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Monthly Archives: April 2009

About 4 months ago I wrote a post about the difficulty differentiating with an iPhone application. I forecasted 3 billion downloads and 100,000 applications by the middle of this year – and my calculations are proving accurate with the app store reaching 25,000 apps and 1 billion downloads earlier this year.

 

Since that post, we’ve been a part of quite a few proposals for clients on iPhone application development. The iPhone projects we’ve been able to be a part of are pretty awesome, like delivering real-time, patient data to doctors while the patient is in hospital awaiting a procedure. However, I am noticing a trend, mostly from the requests we are getting from large marketing agencies, that is a bit, well, disturbing.

 

I’m going to give you a hypothetical example (I think it is obvious why I don’t want to use an actual one) – For this example, we are going to talk about an ad agency, Razor Can, and their client, Bank of Washington. 

 

Bank of Washington has come to their agency and asked them to create an iPhone app for them. Bank of Washington has young & affluent customers, and they are demanding more from their bank. Razor Can, who has been very successful creating the young and hip image for Bank of Washington, decides to propose a brand building, breakthrough iPhone application : a game based using the Bank’s mascot, a cuddly teddy-bear.  They pitch the idea to the bank – and the creative is BRILLIANT - truly mesmerizing 3D interactions the Bank’s brand worked into a great, immersive environment.  Sounds great, right?

Well, how do I put this mildly…. Razor Can is DEAD wrong. They are stuck in brand building mode, when in reality Bank of Washington’s customers really want is a way to check their balance online, pay a bill, be alerted when potential fraud has occurred, or simply find an ATM. Spending big money on a game that builds brand awareness is a bit like the bank creating a branch that does not have any tellers or ATMs but has an awesome rock-climbing wall and free arcade. 

 

I used a bank only as an example, but we’ve actually received requests like the one above for 10 different large brands through 8 different branding agencies. By the way, none of them received funding (at least none that I’ve heard from).  Enterprises are starting to realize that their customers want UTILITY, not BRAND MESSAGING from their digital interactions. Forrester came out with a great stat last year … 77% of consumers use online services because they are easy to use and content, compared to 22% use online services because of brand loyalty.  Let me restate that because it seems mildly important…

Online consumers are not loyal to a brand, they are loyal to user experience.

I realize that creating a game,a cool social network, or a photo-sharing marketing campaign  is more fun and sometimes easier than creating great utility, but it is far more risky and almost always totally useless for end users. If I want a game, I’ll by one for $.99.  I really am not interested in one from my bank, telco, dry cleaner, diet plan, fast food chain, newspaper, or hotel chain. It is a transparent attempt to come in to my personal space and market to me. What I want, what most people want, is my life to be easier – that’s why I bought an iPhone in the first place!

Enterprises are realizing that the web is more than a sum of its content – the web is a software platform. In addition to simply delivering content and messaging, the web can deliver utility and drive customer-to-business value.

These same enterprises have also spent a tremendous amount of resources to commoditize their data and digital services. Now that most enterprises have created a robust “S.O.A.”, they are realizing it is time to take their online customer experience out of the hands of just their IT department and include all of the other important departments in their organization. However, marketing is struggling to bridge the gaps between technology, user engagement and brand consistency.

 

Traditional branding and internet agencies are struggling to produce valuable solutions in this new technological and creative ecosystem 


 

… the User Experience discipline was born

 

The major challenge with this discipline is that it is so new. Bill Buxton, author of Sketching User Interfaces, spoke about the User Experience discipline at the Microsoft Mix conference in 2009. He drew a connection between “Industrial Design” and “Experience Design” disciplines. He explained that in the 1920′s, there was no degree in Industrial Design, and that most people that were good were very unique individuals and that they from very diverse backgrounds. He continued to describe Experience Design is in much the same predicament today as Industrial Design was 80+ years ago. Steve Earley, a recent hire for us, describes the dawn of a new era. He says that  long ago, when he worked for Oracle, data was king – everything was about structured and organized data. Then came the time when he worked for SAP, where data storage became a commodity and process became all important. Now, as Steve puts it, “We are in the era of user experience, and that is why I joined EffectiveUI”.

