UX platforms, technology, and development methods have evolved rapidly over the past decade. With every passing month comes an announcement of a new device, operating system, or UI toolkit. Open source libraries, Web-service APIs, and agile method flavors continue to proliferate like rabbits. This incessant pace of innovation yields the impression that the opportunities for UX innovation are potentially infinite.
Applied to this vision of an unconstrained future, the words of famous baseball player and manager Yogi Berra were never truer. He noted that “in theory, theory and practice are the same; in practice, they are not.”
Developing a UX strategy requires understanding factors that span the continuum between theory and practice. The art and science of UX design is founded in theory. The delivery of a product into the marketplace is an exercise in practice that is constrained by both market trends and sales distribution channels.
UX practitioners are employed in a world in which the physics of competition, regulation, economics, and marketing, like gravity, exert an immutable force on design decisions both large and small. In total, the interplay between design decisions and business models shapes not only the experience delivered but also the financial health of the company producing it.
In their daily “business of UX” life, product designers stress over these gravitational shifts because they destabilize design strategy direction as well as the ever-precarious balance between design decisions and business decisions.
John Nesbitt introduced the concept of megatrends in his groundbreaking book of the same name . These are the trends that drive change across the business landscape and define the broader context for policy decisions. Ignoring them is a recipe for failure.
Four megatrends currently affecting UX strategy are:
- Consumerization of IT
- Software as a service (SaaS)
- Multi-platform experience
- Hybrid cloud deployment.
Consumerization of IT changes the rules. The prevalence of high-quality UX in popular mobile apps and Web services has raised users’ expectations. Products in every domain are now subject to extreme usability critique. It has become almost impossible for a new product to succeed commercially without a competent UX whenever there are competitive alternatives .
This trend will continue as millennials (the first digital-native generation) dominate the job market and assume the majority of management positions. Corporate IT policies supporting a “bring your own device to work” practice provide ongoing critical context, where users judge software applied to fulfill work roles side by side with their own personal consumer and social apps.
Even the most technical software startups in code development and IT automation are making significant upfront investments in UX. This behavior has been influenced by the venture capital community, where the larger VC firms have introduced design-partner roles to shepherd the usability risk profile of their investments, a trend documented by Irene Au .
The emerging sector of low-code and no-code B2B cloud tools such as Workato and IFTTT is shifting tasks formerly relegated to IT professionals onto business users. This portion of the consumerization-of-IT trend is the result of UX innovation, not customer expectations. Pushing this advanced technology to less technical users can be accomplished only via a combination of automation and good UX design.
Software as a service empowers business users to make IT purchasing decisions. Historically, business-software purchasing was controlled by IT specialists (who were non-users) and then deployed upon captive employees expected to endure usability issues because they had no other options.
In software as a service (SaaS), product delivery is through a Web browser. The only reliance on corporate IT is in provisioning a computer with an Internet connection.
The SaaS delivery model often allows for free trial usage, making it both technically and economically feasible for business users to exert influence over corporate software purchasing decisions. They bring to this decision their high expectations regarding UX quality, as noted in the consumerization-of-IT megatrend. They are now empowered purchasing partners but are also assuming both the benefit and the risk of introducing new technology themselves. Millennials and younger generations are quite comfortable with this responsibility.
Multi-platform delivery is expected. Today, mobile, including wearables and tablets, is an important platform for most industries. Consumer products and services adopted a mobile-first design strategy a decade ago. Leading enterprise and medical products now provide mobile experiences, although the bulk of daily interaction still occurs on the desktop via local applications or the browser UX if using SaaS.
Strategies for addressing this multi-platform trend are highly dependent on both the product domain and the brand strength of the product provider.
Important UX strategy decisions include:
- Degree of consistency across mobile platforms
- Degree of consistency between mobile and desktop
- Full versus partial scope delivered on the mobile.
A strong brand company (e.g., Facebook) can intentionally deliver an identical experience across all mobile platforms and ignore platform UI guidelines with no risk of customer-base drop-off. On the other hand, a large company coming late to the mobile world may elect to rigidly adhere to platform UI guidelines for fear that not doing so would lead to unfavorable reviews from early adopters, their introductory effort being labeled with a “they don’t get mobile” review in both professional and social media.
