The Case for the Ugly Duckling: Why the World Needs UX Designers

By Neal Jenks
Design Consultant and IxD Practice Manager at Software Technology Group
In a recent blog post, I referred to UX Designers as ugly ducklings. Just like the infamous bird of fairy tale lore, we aren’t much to look at; however, we’ve already done some growing up, we have tons of potential, and when all is said and done, I think we’ll become beautiful.
The field of user experience design is still in its infancy, and like many nascent beings, we are continually defining and refining ourselves. Yet even in the throws of full-blown evolution, we are just as essential to modern enterprise as the Internet.
In other words: Just because it’s ugly doesn’t mean it’s inessential.
“Don’t they know???”
That being true, I’m shocked and dismayed at how often software developers, project managers, and even executives fail to embrace user-centered design.
A little while ago, a client of ours approached me with what I considered at the time to be a strange request. He said something like this: “I understand the value of user experience design, but unfortunately, I’m not the one who makes that kind of decision around here. Can you give me some ammo for selling UX to my higher-ups?”
I was incredulous. “Don’t they know???” I exclaimed. The idea that someone didn’t understand the value of UX had never occurred to me. This revelation led to several inquires on my part, and sure enough, it turns out that many have yet to see the light of user-focus.
That’s somewhat understandable, I suppose. I’m not an accountant, so I’ve never seen what all of those funny number thingees do for company growth. I’m not a lawyer, so I’ve never experienced the fulfillment of emptying one company’s coffers into another’s. I’m not a Director of First Impressions, so I don’t know…  what the heck they do.
Fine. No problem. You don’t know me, playa, so you don’t know why you need me in the game. Allow me to ‘splain.

More Than the Pointy End

In one of my favorite swashbuckler movies, The Mask of Zorro, Don De La Vega, the aging defender of the oppressed, wants to hand off the Zorro title to his young and fiery apprentice, Alejandro. After De La Vega explains his intentions, the overly alacritous apprentice quickly draws his sword and shouts, “Let’s go, then!”
The wizened master wisely asks of Alejandro, “Do you know how to use that thing?” Alejandro shrugs and says, “Yes. The pointy end goes into the other men.”
In the war of commerce, it is much more tempting to focus on the pointy end of the sword than the tang (You know: The part you grip). But when it comes right down to it, the sword is worthless without a steady hand to guide the business end.
A company’s products are only the tip of the sword. You need the steady hand of user experience design to ensure that those products reach the end user in productive and meaningful ways.
Marcin Treder, CEO at UXPin, said, “User experience design is a strategy of product development and IT SHOULD BE PRESENT AT THE BEGINNING. Focusing on the experience of your future users should lay at the heart of your approach to product development. There’s no other way.”
Why is there no other way? Because the sweet spot of the UX Designer is the interpretation and execution of…

    • Business objectives
    • User requirements
    • Branding considerations
    • Marketing objectives
  • And more

…In short, everything you need to make a product successful.
Here are four reasons why UX design is an absolute necessity in the product creation process.

#1: UX Designers Are Your Only User Advocates

If years of experience with user testing have taught me anything, it is this:
You (the product’s creator) are NOT your user!
Companies always assume that they know exactly what the product needs to do in order to fulfill the user’s wildest dreams. But you know what? They honestly have no clue. Why so much delusion? Because businesses take so much ownership over their products. And because they take so much ownership—so much pride—they assume that the users see the same intrinsic value that they see. But trust me: Users see something entirely different.
Companies carry too much bias towards their precious creations, and as a result, they don’t ask enough, and the right, questions. This leads to inevitable myopia—and to products that come far short of their mark.
That’s where the UX designer comes in. They discover who your user really is and understand how to bring their hopes and desires to bear regardless of corporate bias. They know how to ask the RIGHT questions of the user, and afterwards, how to fight for them.
UX designers build EMPATHY for the user, making the entire product team more selfless. Selflessness is an extremely productive mindset. Product teams come to see the product, not only as an expression of business objectives, but also as a tool for making the user’s life better. User-first mentality always leads to improved products. And funny enough, stronger products make for stronger quarterly statements.
Quoting again from Marcin Treder: “User experience is always present. It’s not something you can skip now and do later. If you decide to move past the design-focused activities to the next phase of the project, you’ll create a Minimal Viable Product (MVP) with crappy user experience. User experience is present whether you design for it or not, and if you don’t take care of it, it will just get out of control.”

