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What Corporate IT Needs to Know About User Experience

Jul 22, 2013

What Corporate IT Needs to Know About User Experience

Are you experienced? A couple of developers are suggesting that you’d better be.

This is not “experienced” in the Jimi Hendrix sense -- though perhaps that may help, who knows -- but in the sense of “user experience,” a concept that’s been kicking around for fifteen years or so but has become more of a Thing recently. While “user experience” has that kind of hippy-dippy, “I’ve reached my dolphinness through interpretive dance” feel to it, it does have a meaning distinct from, say, user interface.

The user interface -- that is, the way the person interacts with the device or application -- is certainly a part of the user experience, but there’s more to it than that. It’s what makes the experience of using an application fun and compelling -- which might not, in fact, be the most efficient way to use the application. Really, isn’t there a more efficient way to tell people where you’ve been, or for finding interesting places to go, than using Foursquare? And yet it’s a popular app.

“The first requirement for an exemplary user experience is to meet the exact needs of the customer, without fuss or bother,” says the Nielsen Norman Group, which includes Don Norman, who’s said to have come up with the notion of user experience (UX) in the first place. “Next comes simplicity and elegance that produce products that are a joy to own, a joy to use. True user experience goes far beyond giving customers what they say they want, or providing checklist features. In order to achieve a high-quality user experience in a company's offerings there must be a seamless merging of the services of multiple disciplines, including engineering, marketing, graphical and industrial design, and interface design.”

User experience, in other words, is why we sometimes take the back roads when we’re driving someplace instead of taking the more efficient but boring interstate highway. In fact, there’s some pretty interesting research around the whole concept of people these days looking to buy “experiences” rather than possessions. People are tired of accumulating Things, which then have to be put somewhere and dusted and taken care of and so on; instead, they want to accumulate Experiences, which don’t take up any space.

An article a few months ago in the Harvard Business Review told how IT and corporate data -- especially Big Data -- needs to be integrated with the same sort of apps that we like to play with on our phones, at least according to writers Robert Fabricant, vice president of creative at frog, a global innovation consultancy, and Greg Petroff, general manager for user experience at GE. “The next wave of innovation will be driven by business-grade solutions that combine real-time analytics and improved UX to support better decision-making in a host of new areas,” they write. “These innovations will range from how we manage large-scale infrastructure such as urban traffic, to how we manage our heating bills at home; from how we manage collaboration on a trading desk to how we prioritize our personal email inboxes.”

Why is this particularly important in corporate IT? Because the potential rewards are so much greater. “Take, for instance, the comparative data collected from a popular app used on Facebook versus the data collected via a major Wall Street trading firm. Even with the increased amount of data being captured via consumer clicks each day, the conversion rate across many categories of online marketing remains in the single digits,” they write. “In contrast, even a few percent point increase in productivity of a single Wall Street trader, can lead to millions in additional revenue per year. But the ‘user experience’ layer will be critical in unlocking the value of data for consumers and businesses alike.”

Now, if you’ve been working the past few years to develop the most minimalist, most efficient, least wasted space user interfaces ever, this news might be a bit hard to take. When you’ve finally figured out the quickest way to save a few microseconds reporting Wall Street trading data, you may not be interested in using sentiment analysis to find out how that data makes people feel. Nonetheless, that’s what people – not just these developers, but also analysts from companies such as Gartner and Forrester -- have been saying.

Really, it all dates back thirty years ago to 1982 and the “high tech, high touch” of Megatrends -- that the more technical our society gets, the more attracted we will be to human involvement. That particular megatrend was one of the most popular in the book -- enough to have spawned dozens of follow-up books of its own. 

To lead this revolution, enterprise IT software developers must also adopt the latest advances in user experience design that have emerged from the consumer “app” marketplace, according to Fabricant and Petroff. “The key is not just better algorithms but more intelligent ways of surfacing the data in meaningful ways, through fresh visual and interaction paradigms,” they write. “This is the next and best opportunity for Enterprise IT software makers. They better not screw it up.”

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