’ll share with you 6 ideas which might help you improve your focus on user experience in 2015 at two levels: 3 tactical and 3 strategic.
I think of tactical improvements as the immediate fixes – the day-to-day changes within the framework of your existing products or services. They’re conveniently measurable and potentially deliver immediate benefits for your users.
The strategic require longer term commitment and are not as easy to measure, but they address the big, structural changes you’ll eventually need to keep pace with the evolution of user behaviour and a shifting competitive landscape.
1) Leave the flagship at home
‘Eating your own dog food’ is an old cliche in the technology industry, referring to the seemingly obvious practice of ensuring you use your own products daily. That’s all very well and, particularly for smaller companies, it is the easiest way to spot those little quality assurance issues – like broken links and outdated assets hidden away in apps.
However, when you’re ‘eating your own dog food’, consider which device you’re using.
Almost everyone I know in digital carries an embarrassment of riches in their pockets: the latest iPhones or Nexus, top-spec MacBooks and tablets. This is not the world of your users: put your SIM in an older smartphone and get your hands on one of the entry level Chromebooks or Windows laptops which will be filling Christmas stockings this year. Better yet, change platforms and immerse yourself in an unfamiliar ecosystem – Google or Microsoft or Apple – whichever you don’t normally use.
Change your filter and maybe you’ll uncover unexpected tactical improvements which will deliver quick user experience wins. The growth in digital – be it youngsters getting a first connection they can call their own or the previously disconnected in low income markets – is happening almost exclusively on devices costing $75 or less, like the Lumia 5xx series.
2) Change your metrics
Here’s another cliche: you can’t improve what you can’t measure. But what are you actually measuring?
Businesses of all sizes can fall into the trap of driving short term changes to satisfy existing metrics without questioning whether those metrics still represent the things most important to their users. Set aside some time to apply a different set of metrics to your business.
Do things look different if you measure against a set of benchmarks you’ve never tried before? You may find it simply reassures you that your existing targets are the right ones to be pursuing, or perhaps you’ll uncover a way of measuring performance which guides the business closer to the needs of your users.
3) Seek new habitats
The results of any experience test will be swayed by the environment in which those tests are conducted. Labs have their uses and, of course, real user logs from live services are invaluable. However, how much more might you learn if you actively sought to evaluate how different environments affect the way people experience your products?
It can be as simple as seeing what happens in bright light versus indoor conditions, or usage when walking versus driving. Or you can be more elaborate: what is the impact of moving the environment to a country with a different language or culture? Wet hands versus dry hands or in a social situation versus alone?
Crucially, this doesn’t (and probably shoudn’t) need to align with specific commercial plans – the results from immersing your product in something like a foreign language environment can be useful even if you’re not specifically planning an expansion into that country. This is as much as seeing about what happens when you shake the tree rather than wanting to dislodge a specific apple.
1) The why
Do you watch people? I mean, really watch them?
Are you able to spot the little nuances of behaviour which define how individuals think about digital products. You only see these – and I mean *only* – in the real world when people don’t know they’re being observed. This is when you hear people talking freely and truthfully about their motivations and annoyances. Within these quips you will find the data to accurately guide long-term strategy.
However, observing alone is not enough. The trick is asking yourself ‘why?’ and developing stories which help you to understand what causes people to do what they do and how that might evolve in the future.
Why does he still carry an old iPhone with a shattered screen when he could easily afford a new one? Why does that user never search directly for movies on their smart TV, but instead follows a convoluted trail of ‘Similar’ recommendations to get to the specific programme they want? Why is that person in a household allowed to touch that switch but someone else isn’t?
Understand those stories and you start to understand why, beyond the tactical, there is a much larger chess game afoot, and one where wider insight delivers potentially huge returns.
2) The unrelated
I knew nothing about medicine. Nothing in my education prepared for me understanding how it affects our lives, both in the physical sense and its intimate relationship with culture and behaviour. Why should I? After all, it really has nothing to do with my chosen field. However, I now belong to a club populated by doctors and dedicated to exploring the link between medicine and art – it’s been one of the best things I’ve done to change my long-term outlook.
What do you know nothing about?
How might it change the way you look at your business and the experience you provide your users if you immersed yourself in a totally new industry or hobby? For me, it has been invaluable: I’ve found parallels between early medical charts and how digital data could be presented in new ways today. I’ve discovered how user behaviour changes as medical devices get more invasive – insights which have helped me think differently about prospects for the emerging generation of wearable tech.
Set aside a portion of your annual training or research budget and invest it in attending a conference on a seemingly unrelated subject, joining a club outside your field or subscribing to a magazine on a subject you know nothing about. Enter into it with the discipline that, when you get to the end of the year, you must justify to yourself what you got out of it in a measurable way.
3) Change the output
I express myself verbally. If I want to record a thought, my natural instinct is to use words. For you, it might be to sketch, or pick up tools and start crafting something. We all have natural tendencies towards a certain form of expression.
When you think about how you’re going to set your long-term experience strategy, try expressing it in a form you wouldn’t naturally use.
For me, it comes down to forcing myself to try sketching something instead of writing about it. For you, it might be different. The important thing is that it helps you, firstly, to learn about how other people think – all the people you’ll need to collaborate with to deliver an overall strategy. Secondly, it also helps you see your own thoughts from a different perspective, and in a light which can be quite revealing of the gaps in long-term strategy we are rarely able to otherwise see.
Thank you to everyone in the MEX community for your support and participation in 2014. 2015 is going to be a splendid one for us, centred on the 15th anniversary edition of our MEX event in London on 24th – 25th March.
Merry Christmas and best wishes for 2015.