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An Intro to UX Research as a Value-Augmenting Practice
An Intro to UX Research as a Value-Augmenting Practice
How to better deliver your brand through digital experiences?
This article aims to rebalance discourse on user research away from usability diagnostics towards value-building outcomes that centre on how to better deliver your brand through digital experiences. User feedback and expert analysis (via heuristic testing methods) inform recommendations that can be classified into strategic design decisions that simplify, maximize and reconfigure the way value is delivered to end-users while also elevating emotion in the brand experience. User research/testing are used interchangeably.
UX Research Outcomes Guide Strategic Design Decisions
User research is conducted anywhere an interaction takes place. These interactions come in two varieties: human-to-human interactions and human-to-interface interactions. Successful interactions imply an exchange of value has taken place. Interactions are performed across touchpoints which consist of such things as websites, mobile experiences, retail stores, the head-mounted display in your car, offline pop-up activations and more. The focus of UX research can be placed on an individual touchpoint or product, like an isolated island, or a string of touchpoints that comprise a user journey.
The outcomes of user research power choices that lead to improvements in the interactions through which exchanges of value and brand experiences are articulated. These improvements have differing implications on the touchpoint, product or user journey.
Simplifying the exchange of value by reducing the steps needed (effort) to fulfill the user's need
For example, enabling guest checkout on an omni-brand ecommerce website with Alipay login.
source: dior.cn; alipay.com
Maximizing the exchange of value by increasing the extent to which user needs are fulfilled, for example through upselling, premiumization or integrating complementary services that address the core need plus associated needs
For example, CamScanner understands that users taking a photo of a document are likely to have a bundle of needs that need fulfilling, including e-signatures, encryption and translation.
Reconfiguring the exchange of value to enable the fulfillment of a user need in a novel way that better delivers the intended value or accommodates emergent needs
For example, DingDong (叮咚买菜) leverages recipe content to sell bundles of groceries. This is the same proposition but reframed according to the user's context.
Elevating Emotion in the exchange of value by fulfilling both pragmatic and hedonic user needs
BilliBilli's prolific use of cute mascots, avatars and caricatures within interstitials, iconography and on-page banners reinforces its positioning as a video hub for young students with an emphasis on anime fans. The platform is bubbly and brimming with personality.
Markets are shaped by user needs and user behaviors, or more crudely, what people want to buy and how they want to buy it. UX is precisely how exchanges of value are articulated in a market through touchpoints; it is defined with and through the lived context of the end-user. In some ways you could think of it as co-creative, enacted by and through people. The implication here is that UX should be a key component of your business strategy, and by extension, brand strategy. The benefits of the four kinds of improvements mentioned above go beyond improving usability, which often becomes the focus of conversations on UX research.
Simplifying = Improving usability increases conversion in terms of sales and micro conversions that indirectly contribute to sales (member registration, service bookings, store visitations, etc.)
Maximizing = Leveraging existing needs and behaviours to deliver additional or derivative value i.e. incremental revenue gains
Reconfiguring = Reshaping the way a value proposition is brought to market to increase the saliency or suitability of the offering according to existing/emergent needs and behaviours
Elevating Emotion = When a user’s need is satisfied (or not) there is an emotional payoff. Always. Users may not describe the emotion they feel in a nuanced way but they understand it is a feeling they get from interacting with a preferred brand specifically versus another. Elevating emotion means increasing the extent to which the touchpoint or experience delivers (and amplifies) an emotional payoff, the duration of the feeling and its overall valence.
Top-Notch Usability is a Hygiene Requirement that Will Never Differentiate You
Most of us understand that poor usability impairs interactions (exchanges of value) between a customer and a brand, resulting in hampered or lost conversions. What is often dropped from the equation is that every interaction between your brand and customers serves to reinforce or undermine your brand’s position in the customer’s mind and by extension, the market.
Put another way: Your business is delivering a brand experience by default or by determination.
Optimizing for usability does not deal with the bigger question concerning what kind of experience you want to deliver to the end-user.
User testing is critically important for improving usability, but such investments are only getting you up to speed with general benchmarks for user acceptability, or norms for how a touchpoint should behave. These can be defined by formal standards (ISO 9241) or simply represent an unspoken status-quo. If your touchpoint underperforms, it hurts your brand. If it meets usability expectations, that is great but it won’t change how the business is perceived in a meaningful way, it will just mean you aren’t shooting yourself in the foot.
Scientists have trained rats to drive tiny cars.
source: Crawford et.al. 2020 upcoming in https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bbr.2019.112309
In the study published in the Journal of Behavioural Brain Research, the rats’ need was Froot Loop cereal pieces. The context dictated that they should use their paws to trigger an action (completion of an electrical circuit to propel a tiny car forwards) which would bring them closer to their goal (said Fruity Froot Loop). In the course of mastering this task, the rodents experienced a decrease in stress (measured using samples of their faeces) which is equivalent, in principle, to the feelings humans experience when they are able to exercise agency to fulfill a need.
