Today the buzz is all about user perspective. Even so UX advocates still meet resistance from some quarters. HiQ Magazine investigates the issue and looks at why those who neglect the user experience risk getting left behind.
In March 2016, the Swedish public transport company, Västtrafik, launched its new mobile ticketing app. Work on the application had begun three years earlier with a pre-study into the travel habits of the company’s potential customers. A large number of commuters were asked about how they use public transport and how they would like to pay for the service.
While the app was being developed, members of the travelling public were given more opportunities to test it and share their thoughts on it. How easy was it to pay? Were there any hitches? Did the purchase process seem logical? Bus, tram and train drivers and customer service staff were also asked for feedback about their experiences of checking tickets on smartphones. Before Västtrafik’s To Go app was made available in the App Store a hundred customers had already been using and evaluating it for eight months. For Västtrafik this was a brand new way of working.
“Previously here at Västtrafik we had intended to put the emphasis on internal development, delivering what we thought customers wanted. Now we’ve reversed the process. We’ve focused on the customer, identified what the customer actually needs and then created an app to fit the bill,” says Samuel Nygren, Digital Business Developer at Västtrafik. “If we had chosen the traditional approach, the app would have looked very different. But now we know this is an app that really works for users,” he explains. Focusing on the user and the user’s needs is very much the name of the game today. Of that, David Dinka an UX expert and senior user experience strategist at HiQ, is convinced. David also has a PhD in user-system interaction. “UX stands for user experience and includes all aspects of a product or service."
It’s all about adopting the perspective of the user when creating products and designs,” he explains. Why is that so important? Simply because the only people who can decide whether an app or a service is good or not are the people who pay for it and use it. “It is satisfied users who buy the next version and give us good reviews in the App Store,” Dinka adds. Not so long ago the greatest challenge was the technology itself. Today, when it has become possible to construct just about anything, we are no longer constrained by technology. Now user experience is a competitive advantage.
“Those who offer the best experience wins. Those who don’t embrace the UX perspective will soon get left behind,” Dinka says. The first and most important question is to ask what type of user the developer has in mind. Once that is clear, the next question is what these users want and why. At this stage you may wish to conduct interviews, as Västtrafik did. “These separate stages are absolutely crucial. If the purpose isn’t clearly defined, the product will never become really useful. There are lots of people who want to produce a cool app simply because they can, but what good is that if it is of no real benefit to the user?
" HOW THE STORY IS FORMED VARIES, BUT WE MUST BE FULLY CLEAR ABOUT HOW WE GUIDE THE USER THROUGH THE STORY
An app that doesn’t meet a real need will never be more than a fleeting fad,” David Dinka says. User studies help us to understand the target group, its circumstances and its needs. The Swish mobile payment service is a good example of a product that successfully meets user needs and circumstances. “When people no longer walked around with wads of cash in their pockets there was no safe, practical way to transfer money between friends. Who can possibly remember all their friends’ account numbers and clearing numbers? On the other hand, the same friends’ phone numbers are all neatly logged in our phones. So it was a brilliant solution to link payments to phone numbers.” A good user experience requires a clear, logical structure and a hassle-free online process.
A frequent challenge for UX designers is to create an interface that is so intuitive that the user is hardly aware of it. This prompts David Dinka to explain the need for storytelling, leading the user through an anticipated pattern of behavior. “Focusing on user experience is actually a shift in focus, as the main aim isn’t to get the user to buy something, but to lead the user through a story. How the story is formed varies, of course, but those of us who design the app must be very clear in our minds about how we guide the user through the different chapters of the story,” he explains. For example, HiQ has helped to develop an app that works like a digital roadworthiness inspection checklist for a vehicle inspection company. By studying every stage of the inspection process and calculating the most efficient work flow, the app has reduced the time taken to inspect a vehicle from 30 to 20 minutes. “This is a case of where we really have succeeded in leading users through a process in the best possible way. If we hadn’t worked closely with the users, it would neve have been possible. We used their needs as our starting point and let them test the app repeatedly during the development phase,” David Dinka says.
UX design can, of course, also be a matter of creating a form that is so attractive that it, too, contributes to a positive user experience. Apple demonstrated ten years ago that you can earn money by being outstanding in terms of design and user experience. “They were very quick to catch onto the UX concept. Everyone else has been forced to follow in their footsteps. Today, when every one has a smartphone, user expectations have risen and we all have our own reference framework for what constitutes good and bad design. Companies can no longer offer a product with a second-rate user interface. With so many solutions to choose from, consumers will simply turn to another supplier.” It all sounds rather obvious yet advocates of the UX perspective still have to struggle to make their voices heard.
We asked Jan Miettinen, UX Design Lead at HiQ Finland. “Many of our clients continue to claim that they don’t have time or that it’s too expensive and long-winded a process to carry out masses of user tests,” he says. But those who neglect the user perspective are doing themselves a disservice. “More often than not it turns out to be more expensive in the long run. The tests help to identify problems and correct them during the early stages of development. That cuts costs and saves money when it’s time for updates. Also, it reduces the risk that users will reject a product because it’s not needed or fails to live up to expectations.
"There’s no doubt that time spent on ground work saves time later on. But despite this we are constantly having to convince clients of the importance of adopting a user perspective,” Miettinen says. David Dinka agrees.“It’s starting to become more widely accepted, but it’s still a discussion we have to enter into far too often,” he adds.
Samuel Nygren at Västtrafik needs no convincing about the benefits of user tests. “We knew we were getting a product that was proven to work. That gives the app a higher customer value. Doing what customers want us to do gives us more satisfied customers,” he says.
" DOING WHAT CUSTOMERS WANT US TO DO GIVES US MORE SATISFIED CUSTOMERS
Another value of user tests is that they make users feel part of the process. Those who tested Västtrafik’s To Go app acted almost as ambassadors for the app. “Because they were part of the process, they spoke to their friends and colleagues about the app in very positive terms. They have built up positive expectations,” Nygren says.
Västtrafik is currently looking into improving the customer experience on their digital platform, homepage and ticket machines. “We are also looking at how to make our services more relevant to our customers by making them more personal. Digital technology enables us to construct solutions based on individual needs rather than those of a more diffuse target group. For example, you could see specific travel options, tickets and any disruptions to services that are relevant to you. It’s a way of building up a relationship with a customer, something that is known to create customer loyalty,” says Henrik Strömberg, a digital strategist with Västtrafik.
So what does the future hold for UX?
Henrik Strömberg and Samuel Nygren are convinced that Västtrafik will soon have its own UX experts on the team, simply because these skills are so vitally important. David Dinka sees the same trend: “The UX perspective can only get bigger. I think it will move higher up in the organisational structure. It will be essential to have someone with UX competence among corporate decision makers.”
“ The UX perspective heralds a real democratisation of technology
Another development is the way UX is opening up opportunities for people with functional disabilities. Fejjan för alla, a Swedish app that enabled blind and deaf people to use Facebook, was a good example of that.“We’ve only just begun scratching the surface. The UX perspective heralds a real democratisation of technology. Just consider the opportunities awaiting with the Internet of Things. What can we do there to offer users real value? Now that it’s possible, there is no reason not to make it available to everyone.”