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The Great Divide

I wanted to try and sum up the presentation I gave at Interaction Camp. There are notes from the talk here.

For the past 3 years I’ve been trying to answer the question…

“Why are some companies great at user/customer experience while others struggle with it?”

There are two reasons to answer this question:

1) Our business is all about helping companies deliver great customer experiences to their customers in the digital channel. We are self interested in answering this question, since it would help us be better at what we do.

2) Companies are increasingly becoming dependent on great user experience to drive core business. If you are a company that struggles getting great UX to your customers then understanding the barriers would be very helpful.

A typical explanation for why companies aren’t good at user experience is often laid at the feet of resources. In my experience, resources (defined as capitol and people), rarely have anything to do with how good a company is at delivering user experience. The recent crop of Web 2.0 companies like Facebook are proving this. They deliver great user experience with relatively paltry resources. I have worked with companies with huge teams deep in experience and ample budgets only to see the end product be very underwhelming. If it was a resources problem, any company should be able to hire a top tier design firm and produce exceptional work. This, of course, doesn’t happen.

So I began looking for softer indications inside clients and companies to decode why some companies are great at user experience while others struggle. As I looked closer at companies who were successful at user experience, I began to see that these companies used their values to drive their processes and resources. in other words

V=rp
(this is based on Clayton Christenson’s RPV model)

That is to say, a company’s values determines which resources and processes it assigns to tasks. Companies that value user experience align their resources and processes to deliver against that value.

When we look at working with a company we spend a lot of time trying to understand what they value. We have learned from experience that this is often the best indicator of our ability to do great work for them.

Companies that are very process oriented… p=Vr have a harder time doing great user experience. Whenever we see RFPs that come in and 80% of the RFP is concerned with documenting how we would manage the process, we know that what they value is process efficiency. Where on time, on budget is the defining success metric.

So if we assume that companies that align to the V=rp model are more likely to be successful at user experience, then what are the values that best define resources and processes to optimize user experience? If we can identify these values, could they be used to help organizations looking to be better at user experience?

This is similar to what Jim Collins did in his book Good to Great. Identify traits of companies that make the leap from good to great.

These are the traits that I have identified so far:

1) The CEO is the most demanding customer of their own product
When I looked at companies who were good at user experience one thing they shared were that senior level people were users of their own products. The most extreme example of this is Steve Jobs. A man obsessed with quality and elegance in design permeates the entire company. In fact, the design persona Apple uses internally is called Steve. It seems obvious but what’s important to the CEO is important to the organization.

2) They ignore their competition
Companies that spend a lot of time trying to follow best practices miss out on defining the best practice. Doing what your competitor does is not a trait of a market leader. A good example of this is Google Maps. Google Maps would never have existed if Google had followed the competitors (Mapquest, MSN, Yahoo!).

3) They don’t listen to their customers
Very rarely is there a good indication in your current customer base about what they want in the future. Herman Miller would never have made the Aeron chair if they had listened to their customers. Every customer told them for 3 years they would never buy the chair. Companies who are great at user experience have a sensitivity to their customer’s needs but innovate in the absence of clear customer data.

These traits are very preliminary and a work in progress.

If you have come across traits like this in your own work, I would like to hear them.

Jon Lax More posts by Jon Lax