Let's take the rat and imagine it is a successful white-collar worker who wants to buy a luxury bag during his/her lunch break. The tiny car is a third-party ecommerce marketplace and the fruit loop is a handbag. She knows exactly what kind of experience she will get because yesterday she used the marketplace to buy a gift for a friend, and the day before, some fruit, and the day before, some cosmetics. She completes the purchase and gets a nice buzz without having to really think about anything. She feels empowerment, a sense of betterment, convenience, value (if not price then loyalty incentives or curated VIP customer experiences), or in other words, the marketplace delivers an experience that aligns with its RTBs. The experience delivered by the actual luxury brand only begins during the unboxing.
Let's imagine she does the same thing but this time she goes to the brand's official website. She searches the product name in Chinese but product names aren’t translated so she gets zero results. She opens the product page and there’s a measly single line of copy describing the product with some care instructions. She adds the product to the cart - there is no guest checkout. She fills out the forms – the province and city selectors are not alphabetized. She chooses a payment method – the mobile payment gateway isn’t implemented properly. At this rate, nobody is getting a fruity loop.
Usability is only half of the challenge. Experience is the other half. The promise of an owned channel is that you have total control over the experience you deliver, the data you generate and the relationship with the end-user. But brands are optimizing towards a benchmark that is being set by Chinese marketplaces. Or just as limiting, they are following dominant design codes for, let’s say, what a luxury website "should look like" relative to competitor benchmarks. So even after the usability issues are taken care of, customers are still getting an undifferentiated experience. Brand A sets the trend, Brand B does a competitor benchmarking and makes a list of requirements based on Brand A. Brand C sees Brand A and B doing some cool things and one knee-jerk reaction later they are talking to the team in Italy. Brands D, E and F follow. Then Balenciaga comes along and makes the primary menu the focal point of the entire home page and everyone freaks out.
When Do Brands Invest in User Research?
There are three general situations when a brand will be looking to conduct user research. We can explore these in the context of a luxury omni-brand ecommerce website.
1 - Quick Fix
There is a sudden change in the performance of the website i.e. something broke, the analytics dashboard is showing some funky numbers, a conversion goal isn't being hit or you literally see something epically failing on the site.
Triggered by: Rollout of a web update/new feature with insufficient quality assurance or acceptability testing, a vendor integration upsets an API workflow, you get hacked, the intern deletes your source code, etc.
What Happens: Root-cause analysis, testing and facilitation (working with in-house IT to get it fixed).
2 - Touchpoint Refresh
You intentionally commission a design refresh, want to add some new functionality to the website or want to incrementally optimize part of the website such as the checkout flow to boost conversion.
Triggered by: Brand-level redesigns, tentpole campaigns, new product/service launches, getting feedback from frontline staff or end-users that challenges existing design patterns.
What Happens: Expert assessment (touchpoint teardown and competitor analysis), light user research to qualify proposed concepts, design exploration, design testing with prototypes through to the final product, and possibly testing after deployment/handover to optimize.
3 - Experience Overhaul or New Touchpoint Establishment
You believe that in order to reach and serve your customers' needs, a new touchpoint must be established or an existing web experience needs to be redefined (converting a static website to a progressive web app). Website localization would also fit under this scenario.
Triggered by: Output from a strategic consulting engagement, conducting a competitor analysis or web audit, deciding to enter a new market, attending a conference, the CEO says so.
What Happens: With a blank canvas you begin with 1:1 interviews, discussion groups and immersion with end-users to stress-test assumptions and qualify the idea itself - where will the touchpoint fit in the customer journey and what interactions do we aim to trigger? Then you can follow-up with testing on competitor platforms, mood boards, user stories (since you don't yet have the touchpoint) and move on to the steps shared for touchpoint refresh.
Any place an interaction takes place can be subjected to user testing. The methods however will vary. This leads to another point: You do not need to get an end-user to tell you the purchase form is too long. User-centricity doesn’t mean going up to a user and asking "hey, what do you want?" Heuristic or "expert-led" testing methods exist for a reason: they are efficient, accurate, and allow you to focus on what really matters with end-users. What really matters? Immersion, connection, anchoring to their lived reality and eliciting feedback using their own language. No end-user will tell you that they confuse the primary and secondary CTAs in the check-out flow because their prioritization on the page is ambiguous and the colors lack contrast. They'll just click the wrong thing and get annoyed.
Beyond Diagnosis: Augment the Value Proposition, Enhance Experience
The outcomes of user research inform choices that lead to improvements in the interactions through which exchanges of value are made. Every interaction that takes place delivers the brand in some way. There are different categories of interaction improvement: simplifying, maximizing, reconfiguring and elevating emotion. User research can be "diagnostic" but it can also open a path forward for product innovation. This is why top-performing brands continuously test – they aren’t just checking for bugs or repositioning their CTAs: they are seeking behavioral cues that suggest opportunity spaces around latent use cases or unmet/emergent needs.