 

What is a User Experience Agency?

I first want to point out that I draw a distinct difference between “Experience Design” and “User Experience”. I believe Experience Design incorporates a much larger gamut of human experience than does “User Experience”. For example, Experience Design could include the design of a customer’s experience inside of a Barnes and Noble store, or the design of a complete customer service and retention program. User Experience, on the other hand, is specifically focused on driving better software experiences. So a User Experience Agency” is an agency focused on creating great software experiences, no matter what the technology or channel. Also, our believe is that a UX Agency should be able to take a strategy from napkin to deployment. Having designers, strategists, usability experts, user centered developers and legacy integrators under one roof has distinct advantages. The agency does not have to do everything on your project, but they must know the language.

 

How do you execute on a UX strategy?

User Experience (UX) requires a complex understanding of 4 critical areas. 

  1. Business
  2. People
  3. Design
  4. Technology

At EffectiveUI, we believe it is too difficult to find a single individual that can understand these 4 areas deeply enough to really drive significant value. We had to engineer a methodology that requires a team of specialists to deeply collaborate. The team spends time understanding our customer’s business, our customer’s end users, our customer’s brand, and our customer’s existing technological landscape. This requires interaction designers and technology architects to interview and discover opportunities. It is why we struggle sometimes when our clients ask us to pitch them the “Big Idea”… big ideas for us usually come after interviews and reflection. They usually do not happen with us locked in a room and white-boarding out solutions like they do on The Apprentice. We do, however, designate a leader- called the Experience Architect. This person is primarily responsible for ensuring each of the 4 critical areas are equally balanced throughout the project. they also run our experience Planning phase.

During the short “Experience Planning” phase of a project, we interview, document, argue, collaborate, and argue some more. At the end, we produce:

  1. Business Requirements
  2. User Requirements
  3. Technology Constraints
  4. How we will measure success – AKA “The Win”
  5. The technology and design execution plan

The methods we use seem to be unique to us right now. We are slowly training our customers on how to think from a user experience perspective. We are even writing a book for O’Reilly about creating effective user interfaces. Our team sometimes calls our process “WAGILE”, a term we stole from one of our clients a while back. It describes a short, waterfall phase followed by an agile approach through completion. One thing is certain, the process is different for every client and every project – that is why we have hesitated to create a strict process document, even as our potential clients continue to ask to see our documented process. Although we have a ton of best practices and experience with software design & development, treating things in a cookie-cutter manner has never worked for us. I wrote once that you can not avoid the one truth in software development and that is software development is predictably unpredictable. Anyone that tells you different is either inexperienced or lying to get your business (a red flag either way).

 

The Future

As Forrester and Gartner try to wrangle this new space into something more definable, we are going to continue to use the term “User Experience Agency” to describe what EffectiveUI does. It is odd to see the list of our competition. Sometimes we are competing with very large, traditional agency types, and sometimes we are competing against very large system integrators. When we lose the bid on a project to an agency, it is because the company is convinced that the agency will somehow be able to bridge the gap from their design focus to technology implementation. When we lose to system integrators it is because the customer is convinced that usability is just not that important. The truth is that neither technology or design should take a back seat, you should treat each with equal importance. That way, the right amount of compromise happens from both departments. When speaking to a Forrester Analyst last month about what we do, the analyst said “wow- that is the future of software development”. I hope he’s right, and I hope we are not the only agency in this unique space for too much longer. After all, people deserve better software…

 

Feedback -

I really hope this post inspires feedback. This domain is new, and I would certainly appreciate it if you challenged our position. We want to help push the UX movement into the mainstream and we certainly can not do it alone…

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