Rapid Proposition Ideation: ensuring UX is considered from the start

Maybe it’s contentious for some, but I’m going to say it anyway: some propositions have intrinsically poor user experience. This piece is firstly about my experience wrestling with these denizens of the marketing world but mainly proposes some steps we can take at the very conception of a proposition idea to ensure it will nicely translate into a set of usable, delightful and frictionless consumer touchpoints.

Houston, we have a problem….

“The concept’s simple so make it look simple”, they told me.

“This is the brief. Just do your job,” they implored.

I felt uncomfortable: I was doing my job. Only, instead of creating a nice, simple prototype as the client wanted, I was trying to point out that the client’s ‘buy now pay later’ proposition didn’t reflect the mental model most people would have. Yes, it only needed the user to make 2 choices (just 2 clicks!) but the cognitive friction in understanding the implications of those choices appeared huge.

Not for the first time, I wondered how such an inherently confusing proposition could have made it through to the point of briefing UX.

“Not for the first time, I wondered how such an inherently confusing proposition could get through to the point of briefing UX.”

A large corporation I worked for years ago were ahead of the time with creating a team dedicated to ‘proposition experience’. Back then, it felt like a smart and even trendy move reflecting the incursion of design thinking into boardrooms. But it didn’t last. Good work was certainly done by the team but its value wasn’t perceived as sufficiently critical to persist, and confusing propositions still made it out to customers.

Not your typical UXer, folks

Perhaps slightly tangentially, I feel this a good point to mention my fierce love of the music of Charles Mingus, and that this affection also extends to his pronouncements of life and the world. So what’s he got to do with propositions and UX? Well, one of my favourite quotations attributed to him is:

Anyone can make the simple complicated. Creativity is making the complicated simple.

It’s a great line, especially when considered while listening to some of his compositions. However, I’ve cringed more than once when I’ve heard it trotted out by well-meaning marketing professionals as a kind of mystical panacea for solving business problems.

Yes, creativity is a powerful tool but ensuring a proposition’s experience is simple needs more than abductive reasoning: As with most UX endeavours, it needs to follow a process.

So far so unsurprising: Follow the UX process, diverge, converge, research, ideate, iterate. The problem is that when many propositions are being invented there’s not always the time or the opportunity to build and test a proposition across all the most important touchpoints it needs to live in. Usually, it’s challenging enough for businesses to research a proposition as a high level idea within the tight timescales dictated by the market, let alone conducting the in-depth prototyping and research really needed.

“How can we ensure UX thinking is integral to the actual ideation of propositions?”

Which brings me to the core challenge here: how can we ensure UX thinking is integral to the actual ideation of proposition?

Recently I witnessed at first hand how melding UX and marketing thinking together at the very start of the proposition development process could really work. I had the opportunity to take a brief from an electronics client where I was able to try and crack a business challenge from the very start: Invent a loyalty programme for a business which doesn’t benefit from frequent purchases. In addition to generating advocacy and brand buzz, the loyalty programme needed to improve KPIs for product registration.

The approach was to assemble a cross-disciplinary rapid development team comprising strategist, creative and UX and then set us to work over a fortnight to invent, define and test a proposition. We had daily check ins with the client to demonstrate progress and evaluate concept fit.

The presentation format at the daily client check-in took a standard value proposition definition, eg “what’s the customer problem this is solving?” and “what’s the benefit to the business?”. But at the same time as defining this we ensured we defined the “how this would work” aspect of the value prop definition — this is where I could incorporate the UX thinking.

This article simply suggests some simple techniques to try and surface UX barriers and opportunities at the earliest possible stage which I garnered from my rapid prop development project (and also earlier experience).

I hope they’ll be of use to you too…

Creating a favourable environment for success

Before we get into the actual ‘doing’ of bringing UX thinking into proposition ideation, I’ve observed a number of conditions need to be true for good things to happen. There needs to be:

  • The right blend of disciplines — UX/Service design, Creative, Strategy, Commercial, Technical — ideally co-located together.
  • Openness from UX and designers to understand marketing disciplines and adapt work approaches.
  • Openness from product managers and proposition managers to work in a different way with UX personnel.

If these conditions aren’t met, it doesn’t mean you won’t meet with success. However my experience tells me if they aren’t, progress may be inhibited.

Evaluating the UX of a nascent proposition

So how can you judge the UX of a proposition that’s just the bare bones of an idea; a straw man being bounced around in the hot, febrile atmosphere of a creative sprint team? The first thing to say is that it’s best not to try and jump straight in with knocking down initial proposition ideas. Anyone who’s worked in a creative environment knows that criticism too early can kill a great idea before it’s had a chance to breathe and grow. This piece isn’t about doing that.

