Reality-based UX: arise, designers of the world!

User Experience designers need to care about the market and the business model, not just the design itself.

To succeed, you need more than good design. You also need a big enough market and a workable business model. (This picture is from a recent trip to Nepal. This guy had it all. We bought the dragon booties for our grandson.)

You used every best practice in the book to design your product. Your user-centred process ticked through every new co-creation technique. Thousands of Post-Its got sacrificed in living lab creation sessions with customers. Guaranteed success.

Except, the product died in the real world. Nobody wanted it.

Or, people wanted it but it was a money-loser.

For any product or service to succeed, there are three things you need:

  1. Enough people with a real need for it.
  2. A sustainable business model.
  3. Great design and execution, and a team that will produce it with passion and energy.

You may very likely be saying, “Duh. Anyone knows that.” Well, anyone ought to know that.

Too often, we think all we need is a powerful enough case for one of these. The others will take care of themselves.

  1. A huge market seemed a fail-proof target, but a good enough product couldn’t be delivered at a profit.
  2. An elegant business model obscured the fact that the market wasn’t there or the product wasn’t up to standard.
  3. The team had talent and busted their butts, but there were too few potential buyers. Besides, there was no way to profitability.

If you are a designer, there is a very high likelihood you have lived the third scenario. (Over and over, if you’ve been at it as long as I have.) Admit it, we tend to feel that a very well-designed product will overcome all obstacles.

Arise, UX designers of the world! You have nothing to lose but your illusions.

I’m here to advocate for what you might call reality-based design thinking.

We UX designers tend to get isolated, partly by training and also by circumstance. Too often, we don’t get involved in defining a product and setting the strategy. Even when we get in the room, we often lack the tools and orientation needed.

Worst of all, we often disdain the business and marketing side. At the start of a project, we try to stay awake in conference calls with the product people (if we’re invited in the first place). Then we wait for them to talk themselves out. Just give us the damn funding so we can go off and design something awesome.

Being “user-centred” is not enough.

In Change by Design, Tim Brown of IDEO wrote the seminal text on Design Thinking. Early on, he talks of the importance of balancing desirability, feasibility and viability. You can sort of map those to my list.

The first case study in the book, the Shimano Coasting program, is presented as a huge success. In fact, it failed completely a year after the book came out. The concept: Create an affordable, quality bike that was simple to ride and maintain. Then sell them to real people (as opposed to spandex-clad aficionados)

Let’s assume that the design was excellent. The few surviving reviews suggest that it was, in fact, great design.

The market was presumed to be there, which addressed desirability and viability. You can tell all kinds of compelling stories. For example, 90% of people ride bikes as children — and yet 90% of adultsno longer do. This turned out to be an example of unhelpful storytelling. Among other things, I suspect that an awful lot of adults feel more pity than envy for a guy riding to work in the rain. (And I’m an urban cyclist myself.) Still, it was a very reasonable hypothesis: lots of adults would come back to cycling if it they made it simple.

The team thought it would be viable, too. The price point could be less than $1000 and still produce a quality product. And several manufacturers lined up to use the system in their own models. And they had a distribution network in place, through bike shops.

On my list, I’d say they checked off two items: market and design. In this case, the program appears to have failed because the business model didn’t work.

The weak link was the bike shop. Neither the staff nor the shop owners wanted to push the bikes. The hard-core staff considered them stupid and insulting. Worse, non-cyclists never walk into bike shops. When they do, they tend to feel uncomfortable and intimidated.

Why didn’t they think of this? I don’t mean to put down the people involved. After all, IDEO is the company that invented the term design thinking. This example shows how even a masterful design team can waste energy and resources. Life is to short to work on a design that can’t ever succeed.

I’ve been there, too many times.

So, when you sign up for a project, make sure it has all three: market, business model and design skill.

What if designers aren’t invited to the table?

It’s true. Often, UX people aren’t invited to the table when the market and the business model are being discussed. Sure, it’s common that orders come from on high to create a design — the business case is simply, “The boss’s boss wants it.”

You can’t hold yourself responsible for every poor decision taken at your company. Still, it’s often possible to speak up. At very least, you can ask intelligent questions: “What is our intended market?” “What is the business model? How do we make money with this?” After all, the answers to those questions can improve the UX design — often in ways a non-designer wouldn’t notice.

Each of us has a responsibility to speak up if we see a weakness that might damage the organization. Sometimes, we bite our tongues and the whole organization marches off the cliff. Even very good leaders can be blind to mistakes, and it only helps them when the staff speaks up.

Speak up with respect and insight. That way, you elevate the UX role to where it belongs. We need to take responsibility for the success of the effort. And that makes us much more likely to get invited next time.

In summary: pay attention to market and business model,not just the design. And speak up!