Vespa Piaggio 1946 BLUEPRINT

UX Design: the user is not enough

For a successful project the focus on the user is not enough: Design leaders are also product experts who deeply understand the business challenges of the project.

Historically the practice and culture of Design have been defined by what has to be designed in a project. A car, a dress, a furniture, a domestic appliance, a computer and so on. In the era of product design, designers were mainly segmented on vertical industries and focused on the business and the technical features of each specific product, and the end user was seen as an inconvenience or a dumb consumer to be educated.

The rise of user-centered methodologies, practices and tools changed everything: the center of the project shifted from the product and the technical features to the users and their experience, breaking the vertical industry silos and bringing many fundamental and positive innovations in the way products and systems today are conceived and designed.

The user-centered revolution has been possible mainly rebuilding the creative and design process and developing a new generation of design tools. The design process has been mapped, structured, re-organized and reordered in stages and modules, from research to implementation, each one with its own set of specific goals, activities and deliverables. Once the design process was unstructured and unpredictable, now it can be described, organized, planned and even replicated in detail, step by step, deliverable by deliverable. Alongside lots of new design tools and techniques have been developed and combined into the design process to analyze, map and unravel the complexity of the user, of the systems and of the product mix.

Unquestionably these innovations have extended the design culture and practice way beyond its traditional range to new domains and challenges, making Design even more cross-disciplinary and complex.

Today designers and design thinkers are taking on the challenges of designing experiences, services and strategies, mostly following the same multidisciplinary and holistic approach to the creative process developed for user-centered design. These tools and techniques are applied to broader and more complicated business problems. Apparently the loop is closed: complex product ecosystems and service platforms are now designed putting the user in the center and connecting the dots of the multiple touch-points of the user experience. Nonetheless one of the key problem of UX Design and Service Design is that many designers often seem to be engrossed with the design process and its tools, without paying sufficient attention to the specific business and product challenges that could make the project successful.

Looking over the most recurring points of the current User Experience and Service Design debate, mostly it is about defining and structuring the design process and its deliverables, the workshop formats, refining the design tools, the design phases and so on. This is fine, but the attention paid to understand an define the real challenges of the product and service that has to be designed, and what makes it really different and innovative for an organization, is often little.

There is no question that user experience should be the center of everything, and that understanding and empathizing with the users is a crucial part of the success of an innovation project. Nonetheless designing a service or an experience for banking, for retail or for the healthcare sector is a completely different problem, although the design process, the activities and the design tools can be the same.

When it comes to prove the business value of User Experience Design and thinking, the concern of the UX community is about how to communicate and explain the benefits of the various parts of the UX Design approach to clients and business stakeholders. The confidence in the appropriateness of the approach and of the design process is so big, that for many designers the best way to show the value of their work is to persuade business stakeholders of the benefits of investing in it and making them realize the negative impact of not including a strategic design thinking, beyond the tactical design execution.

This is not wrong, of course, but the quality of communication and packaging are just a part of the problem. The problem of the business value of UX Design is not only communicating more efficiently the value of the design process and of its structure and outcomes, but to make these parts really relevant for the specific business goals of the project.

Everybody realizes that there is gap between design and business, but the question is not that business stakeholders don’t get UX Design: sometimes UX professionals fail to master the specific industry challenge behind the project, and sometimes they seem not even interested in solving it. As a consequence, many clients and corporate stakeholders see UX and Service designers as generalists who want to deal with complicated challenges without the appropriate vertical knowledge and competences. Moreover many stakeholders struggle to understand the value delivered by a workshop or a design phase, even when a great value is actually delivered.

For a successful project, user-centered design processes and tools are definitely necessary, but not sufficient. If User Experience Design wants to get to the strategic level, designers should be also product and industry experts, able to understand and master the strategic business background and objectives and the real challenges of the specific product and service they are designing.

Great designers deliver design solutions to business problems. It’s not only a matter of understanding the users and the context of the experience, and it’s not only about problem solving. Being experts of the design process is a crucial skill for a designer, but it’s not enough. The process is only a tool, a means to an end. Design leaders are able to get into the core of the specific business problem and goals of the project, and then combine and coordinate the various design activities and tools structuring the design process consequently.

The true business value of UX strategy does not lie only in a well structured design process, but in a design process properly structured on the actual business challenges to solve.