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sergio

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Toward an Integrated Approach to Product Strategy and Design – Part 3 of 3

In part 1 and part 2 of this series, I explored synergies that exist between product development and user experience design as well as how the two fields fail to leverage those synergies in the product development process. In this part, I explain what product development and user experience teams can do to collaborate effectively.

What Can Product Developers and User Experience Designers Do Better

The instances where product developers and user experience designers collaborate poorly can be easily ameliorated. Overall, this means incorporating a more dynamic and integrated product development process where both teams work together on key phases and in shorter and more frequent cycles rather than long, inflexible phases. The particular steps that need to be taken to accomplish a more integrated process are outlined below.

  • Both teams should utilize an iterative and dynamic product design process instead of rigid, linear approach.
  • Both user experience designers and product developers should be involved in identifying opportunities, competitive analysis, market and user research, feature design, design refinement, implementation.
  • Product developers should not seek to define how each feature should work, but should rather define the broader project goals and product requirements.
  • User experience designers should stick to constraints defined by product developers, should consider the viability of their design in the context of implementation and marketability, and should consult with product developers on viability of features.
  • Both the user experience and product development teams should garner more frequent feedback from each other.
  • Treat the specifications documents and user experience design collateral as living documents.
Iterative and Dynamic Process

The most important optimizations to the product design process is incorporating shorter and more frequent product development cycles as well as involving each team in key phases. Although one team may take the lead in a particular phase, both teams should be involved in tasks that can benefit from both sets of expertise.

An Iterative and Dynamic Product Development Process (This abstraction does not implementation.)

An Iterative and Dynamic Product Development Process (This abstraction does not include implementation.)

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Toward an Integrated Approach to Product Strategy and Design – Part 2 of 3

In part 1 of this series, I explored synergies between product development and user experience design. In this part, I write about how product development and user experience design teams fail to collaborate effectively.

How Product Development and User Experience Design Fail to Work Well Together

As described above, there are many intersections in the product development and user experience design methodologies, and where those methodologies meet, they approach the same problems and similar tasks from different perspectives and with unique competencies. This means that solutions derived collectively should be more robust and accurate. However, the two groups fail to effectively work together during key stages of the product design cycle, and many inefficiencies are introduced into the process. The following are phases where synergies should but fail to occur.

Finding Technology-Based and Market-Based Opportunities

One of the areas where great strides can be made is in identifying opportunities for new products and product improvements. Both product developers and user experience designers are adept at spotting opportunities, but they do so differently and often do not find the same ones. Sadly, combining both sets of identified opportunities is often overlooked, and new products lack the full set of potential improvements.

Product developers are particularly attuned to the industry and the general market place. They study market and industry research and have an outstanding grasp of the broad trends and opportunities present in the market. Product developers also stay abreast of prevailing technological trends, and their knowledge extends to the macro level to product testing, implementation management, and market research. Most importantly, product developers have the skills necessary to analyze market opportunities to determine which hold the greatest business potential. In addition, their expertise extends beyond the big picture to the granular level; product developers are knowledgeable with specific user types and needs as well as with the technologies particular to their product portfolio.

User experience designers are not only well aware of the general market place, but they also have an exceptionally strong understanding of opportunities at the micro level. A great part of their job is identifying customers, interviewing them, and listening to their needs and desires. User experience designers tend to have a healthy obsession with optimizing individual products or classes of products. They voraciously consume related knowledge in the form of user testing, research, and industry best practices. Beyond delving into comprehending users and their needs, user experience designers tend to strictly follow the latest technological trends and innovation, seeking opportunities to fruitfully incorporate the latest technology in their product designs. Further still, because competitive analysis is an integral part of their process, user experience designers have a very broad knowledge of competing products, the technologies they use, as well as opportunities for surpassing them.

Combining the two methodologies should lead to a holistic approach that leverages both the macro-level understanding of product developers and the micro-level knowledge of user experience designers. But even though there is great potential from the two fields collaborating to identify opportunities, they rarely do. The knowledge sharing between the two groups and cooperative brainstorming are often lacking.

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Toward an Integrated Approach to Product Strategy and Design – Part 1 of 3

Product development and user experience design are two fields that should, but rarely, collaborate effectively to design and define products that consumers will find delightful to use. There exist many natural synergies between the two disciplines, and each field’s strengths complement the other’s weaknesses. Despite this, product development and user experience teams often work in siloed circumstances with insufficient communication and collaboration and sometimes with quibbling. The current modus operandi leads to loss of productivity, longer time to market, higher costs, and products that fall short of their full potential.

