User-Centric Design is About User Goals AND Business Goals, if the Client Gets It

M. Jackson Wilkinson, Former Viget

Article Category: #Design & Content

Posted on

For the most part, we act as a User-Centric Design (UCD) shop for our clients. In its most basic sense, this means that when we're wireframing an e-commerce site, prototyping a new web application, or putting together a page description document for a client's about page, our foremost concern revolves around the needs and wants of the users. The whole idea behind this is that when a user finds it easy (or, ideally, a pleasure) to do what they came to your site to do, not only do they win, but you as the owner of the site do too. You then have a user who is not only more likely to spend money, but is also more likely to evangelize your site to others and come back again themselves. In time, satisfying the goals of users helps to satisfy the business goals.

Clients Aren't (usually) Users

One of the biggest challenges we have working from a UCD perspective is that what clients want and what users want aren't necessarily the same things. Ideally, most of the goals of users and clients overlap, but inevitably there will be differences. Consider the case of a website that sells consumer electronics. The user's goal may be to buy a camera, while the merchant's goal is probably to sell as much as possible - including an extra battery, a tripod, an extended warranty, etc. The merchant actually sees their goal as being in the best interests of the user, since they will then have the best possible experience with their new camera. We've all come across e-commerce sites that are designed around the merchant's perspective here: the user adds a camera to her shopping cart, at which point she gets a popup of some sort describing accessories that she might want. After that, another popup offers the extended warranty, and maybe these popups even require the user to click a button to say "No Thanks" in order to move on. Only then is she able to check out. The user just got bombarded with offers for things she wasn't interested in, and had to go out of her way to push away the sales windows. In fact, she probably feels like the person who goes into RadioShack to buy a pack of batteries, only to have the employee try to sell her a mobile phone. It's frustrating, annoying, and makes it that much more unlikely that you'll earn a repeat customer. In the worst cases, the user starts getting a boatload of spam two weeks later, since the merchant decided to sell her e-mail address to provide her with "valuable offers" in which she might be interested, but probably isn't. After all, that's more money for the merchant, which is good for business, right? It's maximizing the revenue per customer, right?

UCD Helps Make Customers More Valuable

When you take the same example and apply a user-centric approach to the process, you end up with something very different. The user adds a product to the cart, and the cart page may passively (and, ideally helpfully) suggest other things the user might be interested in. If she wants, the user can completely ignore them, but they're there if she needs them. She clicks to check out, goes through a simple process, and gets a single confirmation e-mail, with maybe a useful periodic e-mail focusing on relevant products if she explicitly requested it. Does this approach sound familiar? Probably, because it's probably the process you go through on a regular basis at your favorite online merchant. If it happens to be Amazon, you can even place an entire order in a single click if you choose to do so -- they don't even have a chance to upsell you on anything! To the merchant trying to maximize revenue per customer, this seems completely insane: only one thing was sold, and there wasn't much of a chance for an upsell. So far, the revenue per consumer is fairly low. What the merchant doesn't realize, however, is that the customer had a very positive experience making the purchase. She felt like it was quick and easy, and that the site was clear and helpful. Above all, she didn't feel pushed to make a purchase she didn't want to make. Because of that, she also bought a stereo, a remote control, and recommended the store to her friends, who made several purchases themselves. The long-term revenue per consumer ended up being dramatically higher for the UCD-based merchant, even though the short-term wins may have favored the other merchant. Would you rather make $1 today, or $10 tomorrow?

It's Not Just Being Easy, It's Being Straight-Forward

UCD doesn't just mean not being annoying to users. It also means being as plain and straight-forward as possible to help users achieve their goals faster, and this includes paying attention to your copy, your organization, and your visual design. For a quick example, consider the same consumer electronics store. Perhaps the first merchant has a group of products categorized as "in-home soundscapes" while the latter categorizes the same products as "speakers." The first merchant may be thinking he's creating some grand imagery in the mind of the customer, prompting her to consider spending more than she intended. On the other hand, the UCD-oriented merchant made it easier for the customer to find speakers, and is that much closer to making a sale to a happy customer. Sure, there are times for being cute. Error messages, fine print, and body text are all places to have fun, interesting, engaging copy, but headers and links should be simple and scannable. Even if your print catalog works amazingly well with its marketing-focused copy, that doesn't mean it will work well on the web.

Always Caveats

All that said, a User-centric mentality isn't for everyone. Here are some examples of situations where you should avoid UCD:
  • When you don't want users to achieve their goals -- If you're trying to trick users into doing what you want, UCD won't help you. Then again, you probably wouldn't be our client, either.
  • When your product really isn't that great -- If the product doesn't meet or (preferably) exceed the user's expectations, a user-centric process only puts lipstick on the pig. They won't come back and use your app, won't make another purchase, and won't tell their friends about you.
  • When you don't care about repeat customers -- Maybe you're the only game in town (and no one will ever decide to compete against you), a member of an organized crime syndicate, or maybe a funeral parlor. If you don't need repeat customers to succeed, don't bother crafting a user-centric process.
Then again, you read this far, so you probably don't fit into any of those.

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