UX Magazine

Defining and Informing the Complex Field of User Experience (UX)
Article No. 576 November 4, 2010

The Evolved User Experience

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Using social media technologies to drive UX design and product strategy

In today’s fast-moving business market, a new product can fail as quickly as it was launched if, by the time it reaches the market, it’s either less useful and engaging, or isn’t innovative enough. At the core of the problem is the inability for companies to break away from more traditional approaches to product design and development process. This often means they design complex features that are dependent on a single big launch, but consequentially companies can’t predict and design for future changes in user behavior trends.

Today, social technologies have made it less challenging for UX teams to involve users in the full project lifecycle, from initial phase of co-ideation, to ongoing iterations and testing during the design and development phases. In an environment where there is an ongoing relationship with the user that encourages flow of fresh ideas and feelings, changes in user behavior become more predictable compared to an environment where there’s a very limited day-to-day relationship with the user.

Involving users in the product development cycle is of course not a new concept; it has been practiced by user-centered design (UCD) teams for a long time. The difference today is that social technologies enable ongoing user interaction with the product in real time, allowing product designers to vet ideas with users, and learn from users’ concerns and firsthand experiences.

Social technologies offer opportunities for UX teams to lead the way in creating revolutionary concepts for product design and development as well as new and innovative ways of involving users in the product lifecycle.

The Next Frontier for UX Teams?

Today’s users are empowered by technology as never before; technology has significantly changed the way users consume media, do business, and share information. Users are not anymore passive consumers of brands and user experiences—they’re beginning to take ownership of them.

Technology has also changed the way product developers perceive the value of user insights. Product development teams are now getting a better understanding of the need to incorporate user feedbacks in the development cycles. They’re getting increasingly involved either as active participants in or as observers of user research, participatory design, or even iterative user testing sessions conducted over crowd-sourced platforms. They’re observing more closely how users express their feelings, desires, and needs about the product in a compelling way.

In a very real sense, access to real-time user information by product teams is helping create empathy towards users as never before and this in turn is encouraging teams to fully engage in their work with the belief that it will enhance and enrich users’ experiences.

All this is very helpful if UX teams lead the process of identifying user audiences, collecting data, and extracting insights from the data. The enthusiasm of product teams for social technology platforms and the associated research methods and tools should not lead them to believe they don’t need the help of UX team. Rather, it should pave ways for a more efficient collaboration with UX teams who not only see the value of actionable user insights but who also are experts in capturing and communicating the most relevant qualities of target audiences related to products and business strategies.

In the past, UX teams have had difficulty getting product teams to allow them to incorporate insights into the development process. But today, social technologies can allow UX teams to quickly and iteratively inject fresh ideas throughout the development cycle, enabling them to move faster to match the more agile product development cycles.

UX teams can have real impact on overall product strategy, but they must quickly adapt the new challenges and opportunities inherent in changing user behavior trends and evolving technologies in order to help provide a complete, consistent, and shared understanding of the user. They need to embrace the new technologies through which users are interacting with their brand, but still keep their focus on understanding user behaviors, and not necessarily the technology itself.

Users behave differently on social media platforms; they use these platforms in a radically different way than more traditional forums. They see social platforms as more integral parts of their lives. If UX teams learn to adopt these technologies in their work they will allow them to get insights about users in ways never would have been possible using traditional methods.

In most cases, UX teams will need to collaborate with other departments that already have access to, and an established process for disseminating, user insights from social media platforms.

Generating Insights From Social Media Platforms

Depending on where in the project cycle they are, UX teams have the appropriate platforms and technologies at their disposal. Online community sites can be used to start ambitious user research projects in which ethnographic methodologies are applied to learn about users. Similarly, social platforms can be used to identify the most loyal audience groups, for co-ideation and iterative design process. Ideally, to take full advantage of the opportunities that social technologies offer, the involvement of users in the product design and development cycles should be ongoing.

Despite the near-limitless opportunities social technologies can offer and the breakneck pace at which their capabilities are evolving, there are some challenges that can limit teams from using them effectively. Determining whether social technologies are being used by the target users or are even accessible to them is the first step in using social technologies as part of a product’s development. Similarly, the limits and maturity of an organization’s capability of understanding the value of insights found through social technologies is also an issue.

It can be an uphill battle for UX teams to inject these insights into the product development cycle when they’re need to move at the pace that’s required by the product team or when the product team is not bought in into the value of the insights for the user experience. To face down these challenges, UX teams need to evangelize the value of user insights to enhance the user experience and the business’ success.

Conclusion

UX teams need to think beyond traditional user research methods and adopt new social technologies to take advantage of the opportunities that are provided by the technology in terms of understanding user behavior and leveraging them for user participation in the project cycles. In addition, these technologies allow researchers to be more agile and to iterate design ideas based on real user feedback.

In todays digital market the cost of not knowing your users better and not involving them in the product design and development process can be very high. Users are generous in providing positive feedback, but they also are ready to criticize the brand and product if they deem it appropriate.