User experience design is a relatively new field that has gained mainstream recognition in the past decade, and consequently, there has not been a lot of time to establish best practices for product development and user experience design to work most effectively together. The good thing is that it does not take a huge paradigm shift but rather an evolution of the current model to attain a more integrated approach to product strategy and design.

How the Process Works Right Now

Currently, the product design and development process typically starts with a product developer or a team of product developers being tasked by the executive management to conceive and oversee the production and distribution of a new product or suite of products. The product management team will conduct market research and competitive analysis, engage in fuzzy front-end brainstorming, conceive features, and will compose a long document specifying the product.

The specification document will then usually be passed on to the user experience design team, which will further define the product by designing how features will work and elements will be structured. The user experience designers will recommend new features, improve others, and redact a few.  Their designs will be articulated in specialized formats that are great for capturing elements of the design, but are not easy to understand for executives.

Subsequently, mock-ups or working prototypes of the product design will be created and tested by the user experience design team or a related team such as usability researchers. Once data and feedback have been gathered, the product developers and user experience designers will work to refine the product design. Usually, the designs produced by the user experience designers will be incorporated into the initial specification document.

At this point, or in conjunction with the user experience design, the product developers will formulate a strategy for making and selling the product. Finally, they will then manage the implementation, marketing, and distribution of the finished product or suite of products.

The current product strategy design is quite rigid and linear with long phases.

The standard product strategy and design process is quite linear with long phases. (This simplification does not include testing.)

This process is usually quite linear, and the constituent parts tend to be quite discrete from on another. Knowing that they only have one go at it, both the product development and user experience design teams fight for influence. Consequently, there tend to be many missed opportunities, inefficiencies and bruised egos along the way.

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Web Squared: What It Means for Product Design

It has been five years since John Battelle and Tim O’Reilly launched their Web 2.0 Conference. The Web has changed immensely in that short period. Since 2004, web-enabled mobile devices have gained wide-spread adoption, all kinds of devices have started interfacing with the internet, events on the Web have started occurring in real-time, and we have increasingly been emitting data in our everyday life through our mobile devices, on websites, as well as countless other channels.

John Battelle and Tim O’Reilly have recently published a report, titled “Web Squared: Web 2.0 Five Years On,” that reviews major changes over the past five years, sums up the current state of the Web, and predicts where it is going in the near future. “Web Squared” is the term that the authors give to the current state of the Web; it has evolved beyond the term “Web 2.0.” The paper sublimely encapsulates the past, present, and future, and it should be required reading for all product strategists and user experience designers.

A More Inclusive Web

To say that the Web has grown might be missing the point. The Web has grown not only in size, but more importantly, it has also grown to include many new ways of interfacing with it. In 2004, the primary mode of connecting to it was through a computer. Interacting with the Web involved a screen and standard modes of input such as a keyboard and mouse or trackpad. In 2009, we interface with the Web through innumerable novel devices that are fundamentally different from the old interaction paradigm. We may connect to the Web through widgets on an HDTV or through a touch interface on a mobile device. I like to think of these as varying nodes or portals that give us an interface to the many arms of  the Web. For example, my TiVo now streams movies from Netflix directly to my TV. The experience comes complete with a TV-based interface as well as web-based interaction components. There are countless of other examples of new interaction portals:

Web Square: New Devices Are Portals to the Web

Web Squared: Various Novel Devices Now Are Portals to the Web

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Ratings by Communities Are Skewed—Now What?

Many online and mobile applications rely on ratings and reviews from their communities to provide wisdom for their remaining users. Services such as Yelp, Amazon, Digg, and even the Apple App Store use input from their users to evaluate some intrinsic value of a set of items—be they books or iPhone applications.  However, new research recently published in the MIT Technology Review suggests that the wisdom of crowds can be inaccurate and misleading. Does this cast doubt on the utility of community-driven rating systems?

Vassilis Kostakos, an adjunct assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University and his team confirmed that the rating systems commonly used can “easily be swayed by a small group of highly active users.” The Technology Review article goes on to write that “rating systems can tap into the ‘wisdom of the crowd’ to offer useful insights, but they can also paint a distorted picture of a product if a small number of users do most of the voting.”