#2: UX Designers are Problem Solvers and Relationship Builders

If you want to offend a UX designer quickly, casually ask them to, “just make it pretty.”
UX design goes a LOT farther than simply making websites, apps, and the like attractive. We bring visual solutions to specific, real-world business problems. We do this by focusing on the touch points between the user and the company, and we build amazing relationships between the two.
A UX designer builds the company-to-consumer bridge by fostering growth in SEVERAL relationships. You’ll find that most UXers (I totally invented that term. Patent pending.) are pretty darn congenial, and there’s a reason for that. We have years of experience working with…

    • Stakeholders
    • Users
    • Product managers
    • Marketing teams
    • Developers
  • And more

Because we love and work well with people, we garner a deep understanding of everyone’s needs. Even better, we know how to prioritize and give life to ALL of those needs. As a result, we create some killer-effective mash-ups.
Is there a need for a masher-upper on product teams? You better believe it. Without proper coordination, objectives would compete for room at the top, creating an amorphous mess of competing priorities. This, of course wastes endless time and money as companies gut the product over and over again, seeking that perfect balance.

Case #3: UX Designers Bring a Fresh, Highly-Trained Perspective

Henry Ford, the father of modern transportation, famously said, “If I asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said, ‘a faster horse’.”
In regards to products, it’s amazing how often customers AND companies fail to spot the forest for the trees. Both need someone who can step way, WAY back and offer the long view that they hadn’t even fathomed. For that, you need a freak.
UX designers have freakishly diverse backgrounds. We are…

    • Branding gurus
    • Information architects
    • Prototype experts
    • Graphic designers
    • Product planners
    • Coders
  • And a whole lot more

…all in one. This multi-disciplinary grounding helps us see products differently, and this unique view helps us approach product development in innovative, eye-opening ways.
We can iterate, and iterate, and iterate—coming up with crazy, unheard-of solutions every time. The result is products that stand out in all the right ways.
Surviving in today’s ultra-competitive economy requires exactly that.

Case #4: UX Designers Boost Bottom Lines

In case you’ve missed the underlying current in the preceding points, UX designers SAVE and MAKE money for their clients.
How do UXers save money? Iconic architect Frank Lloyd Wright said it best: “You can use an eraser on the drafting table, or a sledge hammer on the construction site.”
Far too often, today’s products are a representation of ready-fire-aim mentality. Product creators push and push for a Minimum Viable Product that meets deadlines—then realize to their horror that users are retching on the monkey poop they’ve birthed. They quickly scramble to clean up the mess but not without massive loss of time and resources.
An early investment in user experience saves companies money in terms of endless re-thinks, re-writes and re-calculations. UXers accomplish this by:

    • Creating viable, actionable product strategies
    • Stripping unnecessary product features
    • Clarifying product direction
    • Decreasing development time
  • And (you guessed it) a whole lot more

UX designers make money for companies by making products their customers love. Nothing is more meaningful to financial growth than a devoted, engaged customer base. An optimized product is the conduit for creating such customers. And the channel for an optimized product is??? Ding! Ding! Ding! The user experience designer.

Case in Proof

Well, I believe I’ve belabored the point sufficiently.
Or have I???
In case you’re one of those seeing-is-believing types, here’s a couple of fascinating UX Case studies I found:
Webcredible’s work for Dulux
London-based UX Agency Webcredible used the UX process to create a “65% increase in tester paint sales, 92% increase in Stockist searches, [and] 5,000,000 downloads globally” for paint manufacturer Dulux.
Slice of Lime’s work on Sphero
User experience design firm Slice of Lime used research, strategy, and design to help toy creator Orbotix boost sales of their Sphero toy. “Since launching the refreshed site. Orbotix has seen a 127% increase in page views, with users staying on the site 38% longer, and the overall bounce rate decreasing 17%.”
Let me end with a quote from legendary IBM designer Eliot Noyes: “Good design is good business.”
So yeah, UX designers are kinda ugly–but man o’ man do you need us. To learn about how you can get help from Software Technology Group’s UX designers, contact us. We’d love to hear from you.
By Neal Jenks
Design Consultant and IxD Practice Manager at Software Technology Group