A compelling example of full versus partial scope design strategy can be found within a single medical product line. Electronic medical records (EMR) solutions typically provide a patient portal. The patient mobile experience needs to deliver the full functional scope of the patient Web UX regardless of the smaller form factor. In fact, mobile will likely be the dominant patient platform. For the clinical practitioner, the full scope of an EMR is neither expected nor feasible on a smartphone. Only the highest-frequency use cases need to be supported. These cases will focus on situations where the doctor is away from their office desk, walking through the clinic, examining a patient, or at home on the weekend handling an emergency call.
Hybrid cloud deployment. The hybrid deployment model is typically found in two different business scenarios. One is good news for usability and the other generally bad.
The bad scenario is where companies have built (or acquired) cloud applications to augment their legacy portfolio. In this scenario, the hybrid cloud deployment exacerbates usability issues because the cumulative solution sold invariably contains multiple generations of product and UI not designed to work together.
The good scenario is where the local computational power is still required to enable the product functionality but it is accounted for upfront in the UX strategy. Adobe Creative Cloud is an example where the local CPU is required for tools such as Illustrator or Photoshop, and the cloud provides complementary functionality for team collaboration, multiple-device support, and shared content management.
When utilized with good UX architecture, the hybrid configuration can deliver consistent and high-quality UX across platforms. Even more important, it can deliver automated context and content management, which users perceive as a significant usability gain. A simple example of this automated value is taking pictures on a phone and having them automatically appear with geocoding on the desktop.
So, for consumer apps, hybrid cloud can increase usability, while for enterprise apps it tends to exacerbate existing usability deficiencies.
It has become almost impossible for a new product to succeed commercially without a competent UX whenever there are competitive alternatives.
The megatrends bottom line. Different industries will gain or lose as a result of these megatrends, but no industry can change their trajectory. More important, these trends and others not covered in this article will continue to shift the balance of power toward users while continuing to raise the competitive usability bar higher.
Identifying the megatrends sets the contextual stage for UX strategy definition in theory. Managing the daily interplay between design constraints and business factors constitutes the core practice of delivering on that strategy successfully.
There are many internal and external factors that affect the creation of a commercial product during its march to market. The most prevalent ones can be placed into the following categories (Figure 1):
|Figure 1. Key constraints that affect a commercial product’s development.|
- Market and business
- Capital (financial).
Market and business constraints include the profile of target users, the influence of large install bases, and, most important, the distribution and sales models that concurrently sustain and disrupt the business world every day.
Technical constraints are imposed by available computing platforms, the latest or legacy UI toolkits, network latency, open source availability, patent law, cross-licensing agreements, interoperability standards, and regulations relating to security and privacy.
Organizational constraints include the position of the UX team within the corporate hierarchy and its degree of influence and maturity. However, the dominant organizational constraint most designers face is the software development process itself—usually some flavor of agile practiced with varying degrees of precision ranging from fake to true embodiment. How UX fits into agile has been the subject of many articles and debates within Interactions and other publications for the past two decades.
Capital availability determines the time and budget constraints under which UX research and design activities take place within the overall development lifecycle. It also determines the acquisition of technology and partnerships that can bring assets to improve design or increase functional scope.
UX practitioners have little influence over business constraints and, like the rest of R&D, generally must accept what is dictated by the market and competition. UX can participate in technology-selection decisions, particularly those affecting UI construction. Regarding organizational and budget constraints, UX leadership will typically have some ability to influence both to a degree.
Irrespective of influence level, UX strategy needs to account for and make decisions optimized across the full context of all four categories.
The fact that UX strategists can’t alter the business-model reality often leads them to neglect these key constraints during design-strategy formation. Accounting for the sales distribution model as part of the UX design process is of equal importance to understanding users in achieving market success.
Within the market and business category, design constraints can be divided into two groups: those universal across distribution channels and those specific to a given sales distribution channel.
Universal business constraints. Independent of industry, most digital products encounter design constraints related to the competition and the market status quo. In addition, companies that are hugely successful will encounter an especially painful set of constraints caused by a large user base reluctant to change.
The reference product dilemma. A common constraint in UX design today is the result of the de facto UX patterns established by popular products and services. These patterns set the interaction behavior expectations of billions of users. Good or bad, they have been learned; many are so familiar they have been relegated to muscle memory.
New products need not be direct competitors to these reference products for them to exert a powerful constraint over their UX design. Introduce a search feature into any medical product and users will expect it to perform exactly like Google. It does not matter that an incorrect result set can kill a patient, while for a general Internet search engine there is zero risk in omitting a result—the primary reason they can be so fast. Within the user’s world view, search is just search and they want what they have become accustomed to.