Instead, I recommend waiting for ideas to become more complete before interrogating them with some UX thinking. Yes, even if it’s your own…

“When is an idea more complete?” you might ask. If your new proposition idea is also an idea for a new business then the answer is probably “when you’ve completed the Business Model Canvas”. However, if your proposition is a new offer for an established business (as in my case), there’s no easy answer. Anyway, I’ll have a go: it’s when you can ask the following questions of it:

  • What’s the problem it’s solving?
  • Whose problem is it solving?
  • Which behavioural insights inspire the idea?
  • What’s the value for the business and the consumer/user?

So, assuming the idea seems to have some legs, what next? What follows isn’t exhaustive but serves as a basic checklist for road testing a proposition idea’s UX close to its inception:

Identify the key moments in which users engage with your proposition

For me, the most important thing to do is to try to imagine the key moments where you think, even if only a hunch, users will engage with your proposition, ie really do the thing they need to do to make your idea work. For the project I worked on, the product registration KPI helped identify a key moment in the user’s journey where the presence of friction would have a disproportionate effect: opening the product box.

What else is likely to be going on in your users’ lives during those moments?

For each key moment you identify, try and build a picture of the user’s context with whichever insights you have available.

Get it down quickly on an empathy map if that helps structure your thinking using a template like this (thanks to Scott Matthews for that):

This is where it really pays to have quality insights beyond the usual broad marketing segmentation content: information about what it is your consumers are actually likely to be doing when they engage with your proposition, as well as where and when.

Bear in mind the real goal of your consumers in the given moment

Identifying how closely the consumer’s real goal in the moment is aligned to what you want them to do is critical here. For example, asking consumers to register their product soon after they open the box is likely to conflict with their desire to, well, actually use their shiny new product.

The implications of this within my project was that we saw a very narrow window to achieve product registration after unboxing — there’s a lot competing for the user’s attention, not least the likelihood they mainly want to get going with their new electronics product. Being cognizant of all this drove us towards creating a proposition that appeared simple to understand and motivational to act on within that box opening moment.

Identify what’s going to be most persuasive in that moment

So we’ve established that in most cases, there will be a lot competing for the user’s attention —that’s modern life, no? Plenty of friction. This means there needs to be a clear motivation for the user to do what you want them to do — a strong pull in the right direction. So far so obvious to many of you, it’s proposition design 101, no?

On my rapid proposition sprint, we focused on creating something that would induce a “well why the heck wouldn’t I?” response in the consumer: an offer that was so compelling, it would feel wrong not to act on the call-to-action. This is the holy grail of consumer responses to a proposition, but of course, that type of powerful offer isn’t always possible.

So what’s a more structured way to to quickly identify the right persuasive levers to overcome friction in your proposition? While researching this piece I stumbled upon Alexander Osterwalder’s Value Proposition Canvas tool and also the Switching Forces tool.

The last tool in particular is great for identifying the granular forces at work when consumers are deciding whether to do something or not. It’s no conjoint analysis or behavioural science audit but I think it’s sufficiently simple to apply within a rapid ideation sprint, requiring the identification of problems and benefits of the new proposition vs the inertia and anxiety of changing habits for something new.

Sketch out the interactions needed for your key moments

This wouldn’t be UX without doing a little bit of sketching. At this point in the process, it’s not about designing the thing fully but more about exploring ideas for the touchpoints needed to make your your key moments fly. If it’s a web page, sketch the landing page. If it’s a conversation between a sales assistant and a consumer, sketch it out with stick men. Often, the simple act of sketching these key interactions out surfaces issues with a propositions.

All this sounds like it relies on some good insights… how do I get hold of what I need fast?

It goes without saying that if you don’t have the necessary insights to hand then primary contextual research is the winner here… especially if you can easily get out talking to representative consumers as a team . It is possible to do it quickly — check out Michael Margolis’ rapid user research approach for some quick starters on doing this.

I didn’t have this luxury though, but, I was able to bring my previous experience to bear which fortunately includes a fair bit of ‘out of the box’ type research. It seems obvious to say, but don’t be afraid to leverage your previous, similar experience!

During the loyalty project I worked on we did test quickly after we’d gained the initial thumbs up from the client on the core concept. In the space of 2 days, we pulled together a focus group with representative consumers and worked up some key journeys to test the proposition. As usual, we learned plenty and learned it early enough to be able to iterate off the back of it. Although of course as a UXer I would have preferred to have been able to run a bunch of 1-to-1 sessions with a prototype.

So why not give it a try?

Proposition development doesn’t have to be a long, drawn-out process and it doesn’t need to be abstracted from the consumer’s actual interaction with touchpoints.

No sane business wants to launch a proposition with basic UX issues — why not try and get involved before it’s too late for UX to make it really fly…

Maybe you’ve already done something similar — which pre-requisites have you noted for success? Which rapid techniques for creating a great proposition experience early in the process have worked for you? I‘m all ears when it come to new tools and approaches.