By: Sarah Gourlie
For: Digital Marketers, new UX designers
My aim is to give confidence to digital marketers and User Experience designers to invest in scaled-down, customized Strategic UX steps in web development projects, even when budgets and timelines are tight and resources are limited.
Even the most rudimentary application of UX principles can lead to a positive impact on the bottom line.
The key reason behind this is that these strategic UX tools inject empathy, a galvanizing factor for organizational change and focus for the project team.
So the rallying cry of the philosophy of User Experience Design is “know thy user”. However for projects that aren’t necessarily big product development, I so often see the steps of user-centered design being ignored. I hear things like “research is too costly, there isn’t budget, we’ll just have to rely on our own expertise”, “it wouldn’t be representative enough of our target audience “.
But since 2000, Jakob Nielsen has shown that “elaborate usability tests are a waste of resources. The best results come from testing no more than 5 users and running as many small tests as you can afford”. In fact, it was shown that just 5 users can uncover the majority of the usability issues.
But project teams are still reluctant to engage on small-scale research and user-centered design processes like creating persona and then thinking from their perspective on their user journeys. The reality though, is that it’s so quick and easy to do that anyone with a little intent can execute this.
The reason why I believe it works, even in the roughest form, is because it brings in an aspect that is often in short supply on development project teams – empathy.
A broad definition of empathy is “the ability to identify another person’s thoughts and feelings and the drive to respond appropriately to them, to alleviate distress”. (Prof. Simon Baron Cohen in his book “Zero degrees of Empathy”). The Prof explains that we are genetically and neurologically programmed for empathy, which could be an evolutionary adaption that is even found in animals. According to him, empathy is one of humanities greatest resources.
Philosopher Martin Buber, while contemplating how humans can commit despicable acts of cruelty to each other, proposed that it happens at the point when a human see’s another as an object.
When I think of the way the anonymity of the internet has enabled trolling, cyber bulling and the like (just look at what happened to Monica Lewinsky – how her online attackers left her ready to commit suicide), I can’t help but wonder if Buber has uncovered why digitization, while creating a multitude of new methods to communicate, is leaving us feeling disconnected and alone.
For development teams, immersed in the digital world, it’s all too easy to see the user as an anonymous, vague object, outside of the world of the politics and budget restrictions of the project.
For marketers, similarly, it is all too easy to get stuck behind labels like race, gender, income level, rather than seeing real people with needs and goals, external pressures, interests, mental models and beliefs. It’s all too easy to get caught up in the intricacies of the branding and advertising concerns and forget who its all for.
As marketing communication practitioners, it is our job to create real connections between brands and their audience to create a mutually beneficial relationship; one that enhances people’s lives and drives business growth. The key to genuinely creating this connection is empathy.
So two of the most powerful tools in the UX designer’s toolbox, I have found, are: usability testing and persona. These two simple and scalable aspects hold the key to developing empathy in projects and ensuring user-centered design.
In consulting with an income insurance company marketing and website development and design team, I conducted only 4 usability tests.
I only had to show a few minutes of these usability test video clips to the senior management team, together with a heuristic review and I was able to get the business to scrap existing designs, change their delivery deadline and implement a new information architecture and site structure
The power behind this extremely cost effective qualitative research was:
- This Usability testing observation-based technique shifts the mindset of the project team from a theoretical space to a real, practical understanding. It provides unique access to the non-verbal expressions of a real person (which accounts for up to 70% of our communication). Their mirror neurons in their brains recognised those emotions, thereby creating a connection between the project team and the hypothetical “user”. Once the team had seen the furrowed brows of confusion on their potential target audience faces, once they had heard the sighs of frustration and seen the non-verbal signals of a real person persevering but groaning under the weight of the task, did they connect, empathize and want to help make this a better experience.
- It quelled the subjective debates between the Marketing Manager and the business owner on design issues. It also took the decisions out of the subjective zone and suddenly a third party, the user, was shedding light on the way forward.
- It also galvanized the team. It was noticeable how the team suddenly found solutions and rallied around fixing things that had “technical limitations” before.
- One of the best consequences was that it helped to prioritise what changes were important, what made a material difference and ones that were cosmetic.
- There were insights about the way users thought, that were broadly applicable in the business and the digital marketing team, way beyond the development of the website.
The research took no more than a few days to recruit, conduct and analyse. The 4 respondents broadly covered their socio-economic spectrum within their target audience segmentation. We did a simple test plan to cover the entire decision making process for insurance and repeated the same testing strategy with each one.
There wasn’t budget or appetite for persona to be selected and build out and documented on paper, but while providing recommendations, we imagined certain scenarios based on the target audience and discussed user journeys to see how the flow and decision points would be affected by the site. We just imagined the life, goals, resources and needs of a hypothetical person trying to perform the task of completing a lead generation form and what they needed to know as they went through the process. This storytelling approach was also a way to create focus and powerfully affected the way the team thought.
The site went live and after a few months we measured that the conversion rate on the site went up from 11% to 20%. The commensurate increase in revenue would be applied for the life span of the site. This more than justifies these small, cost effective user-centered design steps.
I believe that this result would not have been possible if it wasn’t for injecting genuine empathy between a business and users who have amply rewarded this behavior.