Examples of reference experiences include:
- Search: Google
- Shopping: Amazon (shopping cart and catalog flows)
- Spreadsheet: Microsoft Excel
- Social media: Facebook
- Software coding: Eclipse IDE
- Email: Apple Mail and MS Outlook (for the Web, Gmail)
- Collaboration: Slack.
Most of these de facto patterns were consciously engineered and heavily usability tested. Yet they represent only what was believed to be the best at that point in time.
As new interaction techniques emerge, it is often possible to create better alternatives; however, doing so can be risky.
Economists refer to this phenomenon as a path-defined economy, the classic example of which is the QWERTY keyboard. Demonstrably better keyboards were created by human factors engineers decades ago, but the cost to retrain all the world’s typists was too high. This same effect has taken hold in UX design, even though software as a medium is infinitely more malleable than a physical keyboard.
An example of the power of the de facto standard is the e-commerce checkout wizard flow. Regardless of where you shop online, the layout and step order will be remarkably similar. Even though UX innovation could potentially improve this pattern, the economic advantage is nil, and the risk of confusion leading to abandoned shopping carts is high.
Early enterprise-procurement solutions from SAP and Oracle had alternative checkout experiences—user feedback was dominated by requests to make it more like Amazon. This is not to imply that those enterprise interfaces were better, but rather that they never had a chance because they were different.
Similarly, medical systems that utilize a feed pattern mimic the Facebook implementation by placing the latest information at the top of the feed and denoting participants by a small photo or avatar.
How much better does a new design have to be to break free from the gravitational force of a de facto standard pattern? While there is no specific number that can be offered, commercial history suggests that the unit of measurement is orders of magnitude better.
Products that truly break away from the de facto gravitational effect do so by differentiating themselves (for real or via marketing) as a new product paradigm, not a better UX. Instagram’s emergence as a social media platform could be considered an example of innovating via a new experience pattern to create a different paradigm. Because the company changed the dominant medium to photos and moved away from text it was not constrained by the standard UX for social media at that time. Snapchat could be considered a similarly successful example that was facilitated by changing the micro-interaction rules but not the media type.
Introduce a search feature into any medical product and users will expect it to perform exactly like Google.
Competitive product patterns. Direct competitors create constraints at both the macro- and micro-interaction levels of UX design. Two examples from the evolution of the spreadsheet illustrate this point.
A macro example is the cell grid pattern of numbers containing formulas, invented by Dan Bricklin in VisiCalc in 1979. This grid layout is the foundation of users’ conceptual model.
Is there a better conceptual model than placing formulas in the same cells as numbers? Lotus became the spreadsheet market leader with its Lotus 123 product, launched in 1983. Lotus believed it had a better experience design with a product named Improv in 1991. In this case, Lotus was actually competing with itself, but that is immaterial to the example. Improv was withdrawn from the market in 1996: It could not incentivize users to cross the training barrier when it placed formulas outside of cells.
A micro-interaction example is the introduction of the tabbed “notebook” spreadsheet UI in Quattro Pro for Windows 1.0 from Borland in 1992. This micro-interaction was duplicated within a year by competing products, including Microsoft Excel, and has remained a signature interaction/feature in spreadsheets for the past 25 years. This interaction has carried over to smartphone spreadsheets, where space limitations significantly reduce its utility and usability.
Constraints specific to sales distribution channels. The constraints caused by the sales and distribution channel that a product will take to market should be accounted for within the UX strategy. It is frequently the primary source of tension in the constant rebalancing of design versus business decisions. Optimizing the balance is critical because recovery from a failed product launch is extremely difficult, regardless of company size.
Today the market environment for digital products and services is at a transition point, where direct distribution (legacy) and Internet delivery models coexist. Most products utilize a single distribution channel and a single sales model, but there are some counter-examples such as Turbo Tax, Intuit’s popular tax-preparation solution in the U.S., which is offered both as a boxed product and as an online service. The same is true for an enterprise solution like Salesforce. com. Large deals may be facilitated by a direct sales team, but smaller customers will purchase a subscription on the Web by themselves.
The “enterprise direct” approach revisited. Complex enterprise solutions such as SAP and Oracle, as well electronic medical systems, are still sold through a commissioned sales force in a procurement cycle that can extend over months or even years. This sales model is unlikely to disappear soon due to the high cost to purchase and deploy solutions in the customized configurations that corporations require.
