Distinguish your product from the competition to secure a loyal customer base.
It can be difficult for your software company to stand out with a growing number of competitors in an industry that seems to accelerate with each new technology wave. The good news is that a product’s user experience (UX) is one key differentiator that can help win the minds of customers. All other things being equal, a product with a great UX is easier to demo and sell than its competitors and results in higher customer satisfaction. In addition, an exceptional UX can help overcome real or perceived gaps in your solution.
Although the appearance of your product can affect the perception of value—and even of quality—usability is not only about visual appearance. It’s not just a matter of consistency, either. In fact, in some situations, you want to ensure that distinct functionality is presented in a way that reflects the differences. And while the user interface should reflect the brand in terms of tone and quality, it doesn’t have to match your website. Most importantly, UX isn’t a “skin” to add to a product after the fact; it is integral to the product.
Steve Jobs famously said, “Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.” Good interaction design is a component of UX work that is specifically dedicated to the design of the product user interface.
How a product works is much more difficult to define or change once it’s been implemented, or even during implementation. And a strong UX team will help define not only the way features work, but also how to prioritize them and decide on the depth and scope of functionality.
So how does UX fit in with the rest of the product team? Think of UX as a complementary and often-overlapping area of focus. Much as a technical product manager or business analyst focuses on functional requirements, a UX professional is concerned with user requirements. There is common ground, but a good way to think about the delineation is that product management defines what the product does, focusing on the customer, and UX defines how the product does it, focusing on the end user. A business model of the application considers the customer and market and is the domain of product managers. A conceptual model considers how the product works related to the end user’s workflow and goals and is done by UX. Another way to look at it is that product management and UX work together on product utility, while UX specializes in usability.
UX can also be vital in communicating product vision to internal stakeholders. Like product management, they must have the ability to focus on short-term objectives, including upcoming user stories and sprints, and the product’s long-term vision and direction. The two roles can work together to add early visualizations of major features and milestones. This can help non-technical audiences understand the product direction without having to extrapolate from relatively abstract product backlogs. Both roles can aid and inspire the development group by providing a concrete goal to work toward, even while it is done incrementally.
UX is also vital to discovery. To improve the UX team’s effectiveness, it’s important to empower them to be the voice of the user, much as a product manager is the voice of the market. When you include your UX group in researching market problems and talking to end users, they develop an understanding of the target market. Customer site visits and usability testing—including testing of competitive products—are great ways to develop context. All UX teams should observe end users in their natural habitat to develop an understanding of how your customers work, then develop user personas based on their visits. Finally, involve your team in product management activities such as writing user stories and reviewing the product backlog. And at the development level, be sure to include them in daily standups.
It’s essential to have people on your team who can focus on UX—not just the UX design component, but the other critical activities such as user research, prototyping and usability testing. It isn’t something most other roles have the education, experience or expertise to do effectively, especially when they have other responsibilities, like day-to-day product management or writing code.
The ideal is to form a trio that includes a product manager, a UX professional and a lead developer to define and shape the product. Together, these three roles can drive requirements that consider the needs of end users, include input from your technical teams and ensure that your solution solves market problems. It will also save you time, money and frustration. And, you’ll have a better chance of delivering a high-quality product that gains your customers’ attention and outshines the competition.
Before you can build a product with a great UX, you
have to build and elevate the UX function within your organization. Start by hiring dedicated, experienced UX professionals if you can.
When hiring, keep in mind that UX, like product management, is a multidisciplinary field. Although there are an increasing number of dedicated certificate, undergraduate and graduate programs, you can also find people with UX experience who have backgrounds in other fields, including psychology, computer science and visual design. If you don’t already have usability or UX professionals on staff, consider asking local groups or communities for recommendations; you might even want to involve them in the interview process.
By empowering a UX team to be the voice of the user and incorporating UX into your product from the start, you’ll distinguish your product from the competition and help secure a loyal customer base.
Chris Ryan is building a UX team as he works on the Absolute Software suite of security and data risk management products. He has 25 years of UX design experience in diverse problem domains and technologies including education, telecom and market research, and in desktop applications, SaaS and mobile. Chris has defined, prototyped, tested and worked with developers on applications, toolkits, websites, presentations, installers and—back in the day—even CD-ROMs. Chris previously worked at Vision Critical, WealthBar, Sun Microsystems and Telus. Contact Chris at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @chrisryan.
Ryan St. Hilaire is VP of product management at Absolute Software, responsible for product strategy, roadmaps and requirements. Ryan has more than 11 years of product management experience and 15 years of technology experience. With a pragmatic approach to developing products, Ryan is skilled at growing and scaling product management teams. Prior to Absolute, Ryan was VP product management at Vision Critical where he and his team oversaw the next-generation customer intelligence platform. He has a bachelor’s in computer science from the University of British Columbia. Contact Ryan at firstname.lastname@example.org.