 

The opinions expressed here are the author’s own and not those of the American Cancer Society.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

User Profile

Alexander Negash is currently Analytics and User Experience Manager at American Cancer Society, where his main role is in providing analysis and insights to help identify user behaviors, understand their needs and attitudes with the goal to enhance the user experience and optimize business. He has many years of experience practicing varied roles within the user experience, analytics, and marketing disciplines.His main research interest is in identifying strategic and business impacts of emerging digital technologies on user behavior and the use of new and innovative ways of applying these technologies in the process of research, design and development of products and services to enhance the user experience. He’s also passionate about data and how insights from different sources are used to back user experience design and development decisions.

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Comments

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Hello Alexander,

I enjoyed your article and agree with you on most points. The challenge we've run into is using social media to communicate and listen to your target audience without disclosing sensitive IP information that your competitors could review. Any thoughts?

Thanks,
Frank

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Thanks for providing the link Tom, the RBS case study is an excellent example of how social media platforms can be used for user research and participatory design. I agree, we've just started to scratch the surface in terms of how we can use these technologies to enhance the user experience.

 

Thanks for your comment Lawrence, when it comes to involving users in the design process, it's always a balancing act. I think you could introduce your innovative ideas into the market based on user insights only and expect your users to take the direction you want them to go but you can't be sure unless you test these ideas with your users.

There is always a risk that if you involve users in the design process they may take you in a direction that you did not expected or envisioned but at the same time this radical shift in product strategy could provide users a reason to be passionate about and share their enthusiasm with the larger audience - this could be beneficial for your business. 

 

 

 

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Sounds logical to engage users in product development lifecycle, but there's a seismic difference between extracting useful insights from user behaviour and involving users in design. As Henry Ford said "If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses."

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You're exactly right Alexander. The profession needs to expand its methods into the social space.

We've recently completed a project here in the UK where we used Facebook as a platform for research to drive out user requirements for a mobile app for a big insurance brand.

Facebook have recently published a case study on their site:

http://ads.ak.facebook.com/ads/FacebookAds/RBS_Insurance_CaseStudy.pdf

For me this is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of using social media as a platform for customer collaboration and insight gathering.

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Thanks Brian, I agree, convincing Stakeholders about the benefit of this approach is one of the main challenges - depending on how exposed your particular user audience is to social media platforms, I think starting small and showing them what's possible in the short term could help them see the benefit and remove some of the skepticism for long term investment. In my opinion this should be more of a requirement than an option.

 

Thanks Rick, I really enjoyed your comment, the way you applied Piaget's cognitive constructivism theory to usability is interesting. Users always apply knowledge of the "familiar" as a way to adapt to new information and I think this is true even when they're presented with disruptively innovative technologies. But I think the user's "ability to learn new interactions" partly depends on their readiness for the innovative ideas which is hard to predict without knowing who the users are and having them involved in the design process. In this aspect social technologies offer a new and innovative ways of bridging the gap between user's unmet needs and wants with that of the designer's intuition and experience, which in turn helps the user adapt to the new design experience in most cases without much of a need to use the "familiar" knowledge as a point of reference.

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Thanks for the article Alexander!

(Sorry for the appearance of shameless self-promotion.)

I wrote a paper a few years ago applying Jean Piaget's constructivist learning theory to usability. It maps directly to this topic:

"Few would argue that the technologies of the 1980s versus now could not be more different. Similarly, users do not interact with computers the same way they did in the 1980s. They’ve learned and adapted. More specifically, they’ve applied what they learned about interacting with 1980’s systems and built on that knowledge to interact with 1981’s systems and so on."

"This type of experiential learning evokes the constructivist theory, which states in part that “there is no single valid methodology.” Not surprisingly, an understanding of usability is closely tied to the manner in which people learn, and if one subscribes to constructivism, there is no single valid methodology for learning. Jean Piaget is widely credited with the formalization of constructivism as a learning theory. He theorized that through the processes of accommodation and assimilation, individuals construct new knowledge from their experiences and build on them."

"Piaget’s constructivist learning theory maps well
with the concept of usability. In a nutshell, Piaget believed that when individuals learn, they augment an existing framework of knowledge by adding newly learned experiences without altering the existing framework. In the context of usability, users adapt and build their knowledge of interacting with digital systems. Look at Apple’s iPhone, for example. It represented a revolution in the way people interact with devices. In actuality, the iPhone’s designers made a radical departure from the way people act with hardware, but most of the iPhone’s software features are built on usability principles found in other applications already in wide use. The iPhone is a revolutionary design that merges an existing framework of usability with a consumer’s ability to learn new interactions without altering the existing framework."

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Nice points Alexander, Appreciate the read. I completely agree the user is smarter than ever and getting smarter everyday. More research need be done during the process, but the hardest part is convincing stakeholders with tight budgets the benefit in ROI and efficiency in the long run.

Hopefully soon I will be able to spend more time researching and less time convincing!