Although Professor Kostakos’ research validates a suspicion that many have had, it does not necessarily mean that community-based review systems are useless. The article states:

Jahna Otterbacher, an assistant professor at Illinois Institute of Technology who studies online rating systems, says that previous research has hinted that rating systems can be skewed by factors such as the age of a review. But she notes that some sites, including Amazon, already incorporate mechanisms designed to control the quality of ratings–for example, allowing users to vote on the helpfulness of other users’ reviews.

Kostakos proposes further ways to make recommendations more reliable. He suggests making it easier to vote, in order to encourage more users to join in.

What this means for the design of interactive products with such rating features is that steps should be taken to ensure a more representative outcome of user-driven reviews. The following factors can be considered to that end:

  • Count only one vote per user.
  • Provide a mechanism for users to vote on the usefulness of written reviews, and factor that into the total score.
  • Make it easier for all users to vote to capture a broader cohort.
  • Factor in the network patterns of user voting. For example, if a group of users consistently votes together on items, perhaps compensate in the algorithm for that behavior as it tends to skew results.

U.S. Postal Services Launches Virtual Box Simulator

The United States Postal Service recently launched an augmented reality application that simulates a virtual box for your shipment. The application projects a “hologram” of a shipping box over an item that the user holds up to the computer’s webcam. It remains to be seen how useful and accurate the application is, but it definitely wows for its “cool” factor. The video below shows how it works.

The Evolution and Future of Web 2.0

John Battelle and Tim O’Reilly recently published a fascinating white paper on the evolution of the Web (PDF). The report, titled Web Squared: Web 2.0 Five Years On gives an excellent analysis of the last five years of Web 2.0, current trends, and where the Web is heading in the future. Battelle and O’Riley write that “Web 2.0 is all about harnessing collective intelligence,” and in the future, it will be the semantic web, sentient web, social web, and mobile web combined.  The web will increasingly happen in real time and will harness network effects to learn from the vastly expanding body of aggregate data that comes not only from users but also from sensors (like GPS). The applications based on these paradigms will provide new, elegant solutions to real-life problems. The authors write:

The “subsystems” of the emerging internet operating system are increasingly data subsystems: location, identity (of people, products, and places), and the skeins of meaning that tie them together… A key competency of the Web 2.0 era is discovering implied metadata, and then building a database to capture that metadata and/or foster an ecosystem around it.

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A Survey of Lufthansa’s Touch Screen Entertainment Application

I flew on Lufthansa during a recent trip to Europe. Not only was it one of the nicest flying experiences that I have ever had, but it also turned out to be an opportunity to experience a very well-done interactive experience. Despite some shortcomings, Lufthansa’s touch screen entertainment application was a prime case study in good user experience design. I have seen and used other in-flight applications on other airlines, but they were always clunky, often confusing, and not very enjoyable to use. Lufthansa’s application (pictured below), on the other hand, was elegant, simple, intuitive, and did everything that a typical passenger would likely need without mucking up the experience with useless features.

Home (Welcome) Screen

I witnessed something that was a true testament to the entertainment application’s outstanding design. Even before I had a chance to play with it, I looked over across the aisle where an elderly woman in about her seventies ventured to use the touch screen application. She poked the touch screen with resolute force and very intently examined the screen. From having done a number of usability studies, I guessed that she was a rather novice computer user, and I got excited to witness her use the application. From past usability studies with inexperienced participants, I anticipated that she would quickly get lost, confused, frustrated, and would abandon her task. To my astonishment, she prodigiously navigated through the application, browsed TV programs and movies to watch and ultimately played a movie on the touch screen in front of her. Needless to say, I was completely astounded by how easy to use and intuitive the application was even to a computer novice.

After studying my unaware participant, I quickly took out my camera and examined Lufthansa’s in-flight touch screen entertainment program. Below are my observations. I draw on some particular screens to illustrate certain points, and all of the ones that I photographed can be seen in the gallery at the end of the post.

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Oops Award for Bad Product Design 2009

This year’s batch of nominees for the Oops Award for Bad Product Design are truly exemplary. I highly encourage the reader to feast your eyes on some of the world’s biggest product design disasters. While most of the nominees have earned their spot in these echelons for aesthetic reasons, there are also some that are clearly included for their utter lack of utility—see below.

And how is one to sit in this contraption? (Via http://oopsaward.jimdo.com/nominees-2009/ )