There’s a common misconception among many in the technology business that paints so-called “legacy industries”—such as legal and accounting—as unwilling to adopt new technologies. The truth, however, is that the existing technology used in these industries is far from legacy—and it’s fundamental to their business. The challenge for product designers is that users in these industries must maintain high performance and high efficiency, relying wholeheartedly on technology to do so. This makes it challenging for them to experiment with new or unproven technology. For these professionals, adopting a new product is akin to asking them to change a tire whilst driving 80 mph down the highway.
In this piece, I will not only explain the importance of truly putting the customer behind the driver’s seat when it comes to product design, but will also delve into tips and best practices that design teams can actively work to integrate into their processes, from start to finish.
For these foundational industries to consider a new, enhanced, or overhauled product, it needs to meet and exceed a few seemingly easy, but imperative requirements: it must be extremely reliable, easy to learn and convenient to use, and it should provide a clear and significant return on investment nearly immediately. These attributes aren’t exclusive to foundational industries, mind you. It’s the job of product designers to make their products so good, so head-turning, and so radically effective that they are worth adopting in even the most challenging environments. It’s just that foundational industries tend to have a particularly low tolerance for product friction due to their laser focus on servicing the needs of their own clients well.
Customer experience above all else
One mistake product designers are prone to make when trying to serve customers in foundational industries—and one could argue, in any industry—is to focus on the readily available technology rather than the customer experience. Sure, this thinking can lead to solutions that address the core problem, but the little things are often missing, and it’s those little things that can truly delight users and keep them coming back for more.
Our background as engineers and logical thinkers can sometimes push us to rely heavily on currently available technology. Perhaps it’s technology that was built for another purpose or another industry altogether, but it may just as well solve the problem we’re working to address 80% of the way, which can seem great at the time. That said, it’s often these—let’s be honest—lazy paths that all too often cause us to lose sight of the best customer experience when making these decisions.
Read this case study on how Bloom & Wild made customer experience more thoughtful.
When Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, he made a controversial decision to kill a much invested-in technology hailed by developers because, whilst sophisticated for its time, it wasn’t being developed and ultimately used with a “customer experience first” mentality. Adopting new technology for the sake of having it often leads to missteps with regard to the value the technology actually provides. But when technology is a catalyst for improving customer experience, it becomes the difference between a good product and a great one.
Take the iPhone, for example. Out of the box, you’re immediately able to turn it on and start using it. Now imagine that you need to charge the device for five hours before you can even take a photo. There would be an immediate level of frustration and initial disappointment at the unboxing stage—which is a time when user delight and anticipation should be at their highest.
It’s likely inconvenient to charge iPhones in the factory; it possibly increases costs and may even delay production. If we look at this from a purely logical standpoint, from an engineering perspective, the time and cost it takes to do this could be considered completely unnecessary. But looking at the awe on the face of a new owner when they discover they can use their new device immediately out of the box suggests the pain is more than worth the gain.
And it’s not just technology. My colleagues and I discovered another fantastic example while checking into a hotel at a Disney property. We noticed a set of characters had been drawn onto the wall below the check-in counter. At first, it seemed odd to spend the time and energy to decorate a counter that would be overlooked by most people as they stood there and interacted with the front-desk representatives. But the designers recognized that check-in time can be hectic for children who are fresh off a long trip and don’t want to wait to begin their Disney experience. By carving a comic strip of much-loved characters into the reception desk at a child’s-eye-view, they were able to help diffuse potential frustration for children through design, improving the experience for parent and child alike.
The customer in the meeting
Ideas can come from anywhere, and some of the best ones have their genesis outside the typical product design team. Customers, users, and even other departments in your organization may provide helpful input during the early design iteration. But just because someone has an idea doesn’t mean it should make the final cut.
Every product designer can tell you about the internal subject matter experts who excitedly offer product suggestions. Chances are, if they are indeed practical recommendations, they may have already been considered and adopted—or rejected—for a variety of reasons. And if they fall into the impractical category, then you must be able to simply say no—regardless of how influential the person making the suggestion may be.
Saying no isn’t always easy, but one tool we have found to help us shape our iterative process is something we call the “customer in the meeting” test. We envision our customers sitting in the room with us, and gauge every decision based on how we think they might respond.
We look to the customer in the meeting when we find ourselves saying, “this is good enough.” We look to them when there is a suggestion to review enhancements or cut costs. We look to them when we’ve spent time, effort, and money going down one path, but in our hearts know the right thing to do is scrap what we’re doing and start again from scratch. The customer in the meeting serves as our conscience and guide during the product design cycle. More importantly, it provides us with the power to say no to any decision that will not result in a better user experience, and in this way, becomes an important focus tool.
Listen to this podcast with Cheryl Platz on Designing beyond devices.
The power of surprise and delight
When it comes to creating technology for foundational industries, building something that enables customers to meet and exceed their goals—all while providing unmatched ROI—should certainly be a top priority. That said, the biggest mistake a product designer can make is to assume that these industry professionals don’t want to be delighted just as much as, say, a child on a trip to Disney World or someone receiving their new mobile phone.
Selling to these professionals often requires that value be proven upfront—and that may lead a team down the primrose path of offering technological advancements and capabilities just for the sake of doing so. But no matter the audience—whether you’re selling to a group of creatives or a firm of lawyers—developers and designers should never underestimate the power of surprise and delight. A pleasant user experience and delightful design can crack a foundational industry’s hard exterior, opening a path toward true and effective technology adoption.
As we head into a new year––not to mention continuous forms of ‘new normal,’ as people carry on working, shopping, travelling, and simply existing in new and ever-changing ways––design teams need to consider the customer’s needs more than ever, meeting them precisely where they’re at. Teams that are able to 1) elevate customer experiences, 2) iterate on product design as if the customer were in the room with them, and 3) never underestimate the importance of surprise and delight will not only stay ahead of the curve in terms of innovation, but will also develop a loyal customer following in the process.
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