Our Thinking

User Centered Design: Thinking Outside-In

Posted by Kevin Sigmundson on Jul 7, 2014 3:00:11 AM

Over the past month, I had a few opportunities to talk to our clients about customer experience (CX) and user centered design/user experience (UX) and their role in application development. At Online we see how customer experience is fundamentally changing how business operates, but the question was: do our clients see it the same way?

After a month full of client meetings and giving a couple of customer experience presentations at CIPS chapter meetings, I can confidently report that the majority of people I spoke to believe that CX offers organizations new business opportunities. Some of our clients are beginning to shift their thinking to be more customer-oriented and there are a number of clients who are either formally or informally recognizing UX as a discipline. (Some were even in the process of forming centres of excellence for UX.)

What does it mean? I believe that as we continuously strive to build better systems, IT will be focusing more and more on understanding the user and building systems that start with the user’s goals in mind. As I alluded to in my last blog, our industry has been building systems the same way for a long time, and for some (as it was for me), the shift in focus from the system to the user can seem daunting. If you are interested in becoming more user-focused, there is one concept that can be applied to your projects immediately and help create some “user focused” momentum: Outside-In Design.

Outside-In Design

How Requirements and Design Have Traditionally Been Developed: Inside-Out

In the large organizations I've worked with, it's common practice for senior management to establish the scope of IT projects. IT then creates a team of IT business analysts to work with business unit SMEs to define project requirements. Since all these people work inside the organization, they are “insiders” and typically have a better understanding of the products, services and inner workings of the organization than does a typical customer. When these “insiders” create the requirements and designs, it’s called Inside-Out Design.

Inside-Out Design

The problem with this approach is that success is dependent on how well the “insiders” can represent the needs and goals of the end users of the application. When we're developing a system for a small number of internal users, and the SME is someone who recently performed the same role as the users targeted, this approach can work well.

But what if your solution is targeted at a broad audience? What if, instead of a single department, your solution needs to roll out to the entire enterprise? What if you are targeting users within hundreds of your customer’s organizations? What if your design needs to work for a wide range of individual consumers, members of the general public? The digital economy dictates that an increasing number of customers will have their first and primary perceptions of your company based on your web, mobile and social media presence, so the design of these systems has become absolutely critical to your corporate brand.

In these situations, relying on the knowledge and judgement of business SMEs likely won't deliver the results that you were hoping for. That's because your SMEs’ "insider" knowledge of your business, processes and products is deep and shapes how they think your solution should be designed. But the insiders are not your users! When your solution is targeted at a broad audience, your users have motivations, goals and perspectives that your SMEs may be completely unaware of.

A Better Way to Design Systems: Outside-In

Companies who are leaders in user experience don't rely on insiders to define how their solutions are designed. Instead, they start by understanding and categorizing their users, determining their goals and using those as a primary input into the design of the solution.

Outside-In Design

The UX Analyst is the person assigned to understand the user and capture their goals, and then understanding those goals, come up with options on how to meet the organization’s objectives through meeting user goals. When you are focused on the user, their perception is a solution that seems to understand exactly what they need to do, even before they did, and is possibly even rewarding and enjoyable to use. The result is higher adoption and satisfaction with the solution, and potential improved brand image and customer experience (for externally facing solutions).

For example, an organization has a goal to improve loyalty and increase repeat business. Ethnographic analysis working with actual users reveals that a particular customer type (or persona) has a goal to simplify their payments and carry fewer cards in their wallet (or maybe not carry a wallet at all). The UX Analyst may propose a mobile payment application since this customer persona may not always carry a card in their wallet -- but, they always carry their phone.

To be successful with User Centered Design, you have to:

  • Shift your thinking from the traditional approach to defining a solution.
  • Develop UX skills within your teams that focus on the users and the users’ goals.
  • Make sure that your UX Analysts have direct access to your users to understand their goals for using the system.

User Centered Design, using an Outside-In approach, is a relatively new way of looking at solution design. Through conversations with our customers, we've heard many stories of how these ideas are making their way to IT teams as companies increasingly target solutions at broad groups of users (and particularly those outside of their organizations). While it requires new skills and techniques, as well as a shift in thinking, the reward is systems that gain new levels of acceptance to wider audiences than ever before -- a critical success factor in the digital economy.

Topics: Design, Application Development, Usability

Our Thinking - The Online Blog is a source for insights, resources, best practices, and other useful content from our multi-disciplinary team of Onliners.

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