Blogpost

XVIII.4 July + August 2011
Page: 10
Digital Citation

The times they are a-changin’


Authors:
Mats Hellman, Huaqi Hao

Getting attractive consumer products to market quickly and at a reasonable price has become as important, or even more important, than offering more features and functions. Today, new companies are rising from emerging markets and taking market share from older, more established manufacturers and known brands. Companies like Nokia are having trouble competing with companies that use new, open platforms to get new products to market swiftly and efficiently. A known brand is no longer enough—you also must have an organization behind it that can make quick use of new platforms to compete. Some would argue that Apple products, such as the iPhone and iPad, are popular even though they are expensive. Is Apple an exception to the rule? We don’t think so. We believe Apple has been successful because they have managed to handle the five critical UX factors—usability, holistic UX, branding, trends, and timing—better than most to establish and maintain their position as the leading mobile UX manufacturer.

Having worked in large companies in both Europe and Asia (China), we have seen similar attempts to address this need to efficiently support a faster yet still sufficiently qualitative development process that focuses on brand building, trends, and user experience. We’ve noticed that some differences in approach depend on area, culture, and business maturity: Companies from emerging markets mainly have problems with brand building and quality levels, while established companies seem to have more problems delivering their products promptly. In this article, based on our experience working with Huawei’s Consumer Experience Design (CXD) team, we discuss how organizations can ensure successful designs by adopting processes to deliver products with a great user experience.

Let’s ask the following question: How can industry and manufacturers manage to successfully get a UX idea into and through the software-development cycle? We argue that branding, trends, and timing are vital components in that puzzle and are often not taken fully into account by all organizational stakeholders, even if existing processes include HCI approaches.

A Holistic UX Approach

A mental shift from focusing solely on usability toward a more UX-driven focus must occur with-in traditional software engineering companies. The Web, multimedia, and media-centric services are now accessible and available to more consumers—the increasing amount of hardware options, including more advanced support infrastructures, is helping to make all of it more accessible and more usable.

Unfortunately, many companies in the mobile consumer electronics sector are still stuck with outdated control mechanisms in their development processes, ones that do not adequately support a focus on user experience. Today’s product-control mechanisms still have a stronger relationship to software-development costs and rationales than to ensuring a good user experience.

So what can we do to start ensuring development processes that better focus on UX? Certain critical factors must be in place and addressed effectively to make this happen:

Usability is something users expect and take for granted in products. Users don’t notice the functionality and performance of a device until they create annoyance. Users will notice and complain about the product when the expected outcome or usage doesn’t live up to expectations.

Total product design must be addressed. Products must be solid and attractive in all aspects of design, from hardware to software. New and hot functionality is not enough anymore; today it is the design of the total experience that sells.

The brand is an important part of the total product design. Indeed, it is just as vital for success as the design itself. New kids on the block always have a hard time; they must create roles and identities that are both understood and accepted. The brand identity must be nurtured, maintained, and built with care if consumers are to stay loyal.

Trends must be monitored and understood. How can you predict if a “fuzz” or “buzz” in a small group of people will turn into a mass-market trend? How do you foresee that, for example, a mobile touch-screen device will wind up in everyone’s hand rather than becoming a status symbol in the pockets of businessmen? Trend awareness and understanding about marketing, brands, and target group behaviors have always been important, but in the UX era they will be vital for success.

Timing is needed for the successful launch of a product and has to be viewed from different angles. If you talk to product owners, they will argue that if a specific device misses its target release window, then that device could and maybe should be canceled. This is obvious and understandable. Yet another, more complex aspect of timing that should be recognized, analyzed, and taken into consideration when planning products is the maturity of the market for a device with a specific functionality. When is a specific functionality or technology mature enough to be embraced and used without any hurdles or suspicion from the market and end users?

Total design, brand, trends, and adequate timing are subjects in need of further understanding within today’s consumer electronics industry, including how to predict coming trends and brands, when to launch products, and how to secure and control the resulting UX designs throughout the product-development process.

Ensuring Good UX

A good understanding of UX is one side of the coin; how to structure an organization with respect to this understanding is the other side. It is evident that it has become more and more important to deliver products with high-quality UX. But as if this weren’t enough, these products have to be developed faster and faster in order to be competitive, so it also becomes vital for an organization to continue to keep development times short.

One approach adopted by many organizations to ensure quality and meet the time challenge is to work in parallel, multidisciplinary teams. At the CXD department at Huawei Devices, we formed a virtual creative design team whose purpose is to ensure UX concepts early in the development process so that the UX intent is visible in the organization earlier than in previous setups. The old setup gave little if any time to change or correct the concept direction (see Figure 1).

The new procedure (see Figure 2) ensures a UX approach and makes it possible to visualize UX requirements early in the process for all stakeholders to discuss and agree on. The traditional engineering approach is to split the product complexity into smaller, more manageable subfunctions. In the end, all of the subfunctions are put together and a product appears, hopefully as the designer intended. Any changes from the intended product idea are handled through iterated defect reporting and defect handling until the product is judged to have sufficient product quality. This means that product quality is measured mainly by controlling defect levels and defect status. This approach might be sufficient when striving to ensure a product’s quality from a task and goal perspective, but it does not guarantee good user experience or success in the market. Today the UX quality level needs to be handled separately. This forces us to expand our understanding of what quality within UX means and to find ways to measure whether products meet the intended user experience.

A Way Forward

Even though most companies have UX statements and visions written on their walls as business goals, they are often missing an overall UX strategy. A product’s quality definition is still linked to different sublevels, measurements, and predictions of defects as criteria; it seldom includes usability and/or UX quality criteria. This means there is no possible way of measuring the “temperature” of UX in the product during the development between vision and final product.

If we are to ensure an acceptable level of UX quality in the development process, we must be able to do the following:

Monitor the product vision throughout the development process using internal review methods to ensure UX product quality. UX quality criteria and milestones should be included in an overall design process that influences the development process. If necessary, new roles should be created to act as guardians of UX quality.

Refocus the research organization from traditional usability validation activities to include more research of user and consumer behavior, which will foster understanding, support strategic UX decisions, and exemplify the company’s UX vision.

Finally, we need to organize creative UX teams with experienced designers and engineers that cover all perspectives of design. Let the creative UX team work together to research, evaluate, visualize, estimate, and prove concepts for all new major UX requirements in early stages of a project and then present them to the rest of the team. This will ensure a common understanding and create UX advocates in the projects in all different design disciplines, from software design to product planning.

The challenge is to make everyone in an organization understand that UX must be the backbone of product development and not, as is often the case, a “lipstick on a pig” add-on at the end of the project. We need to change existing development processes to be built around UX definitions. UX is a perspective we must apply in order to successfully launch products at the right point in time within an “open” market window that supports new and existing trends.

One thing is for sure: UX will change how we perceive and perform product development. Companies that can adapt efficient ways to work and develop their products will be the ones to take the lead and be successful in the future.

Authors

Mats Hellman, Senior Director of UI Board, Consumer Experience Design Center, Huawei Device Ltd., Co.

Huaqi Hao, Head of UE Systems Group Management, Consumer Experience Design Center, Huawei Device Ltd., Co.

Figures

F1Figure 1. The old UX design procedure.

F2Figure 2. The new UX design procedure.

©2011 ACM  1072-5220/11/0700  $10.00

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