Insight to Innovation: A User-Centred Approach to Consistently Creating Breakthrough Ideas

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People do surprising things. That is the first thing you come to realise when you start designing with users in mind. What each of us takes for granted is that if you are one of the people lined up to solve a problem or design a solution, you probably already know too much to genuinely see things from a user’s perspective.

Ian Worley, Executive Director & Global Head of User Experience & Design, Morgan Stanley

Ian is speaking at the Business Analysis Conference Europe 2015, 21-23 September, London.

Of course being an expert is ideal if you want to get hired for your expertise, but it can be an impairment if you genuinely want to design products and services that are intuitive and a joy to use. In reality, it’s not expertise that is the problem…it’s the assumptions that come along with expertise. It’s these assumptions about what we “know” people do that lead most designers to create user experiences that fail in some fundamental way. This is because once we understand something, it becomes difficult to imagine not understanding it. As a result, expert designers, no matter how skilled, are always at risk of designing for themselves.

If you have ever stared at something you have written and not been able to spot a spelling error, you know what it’s like to be too close to something. It is this knowledge of the world seen through our own eyes that undermines our ability to design for others effectively. Unfortunately, this same phenomenon can also hinder innovation, for exactly the same reasons.

Of course, it takes skill and talent (and even expertise) to create great user experiences. But it also requires the rigour to continuously question and challenge your assumptions about what the right solution is. And that is where a research-based design process comes in: User-Centred Design.

By combining talent, skill and expertise with a process that continuously challenges your understanding of what works, you can significantly improve the quality of the experiences you create for people, particularly where interfaces with technology are concerned. Given the negative effect that poor user experience has on users’ perceptions of your products or brand, that is genuinely good news.

To design truly great user experiences, you need to get inside people’s heads. You need to understand how they see the world and the things that motivate them. To do this you have to talk to people. You have to go where they go, do what they do and observe them in the context of trying to complete tasks that your product or service is meant to support. It is only through direct observation that we gain the kinds of insights needed to not only design empathetically but to innovate as well.

That is not to say that people tell you what they want. They don’t. But it’s not what they tell you that is important. That is the shortcoming of focus groups. It’s the difference between what they say they do and what they actually do that matters. And it’s in discovering these latent, unspoken needs that innovation emerges.

Of course, if you ask someone whether they want a particular innovation, they are unlikely to give you a decisive answer. How many people would have told you they wanted a mobile phone 20 years ago? But if you simulate the kind of experience they will have with this new product or service and let them experience it first hand, then you can get genuine feedback that allows you to improve existing interfaces and experiment safely with radical innovations that would otherwise be too risky to try. And this is where the magic begins.

By rigorously following a User-Centered Design process, you can identify opportunities for innovation and then evaluate possible solutions in order to take risks that your competition wouldn’t dare to. By involving users continuously throughout the design process, you gain insights that lead to breakthrough ideas which can ultimately be tested with users to ensure you create delightful and intuitive experiences.

But don’t just take my word for it. Look around you at the products and services you love. When you look behind the scenes, you will find that customer insight, prototyping and evaluation, done formally or infomally, is behind most of them.

Take the Apple iPhone, for example. Far from the mystique of genius-centred design that Apple likes to promote, the iPhone was prototyped and evaluated nearly 100 times before it was launched…and these were just the working prototypes. There were innumerable other prototypes that preceded those, from sketches and foam models to clickable screen prototypes. Each of these were evaluated, some with experts, some with users, to assess how well they worked and if they had the “wow” factor that would lead to a breakthrough product. And Apple is not the only example. Google, Nokia,

Amazon, Starbucks and hosts of other companies who deliver quality customer or user experiences rely on prototyping and evaluation as well as ethnographic or contextual research with potential customers to consistently get it right.

Of course, User-Centred Design is not a substitute for talent. The iPhone would not have been the success that it was without an immense amount of talent, craftmanship and attendance to detail of Ives and his team. But as interactive products become more complex and serve ever broader or even specialised audiences, talent and expertise cease to be enough. What is needed is a process which provides consistent and reliable insight into what could be as well as what works and what doesn’t.

This is what makes User-Centred Design so powerful. Because of its insistence on observation and understanding of real user needs, behaviours and attitudes, User-Centred Design, especially in the hands of a multi-disciplinary and talented design team, consistently leads to breakthrough ideas about what is possible which can then, through iterative prototyping and evaluation of those ideas, enable design teams to quickly weed out the ideas that don’t work, and refine the ones that do into a final product or service that both works and is delightful to use.

At the end of the day, as designers our responsibility is to create products and services which improve the lives of the individuals that we are designing for, not just demonstrate our own cleverness or talent. True talent and cleverness is the ability to genuinely understand and respond to the people and the world around us to create products and services which are naturally transformative. By this I mean products and services which make a tangible difference to individuals’ lives in a way which, while they never could have imagined it themselves, feels both natural and intuitive.

In my experience in nearly 25 years of design practice, 15 of which has been about designing interactive products, the only way to do this consistently is to involve people in the process of design…to listen, observe and ultimately have empathy with them. User-Centred Design, by bringing users into the design process, creates the opportunities for designers to practice these essential skills and be able to intuit (and ultimately evaluate) solutions that help make the world a better place.

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All articles are © 2015 by the authors.


ian_worleyIan Worley, Executive Director & Global Head of User Experience & Design, Morgan Stanley

Ian is speaking at the Business Analysis Conference Europe 2015, 21-23 September, London.


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