SHOULD USER EXPERIENCE DICTATE DESIGN?

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Many brands design their products or services with the end consumer in mind, striving to predict their customers’ movements and mimic user experience. Ostensibly, that makes sense but, by mirroring customer requirements, it’s arguable that such brands could be inhibiting innovation and, in turn, their future success.

In a world where many of us are time-poor, we want products, programs and services to make our lives easier and suit our needs. It’s often thought of as the best way to appeal to consumers, and brands make a point of stating it: “We know you like X; that’s why our product does X.” Of course, the customer-centric approach is fuelled by financial objectives, most blatantly with features such as one-click buying promoting impulse purchases.

However, despite the obvious importance of conversion rate optimisation, when it comes to creating a brand – more specifically, one with staying power – designers shouldn’t always let user experience hold them back. Boundary-breaking brands such as Coca Cola and Apple rarely pay much attention to what the masses say and, instead, just do as they think right – and their bank balances prove that this pioneering approach encourages followers.

According to Everett Rogers’ diffusion of innovations theory, only 13.5 per cent of the population will ever ‘get’ a new brand, product or service – it’s only after seeing it for a while that others cotton on. This suggests that no matter how many focus groups you do, a new product or service will get a maximum of 13.5 per cent of the group thinking it’s exciting. The rest – the followers who may later succumb to ‘sheep syndrome’ – think it’ll never catch on. Back to Apple as an example… its innovative designs had far from universal appeal at first, yet now they have the most ubiquitous smartphone in the world and you can’t swing a charger without hitting a Macbook.

Innovation is born from design that goes beyond expectations and, ultimately, if many different brands with similar functions corresponded entirely with user experience, they run the risk of being indistinguishable. However, it does seem that many brands and products are becoming more similar to one another, especially those where user experience is paramount.

A case in point is the convergence of different social media channels that’s developed since their inception and accelerated over the last few years. Looking at the big players now, functions offered by each platform often overlap; their boundaries have become more and more blurred as they all try to accommodate the consumer. Also, what were once USPs of a platform have been dropped in favour of a rival’s more popular alternative.

For example, Twitter recently ditched ‘favourite’, opting instead for Facebook’s ‘like’, and this month proposed that it will start sorting users’ timelines according to posts’ popularity, relevance and importance – sound familiar? The most controversial move of all, though, is its proposal to increase the number of characters allowed per tweet from 140 to 10,000. Whether this comes to fruition or was all a publicity stunt is yet to be seen.

In the other direction, Facebook introduced the option to follow or unfollow friends and jumped on the hashtag bandwagon, albeit unsuccessfully. And it doesn’t stop there; even LinkedIn’s playing copycat, with the introduction of its app’s Tinder-esque swiping function. And so the tail chasing goes on. Is it only a matter of time before Twitter introduces photo albums? Will Facebook integrate filters? Will Instagram allow post without a photo?

It could be argued that as these channels converge with each modification, they move away from what gave them unique appeal and – although perhaps becoming more in line with the user’s ever-changing demands – lose their integrity in doing so. On the other hand, one could postulate that the assimilation of existing brands is just part of the cycle and inspires the creation of new ones. Maybe we’re due a novel, exciting social media platform.

The forward-thinking brands that dominate their sectors serve as an example that it often pays to take the path less trodden. Obviously, users aren’t always wrong and their habits should therefore be consulted in product design, but they do need shaking up every now and again with something truly new and unique to help those habits evolve.

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