Expecting legacy methods to deliver the products of 2021
Many companies are still mired in antiquated processes whilst trying to make new products and services. Heavy-duty requirements documents that contain an exhausting, indecipherable and fixed wish list from internal staff. IT sign-off gates consisting of 20-person meetings that take place once per month. A project plan so massive that keeping it up-to-date is someone’s full-time job. It takes so much effort to manage that it’s never used for its real purpose: to enable a team to adapt to change more effectively. We somehow expect these dusty relics to help us create products that are simple to understand and use, technically strong, and that people love. That’s right: love!
We expect to create a meaningful, emotional connection with our human customers through these stifling, robotic means.
Your first step is to break free of such systems, or partner with someone outside of them. You will save a lot of time and money, reduce risk, and stop seeing projects fold before a first version is delivered.
It’s hard enough making something useful, let alone loved
If your company has managed to shed the ways of old and uses modern methods for delivering work rapidly, like Agile Scrum, your next challenge might be that you go fast only to produce something that underperforms - or even something nobody wants to use. Making something that has genuine utility for people is hard - but making something they love and don’t want to live without is harder still.
So how is it that companies such as Nest, Spotify, AirBNB and Uber have either won awards for being “beautiful” and “revolutionary” or have embedded themselves so deeply into the daily fabric of our lives? The answer is twofold:
- They used meaningful insights about the behaviour and needs of real people to fuel an exploratory creative process.
- They’ve continued this process throughout the life of their products. Yes, their products are alive: they are still analysing, testing and learning all the time, making meaningful adjustments and additions to their offerings.
Building deep empathy
The digital expectations of everyday people get higher all the time. They expect personalised experiences that still respect their privacy, experiences that anticipate and cater to their needs without effort on their part. However, beneath these general truths, people remain as complicated and messy as ever. What we say isn’t necessarily how we think, and our rational thought doesn’t neatly match up with how we feel or what we do.
As László Moholy-Nagy put it, “Ultimately all problems of design merge into one great problem: ‘design for life’.” If you want to forge a meaningful connection with these complicated beings, you first need to build empathy with them and understand their lives with regards to your product area.
What can you make better? Start off by doing some basic ethnographic research and simply talking to people in your target audience. Even 4-5 people could be enough to start seeing common themes. Ask deliberately open questions: try hard not to steer them or shut down avenues of conversation. You’ll often find that it’s in the tangents that you’ll hit upon amazing surprises and invaluable information. In fact, be prepared to be surprised by the outcomes of your interviews and wider research. Keep an open mind: very often the problem you thought you needed to solve might not be the thing people are most concerned about. It could be that your product and offering becomes an entirely different thing very early on.
Use this research to shape your utility value proposition, and your emotional value proposition. As Jon Kolko puts it, “what can someone do after using or acquiring your product that she couldn’t do before using or acquiring our product? … “what can someone feel using or acquiring your product that she couldn’t feel before using or acquiring our product?” People don’t just acquire things because of what they do. They buy things because of aspirations, desires, and feelings.
This research will also help you to start thinking about the personality that you’ll layer over the proposition - your product's eventual aesthetics, tone of voice, journey flows, functions and more - the things that will culminate in a connection with your users.
Keep human needs and behaviours at the centre of your work
As your work progresses, stay curious and keep talking to people from your audience. Discovery doesn’t finish neatly at the end of a phase, it’s a continuous process that’s essential to the success of your product. Keep testing and iterating upon your ideas, and then on your designs, using the insights you’re gathering to make evidence-based decisions. Be sure to conduct regular usability testing of your designs. Create prototypes, which can be very low-fi, and give your testers non-directional tasks to complete. For example “would you please change your password”. See how easily they find their account area, and how quickly they pass through this whole process. If they tap somewhere unexpectedly, pull a face, hesitate or make thinking noises, make a note and ask them about it afterwards. Ask them to “speak their thought processes out loud” so you get at least some sense of their train of thought.
Conclusion: if you want people to love things, design with purpose, and design with feeling.
- Understand the problem space by doing market-fit research. What opportunities can you see? Are you trying to solve the right problems?
- Humans are emotionally-driven, complicated beings. Building deep empathy with real potential users of your product is essential if you want to create a meaningful connection with them.
- Define both your utility and emotional value propositions. What do you want your product to enable people to do and to feel?
- Keep discovering, testing and iterating. Scrap things fast that don’t work. Keep the quality of your product high.
- Give your product a stance - a personality. People will anthropomorphise your product in all kinds of ways. Think about personality in order to create a dialogue with them.