User-centricity is More than Just a Word

Ever since Time Magazine made you and I the person of the year, user experience has been the two words on the tip of everyone’s tongue. We’re all saying that the user is king and that we’re building everything around them. But I fear that user-centricity is quickly becoming one of those corporate clichés that’s easy to say, but much, much harder to do. All too often I see internal fighting in a lot of companies between those that truly get user centricity and have become the internal user champions and those that are continuing to push the corporate agenda, at the expense of the user experience. The tough part of user centricity is seeing things through the users eyes. We can do user testing but if we truly put the user first, it requires tremendous courage and fortitude to make the user the primary stakeholder. All too often, I see user considerations being one of several factors that are being balanced in the overall design. And often, it takes a backseat to other considerations, such as monetization. This is the trap that Yahoo currently finds themselves in. They talk about user experience all the time. But the fact is, over the last two years it’s really been the advertiser whose’s owned their search results page. I’ve recently seen signs of the balance tipping more towards the user’s favor with the rollout of Panama and a more judicious presentation of top sponsored ads. But I’m still not sure the user is winning the battle at Yahoo!

It’s not easy to step inside your user’s head when it comes to designing interfaces. It’s very tought to toggle the user perspective on and off when you’re going through a design cycle. The feedback we get from usability testing tends to be too far removed from the actual implementation of the design. By that time the meat of the findings has been watered down and diluted to the point where the user’s voice is barely heard. That’s why I like personas as a design vehicle. A well formulated persona keeps you on track. It keeps you in the mindset of the user. It gives you a mental framework you can step into quickly and readjust your perspective to that of the user, not the designer.

If you’re truly going to be user centric, be prepared to take a lot of flack from a lot of people. This is not a promise to be made lightly. You have to commit to it and not let anything dissuade you from delivering the best possible end-user experience, defined in the user’s own terms. This can’t be a corporate feel good thing. It has to be a corporate commitment that requires balls the size of Texas. And if you’re going to make a commitment, you better be damn sure that the entire company is also willing to make the same commitment. The user experience group can’t be a lone bastion for the user, fighting a huge sea of corporate momentum going in the opposite direction. This isn’t about balancing the user in the grand scheme of things, it’s about committing wholeheartedly to them and getting everyone else in the organization to make the same commitment. If you can do so, I think the potential wins are huge. There’s a lot of people talking about user centricity but there’s not a lot of people delivering on it consistently and wholeheartedly.

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