The purchasing decision for a large system will typically be made by a chief information officer (CIO) in conjunction with a functional area executive, for example, the head of manufacturing, finance, or human resources. To some degree, this mitigates the consumerization-of-IT effect, although these executives will be cognizant of the fact that employees will complain loudly about poor usability.
The primary design consideration for products sold through a direct sales model is to demo well. Competitive sales teams will be demoing their products too. However, the purchase decision makers are unlikely to engage in a hands-on evaluation, nor do they typically have the domain knowledge required to do so.
This “sales by demo” cycle constrains the UX such that it must be optimized for the needs of the sales team above the needs of the target user population. The sales team needs the UX to visually support their end-to-end solution storytelling. An example of a solution story would be an ERP product for food production that manages the entire process from “seed to shelf,” including all transportation, processing, and financial steps along the way. The sales demo story must illustrate a broad but shallow perspective, while actual hands-on usage will be characterized by diving deeply into a subset of the overall solution suite.
To succeed in this case, the visual design needs to be horizontally consistent across all modules in the end-to-end demo flow to avoid the perception of media breaks and poor integration across functional modules. Context needs to be passed at every module boundary so no instance of double data entry is required. Visual design consistency will also benefit actual users. However, the interaction design investment and usability testing should be optimized in the vertical dimension of deep usage in a single or adjacent set of modules for the domain specialists.
Given that development resources are finite, a direct sales channel typically tips the balance between business and design trade-offs to favor the sales team over the end user.
The impact of the hybrid cloud megatrend exacerbates this tension because the newer cloud and older on-premises products will be using different UI technology and were never designed to work together. They are typically generations apart, and it is hard to hide the age difference during a sales demo. Given that most users will touch only a subset of the solution, these UX generational differences may cause fewer usability issues in practice than they would appear to in theory.
The app store consumer experience changes the rules. In the legacy world of software boxes on computer-store shelves or direct sales for enterprise, the computer media and industry press played a significant role in influencing purchasing decisions. The prime reason for this was that the cost of software products was relatively high. Before the advent of bundled office suites in 1990, a single spreadsheet program cost about $400 (over $1,000 today with inflation). Payment involved a large upfront license fee, followed by significant update fees for each new version. This front-loaded cost factor combined with delayed or no access to trial versions created an evaluation barrier for end users that no longer exists.
In contrast, the app-store model provides a continuous flow from the point of discovery (on Web or on device) to access of reviews and competitive alternatives, through the point of sale and then automatically into installation. It terminates with invocation of the product’s own user interface and commencement of actual usage—all in a minimal number of clicks and over a relatively short period of time.
App stores themselves are a special case of shared service design problem that have many potential points of failure outside the app UX designers’ control. In addition, the app-store business contract may limit how you present your product in the store and the degree to which it can be extended via in-app purchases in the field. These rules constitute a significant set of constraints, and they are generally inflexible due to the power of the platform providers.
Embedded within the app-store model are three intertwined market effects:
- Minimal time between purchase and first usage
- Low cost of competitive discovery and evaluation
- Social reviews replacing professional media specialist reviews.
Today, SaaS solutions and productivity applications typically provide a free trial period, during which experience and functional evaluation take place primarily by actual users rather than their management or IT proxies. In addition, many consumer applications offer free versions supported by advertising. Prices for consumer mobile apps that are not free are typically low enough that many users can afford to try several and discard the losers. Alternatively, mobile apps are included at no additional charge as part of the multi-platform megatrend and covered by the cost of a single account license and/or an advertising-driven model.
Due to the fact that reviews are positioned early at the point of discovery in an app-store flow, a critical business goal for new independent apps is to rapidly acquire positive ratings. Without positive ratings, it is difficult to achieve recognition and differentiation from the high volume of competitor products immediately available on the same screen. Users shopping for an app will frequently sort the results by review stars.
App stores utilize social reviews (aka star ratings). Social reviews have become their own economy, eclipsing professional journalist reviews in importance; they can also trump advertising spending. As a UX designer, you have no influence on the experience or competence level of the social review community. Social reviews can appear within minutes of a product launch. Also, these reviews can be written by anyone, including the producer’s employees and marketing department, as frequently happens with mobile apps.
