Tuesday, September 1, 2009

This can be the beginning of a beautiful friendship

An interesting thing about going to tech-oriented conferences that mix business managers and implementers is the tension between messages. There are often competing and conflicting voices promoting technology and customer (user) experience. The technology vendors publicize the latest new thing, the upgrade that brings it all together, and the surefire way to get more customers spending more money. The experience folks shout that whatever is to be done must be done based purely on customer need and desire; that user experience (UX) is all that matters.

Now, it's no secret which side I've been on in most of these public discourses. Though I've been on the tech side in some cases, mostly by far I've preached from the gospel of good experience. And in the situation that it's clear that moving toward a certain technology would harm customer experience, my position would be unwavering.

However, the primary argument and distinction is no longer valid and true to me. I now see these two as elements on a continuum. Even as elements to alternate during and maybe even between projects. They are interdependent, and maybe even codependent.

The way I see it, many of our advances in customer experience have relied on or been part of new technology or new use of existing technology. From the other side, technology relies on good customer experience for successful adoption. Look at Amazon during the emergence of the commercial web. And then there's everybody's favorite example, Apple's iPhone. Both involved a push forward in customer experience AND the use of technology. Neither would be as successful without the blend of both. And neither would be as interesting if one aspect won out over the other.

Where I'm going with this is to request a truce in the tech versus UX battle. Both are good and both are needed. Tech creators need to acknowledge that they need good UX design to win the hearts and hands of consumers. UX-ers need to acknowledge that good technology is needed to advance parts of our cause and that new (good) tech gives us a chance to shine.

Before the truce can be fully agreed to though, we have a little catching up to do in the basics. Too much technology, useful as it can be, has been put out there without the needed UX crafting to accompany it. Because of that, both the users (consumers) and the technology are getting short shrift. Users feel ignored and abused. The tech vendors are getting slammed for very correctable reasons. We need to stop the train for a bit and get the interaction with the technology to the point where users can easily and satisfyingly do what they want to. Get the basics to the right level, then continue with a balanced approach.

(Aside: Not all tech implementations are redeemable, I know. But I am setting those cases aside for now and assuming that much of it can be helped.)

To illustrate, think again about what happened in the iPhone. For all its glory, it introduced very little new technology. Its primary features existed in other released or demoed products. The "new" about the iPhone is the better way that Apple blended the technology and UX.

Alternatively, there is also evidence that drawing back the level of technology used while improving the user experience is also effective. Wired magazine shows the examples of the Flip video camera and Skype, among others, in a recent article. Now, I disagree with the assessment they make that these simpler and easier to use products are just "good enough" since the implication is that they are inferior to the more feature-rich products. By typical standards such as profitability and rate of adoption, the new breeds are superior to their overdone predecessors.

There are many other areas where one approach or the other is needed, and I'll point to voice interaction as my prime example. A great many applications out there use speech recognition technology that is only a few years old. But most of the applications were designed using old or no design principles by people with negligible design training, if any. Furthermore, the technology is often under or incorrectly used. And the consumer reaction has been predictable. Interactive Voice Response is one of the most maligned technologies in our current age. On top of that, it often fails to meet the business goals for which it was brought in. This was avoidable and can be made right. It requires simply taking a break from the bumbling techno-lust and focusing on getting the UX in line with the level of technology chosen. Or even reducing the use of technology while improving performance through a UX focus.

So, it's time for a reset. For catching up and scaling down. We could make a huge positive difference in both business success and customer satisfaction by improving the user experience to the level of being on par with the state of deployed technology. And then we could grow both together. Satisfyingly, profitably, successfully.

Care to join me?