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How to design human-centered digital products from the start

Sep 04, 2020

By Billy Collins

In the U.S., it’s estimated that roughly 80% of the total population — that’s more than 260 million people — use a smartphone. Unsurprisingly, consumer behavior and preference toward mobile has evolved — rather rapidly — from skepticism to total reliance.

For brands looking to capitalize on their audience’s mobile behavior, using human-centered design to evolve your customer experience on mobile-first is no longer a competitive differentiator. It’s a requirement to survive into the future.

But optimizing for mobile isn’t as simple as designing for a smaller screen. Leveraging human-centered design practices and emerging technology can help you put your audience at the forefront of your decision-making and can help guarantee ROI over the long haul.

The theory of disruptive analogies

How many times have you watched Shark Tank and listened as countless startup founders have described themselves as “the Uber of pet food” or “the Airbnb of furniture?” When brands compare what they do to other popular companies, they’re using analogy to provide some much-needed context to their situation and clarify exactly what value they give to their customers.

This way of talking about what you do has become so popular, it’s nearly impossible to describe a new product or service without reaching for an analogy to help out.

But, there’s an unfortunate side effect.

Companies that need to create new digital experiences to capitalize on their audience’s demand have become conditioned to think that because a model — that is, those popularized by Uber, Airbnb, Tinder and the like — exists to do what the company wants to do, then it should be easy to wash, rinse and repeat the model in a different industry.

Users must be first

If your brand is struggling to stay ahead of the competition with your digital strategy, the simplest and sometimes fastest approach to catch up is to mimic your direct competition or find your industry’s closest analogy and copy that. However, if you dig deep into why these companies are worth copying, you’ll find that it’s not the model itself that’s inspiring. Instead, what these brands all have in common is their relentless focus on the needs of their specific users.

Building something that’s tailor-made for your audience is certainly more difficult than ripping off the competition, but there is truly no substitute for the long-term gains your business will recognize with advanced understanding of your customers’ deep needs.

If you find yourself in a similar situation — struggling to keep up with the competition in today’s rapidly evolving and chaotic, technology-first marketplace here are the right steps to take:

1. Develop user personas

The first step you’ll need to take in order to understand your audience is to gather information about real audience members. If you have an existing digital product, like a website or mobile app, analytics can be a great place to start segmenting your audience into similar groups of people.

But, to help you make real, lasting decisions about the future of your digital experience, you need to get into the minds of your customers and understand what makes them tick. That’s where user personas can help out. A persona is a fictitious representation of a specific segment of your customer base. But, unlike demographic segmentation — where you use qualities like age, socio-economic variables or gender, for example — to break apart your audience, personas group people based on how they think, what motivates them and why they make the decisions they make.

This level of detail about audience members is much more insightful and has longer staying power for your brand over time.

In fact, research company Forrester found that companies that design their products with user personas in mind often have a 4x advantage over companies that do not consult personas during the process.

This level of insight can only be gained by talking directly to customers. When we lead persona research, we conduct one-on-one interviews with real audience members using a semi-scripted questionnaire as a guide. In rare cases, we’ve also incorporated ethnographic research into persona projects so we can observe how people actually live or interact with our clients’ digital experiences during their everyday lives.

At the end of our persona research projects, our clients normally print out the personas and related insights documents and post them all over the office for every department to see, learn from and act on.

2. Prioritize based on impact

Once you understand what makes your customers tick, you’ll be antsy to do anything and everything to make them happy. But first, you’ll want to take a moment and decide which digital experience initiatives will be the most impactful for your customers and for your business.

The best way to document and prioritize your digital experience roadmap is by leading your team through a collaborative workshop where every stakeholder has a chance to weigh in on what’s most important and why. We’ve helped dozens of clients by facilitating workshops that do just that. While every workshop is a little different, the workshop itself follows a similar format:

  1. Refresh everyone on your user personas
  2. Generate loads of ideas for how to level up your digital experience to meet their needs
  3. Vote on individual ideas based on impact and feasibility
  4. Build a story map to document requirements for the most important ideas

By the end of the workshop, your entire team should be aligned on which priorities are the most important and have a general sense of how and when you’ll be able to deliver them to your users.

3. Test your ideas before going primetime

The final step is one that companies frequently overlook when developing or improving their digital experience. You might know loads of information about your audience and feel that their needs have been prioritized in your decision-making, but until you’ve put an in-progress idea in front of users, there’s still a chance that you’re barking up the wrong tree.

We often recommend clients test their ideas during the user experience design phase. This has several advantages.

First, it’s very easy to make changes during the design phase. If users aren’t fans of what you’re up to, you can shift course relatively quickly. Second, if you wait to test your ideas until you’re in development, it might be more costly to do so than it seems. Developers frequently use the design phase of a project to make important decisions about how a website or mobile app will work “under the hood.” If a user doesn’t like how a page works or prefers a different flow from page to page, those changes could impact what users see on the screen and how the app works below the surface.

And, this kind of testing has real business impacts. IBM is famous for stating that every dollar invested in user experience returns between $10 and $100 in ROI. Additionally, Jakob Nielsen found that companies improved their user experience by 38% on average each time they tested and refined their design.

We have two processes for testing your ideas early.

The first is to incorporate user testing weeks into the design timeline. During these user testing weeks, we invite users into our testing lab (or, more frequently, to a Zoom meeting) and give them a prototype to test. These prototypes are often just design screens (e.g. pictures) that are stitched together in a way that makes them feel and work like a finished digital product. We gather feedback, record their reactions and make changes to designs based on what we hear from those users.

The second process is more in-depth and designed to solve big challenges. Known as a design sprint, this process is a series of workshops over about five days that ideates, designs, prototypes and tests a very specific feature or flow of your digital experience. We roll this process out when clients have a big problem with no clear or obvious solution.

Final thoughts

There’s nothing more enjoyable than seeing your aspirations for your brand come to life in the form of a digital product or experience. But before you dive headfirst into product development, make sure you’re on the right path.

Missing your target by even a small distance is still missing the target. In today’s hyper competitive, digital-first world, you want every guarantee that your aim is spot on and your customers’ needs are always in view.

How Wipfli Digital can help

During the past 15 years, our team has had the amazing opportunity to help companies of all kinds launch a vision for their digital future by applying human-centered design practices and leveraging emerging technology. Visit our web page today to see how our digital strategy can help your brand level up its user experience.

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