From a strategy perspective, there is a huge difference between a scripted sales demo and the product review process, whether social or professional. In the product review, the reviewer chooses the tasks. In a sales demo, the “tasks” follow a canned script optimized to show the product in the best possible light.
The removal of the price, competitive search friction, and installation-time constraints in the app store, combined with the SaaS distribution model, are key economic drivers for improved usability and underpin the consumerization-of-IT megatrend.
Within the app-store distribution model, the primary focus for UX design should be on delightful first use for high-frequency tasks that will be performed by the majority of users. Success in this area will drive reviews and conversion to paying customers. Hopefully, the optimization for first use will not compromise the usability for mature use, but even if it does, this still represents the best business trade-off.
Shared-service economy models. The shared-service economy has introduced a new UX strategy challenge: It has turned millions of consumers accustomed to high-quality B2C mobile apps into producers. Shared-service platform providers such as Uber or Airbnb must deploy highly usable B2B experiences to non-technical, non-specialist users.
If a ride-sharing service driver fails to understand and successfully use the driver’s application, the entire service ecosystem fails.
Every shared-service solution has this same UX Achilles heel—it’s the reason that these companies have invested heavily in UX. Their only viable UX strategy is high-quality UX facing both the consumers and the producers utilizing their platforms.
They may or may not choose to invest equally in their internal-facing operations systems. Their risk in this B2E area is primarily employee turnoff, similar to the call-center scenario for enterprise solutions.
Software as a pharmaceutical. One emerging business innovation is mobile medical applications distributed via a pharmaceutical prescription. This was first achieved in the U.S. by WellDoc in 2014 with its Federal Drug Administration (FDA)  class-2-approved BlueStar prescription solution for type 2 diabetes patients. BlueStar demonstrated in clinical trials that it can lower the average long-term blood glucose level (A1C)  of a high-risk type 2 diabetic by approximately two percentage points, similar to or even better than several popular drugs. This mobile-health solution was granted its own prescription drug code and is financially adjudicated as a pharmaceutical. Doctors prescribe it, and insurance companies that have added it to their formulary reimburse a monthly subscription cost. If patients do not use it regularly, the insurance company is not billed.
This introduces a constraint never seen before in a mobile domain: The user needs to refill their prescription every 90 days to keep the app active. The doctor must draft a new prescription every year. The refill-and-renew UX flows are embedded in the application but are constrained by the pharmaceutical adjudication process. These flows are the highest-priority “can’t fail” experiences (other than dosing insulin), both to keep the patient healthy and to keep the company solvent.
The non-prescription version, which does not contain insulin-dosing capability, can follow the typical app-store distribution model but, like most health solutions, is likely to integrate into the broader Apple Health or Samsung sHealth platforms because users are frequently managing their entire quantified self with more than one health objective at a time. Delivery of the prescription version takes place through application stores, but a unique prescription number is required to fully activate it.
The majority of business versus UX design choices are influenced by a combination of market megatrends and sales distribution channels. Within this context, the trade-offs vary by industry. The design constraints placed upon an FDA-regulated mobile health solution cannot be compared to those of a chat app for teenagers that blocks parental access.
However, the requirement for high-quality UX has become universal to achieve success across all distribution channels and industries.
Therefore, every digital product or service requires a UX strategy that considers the business dimensions described here and more. Doing so optimizes for a high-quality user experience in conjunction with the best commercial outcome possible.
Finally, it needs to be loudly emphasized: Even the most exhaustive UX strategy must be frequently revisited because the underlying market megatrends and constraints evolve continuously to disrupt the most carefully crafted plans of mice and men.
5. The A1C test measures your average blood glucose during the previous two to three months, but especially during the previous month. For people without diabetes, the normal A1C range is 4 to 6 percent.
Daniel Rosenberg (rcdoux.com) is a former global design executive with 35-plus years’ experience. He was one of the first practitioners in the field and has numerous publications and IxD inventions to his credit. Currently his days are filled with teaching at San Jose State University, UX consulting, editing the Business of UX forum, and board memberships including the Interaction Design Foundation. firstname.lastname@example.org
©2018 ACM 1072-5520/18/03 $15.00
Permission to make digital or hard copies of all or part of this work for personal or classroom use is granted without fee provided that copies are not made or distributed for profit or commercial advantage and that copies bear this notice and the full citation on the first page. To copy otherwise, to republish, to post on servers or to redistribute to lists, requires prior specific permission and/or a fee.
The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2018 ACM, Inc.