Heritage Brands Feel Pressure to Digitize: User Research Sets the Pace
User research can protect a brand from moving too quickly into product digitization, or investing in the wrong aspects of digitization.
Let’s take a Porsche 911 as an example. The 8th generation Porsche 911 (992) Carrera 4S released this year features a digital instrument cluster. The five-gauge cluster plays into the overall iconic look of the vehicle so this represents a fairly big move - it is telling that the center-mounted tachometer remains a real, physical gauge. Why wait until 2019 to digitize the instrument cluster? Other OEMs had been doing so much earlier. Since as early as the 70’s actually, with the Aston Martin Lagonda being the first application of an electronic instrument cluster in a production automobile. This was admittedly a bit ahead of the curve.
Aston Martin Lagonda (1970s) vs Porsche 911 (2019)
Few would argue Porsche lacked the technical chops in say, 2009-2015. The Toyota Prius had demonstrated the attraction of digital dials during this period. If you have the resources, the skills, and means to digitize, then why don’t you? Simple:
The essence of Porsche is the sporty driving experience. It is the machine itself, first and foremost.
Porsche HQ would have done the research and concluded that globally speaking, core 911 customers did not want a heavily digitized instrument cluster. This kind of digitization would serve to alienate the driver from "the machine".
Someone familiar with the situation at Porsche China emphasized that HQ conducts comprehensive market research and user testing to follow the trends at a speed that suits the brand and its customers, not the pace of market hype. The 2020 Porsche Taycan (an EV) takes digitization further, and this suits the fact that the preferences of an electric vehicle customer will be different. There is a certain openness to departing from tradition, so long as this departure still adheres to their expectations of what a Porsche should be.
The brand’s positioning and the reasons why 911 owners love the vehicle dictated that (up until now) digitization would not be advantageous to the brand, nor would it serve end-users’ needs. As of now, a combination of competitive pressure (the normalization of digital interfaces) and end-user insights (including a demographic shift towards younger drivers and a desire for deeper customization of the driving experience) justify digitalization of the instrument cluster.
Reconfiguring the exchange of value
Porsche has taken a key component of the car experience and reconfigured it to allow a deeper level of product personalization. As a user you can now choose what you want to appear in your instrument cluster, but the physical tachometer anchors the digital features in the physical reality of the machine.
User Research Directs Efforts to the Right Places
User research ensures your investments are justified by clearly defined use cases.
Another example can be found in Chinese EV maker NIO which as of December 31, 2018 had a network of 13 NIO House experience centres within a variety of high-rent commercial locations. The business claims that NIO Houses are intended to function not just as showrooms for vehicles and services, but also as a living space for customers and their friends. Indeed, the brand prides itself on being totally committed to the customer and we know first-hand through our own research how current owners rave about the experience of owning a NIO car and being part of the NIO community.
Despite facing a range of headwinds over the last year, customers have maintained their solidarity with the brand. A person familiar with the situation at NIO even commented that owners had acted as ambassadors, buying out billboard ads to show support and help maintain the company’s image amid a torrent of negative press about their vehicle recalls and lack of cash flow (problems which have likewise been faced by Tesla).
The impressive executional rollout of the Nio House experience preceded an adequate understanding of what users would want to do at such a venue. The result was a fantastic concept without a connection to any clear user need, resulting in underutilization (and multiplied across the NIO house portfolio). User research helped the brand to bridge the missing connection and communicate more effectively the intended use cases of the multifunctional space. Going forward, the team took a more iterative approach and incorporated key user feedback before launching new premises.
Maximizing the exchange of value (in the right way) and Elevating Emotion in the experience
As a starting point, NIO owners like the idea of having a dedicated central space where they can relax, conduct meetings or socialize and attend to vehicle-specific needs. With additional research, the team could better understand how to elevate the brand in NIO house so it steered clear of a generic coworking vibe plus they could integrate meaningful space design and services that connect with actual needs and behaviors.
There are many methods you can draw on to conduct user research. In this article, we took a step back to frame the "why" and appreciate the bigger picture. The outcomes of user research power choices that lead to improvements in the interactions through which exchanges of value and brand experiences are articulated. But user research is not just about usability. It is about refining and building on the value you wish to deliver to the market. A user-friendly website or app does not make your brand a Burberry, or a Porsche or a Netflix. With the right approach, you can leverage user research to unlock insights that enable:
Simplification in the exchange of value (usability)
Maximization of the exchange of value that currently takes place
Reconfiguration of the exchange of value
Elevation of Emotion in the exchange of value
Special thanks to anonymous friends:
1. L. E. Crawford et.al. 2020 (upcoming) Enriched environment exposure accelerates rodent driving skills. In: Behavioural Brain Research Volume 378, 27 January 2020, 112309
2. Frison & Zotz, (2020) The Intersection of User Experience (UX), Customer Experience (CX), and Brand Experience (BX). In: User Experience Is Brand Experience. Management for Professionals. Springer, Cham