“User experience is THE fundamental objective truth of the internet.”

How many times have you found yourself in this situation?

Your project team is trying to settle a difference in opinion. The client wants one thing, the designer wants another, and the developer wants a third thing that is somehow diametrically opposed to everyone else. Consensus feels as imminent as humans commuting daily to work on Mars. Inevitably, disagreement quickly devolves into an arm-wrestling match where the winner is determined more by hierarchical power than by the strength of an idea.

If you recognize this scenario, I can’t say that I’m surprised. It perfectly describes the status of every single project I’ve ever worked on at some point in time. The real question is: how do you find common ground and move forward?

The answer is user experience.

User Experience

Creating a digital strategy today without user experience is like walking into a casino and putting everything on black thirteen. While instinct is a powerful ally in any venture, there is no reason to hedge your bets on a hunch when it isn’t necessary—no matter how much you know (or think you know) about your business.

That’s where user experience comes in. UX is all about understanding the people you serve or want to serve with your business, and specifically how they relate to your digital products (e.g. websites, apps, emails, SaaS).

User experience is not an ointment that you can apply and watch the healing begin. It is a philosophy based in learning, testing, and improvement—a holistic approach that draws from a huge and ever-growing toolbox. The contents of that toolbox on any given project are always changing, and I’ve been as likely to use industry-standard tools such as SessionCam, Loop11, or Google Experiments as I have been to use the digital equivalent of rubbing two damp sticks together. But no matter what, the process and the ideas behind it are always the same.

  • Planning & Discovery. Whether it’s a new or already existing product, the most important first step is understanding the expectations of all of the stakeholders, from the top decision-maker to the last person on the production line. Building a project plan firmly grounded in consensus is the best way to ensure a successful strategy. It’s also the best way to identify opportunities that may have otherwise been overlooked or forgotten.
  • Research. From proto-personas and one-on-one user research to heuristic markups and competitor audits, the next step is all about understanding the wants, needs, and behavior of the people that are going to use the digital product in question. (Everyone likes to call them “users,” but I’ve found that doing so makes it very easy to stop thinking about them as human beings.) And of course, a deep dive into Google Analytics or any other available analytics service is essential when dealing with an existing product.
  • Design. From a simple sketch on paper to wireframes and flat designs, the goal is for the design to enhance the content and not the other way around. (If the content is Fred Astaire, then the design is Ginger Rogers. Even though he was the “leader,” she had to do everything that he did, backward and in high heels.)
  • Testing & Validation. This is where UX separates the scientists from the gamblers. No matter what the budget, there is always a way to test and validate. The trick is to bake it right into the digital bread. From quick usability tests to complicated A/B testing scenarios, a digital product can be tested at any time during its development, from prototype to living, breathing entity.

In short, user experience is key to establishing an objective reality by which all digital strategy is measured. Think about that scene in the movie Big, where the “grown-up” version of the kid (played by Tom Hanks) responds to a new toy prototype at an internal company meeting. It really didn’t matter how much the team believed in their skyscraper-to-robot idea, or what research and statistics they had to back it up. His simple four-word response spoke for their entire target demographic: “I don’t get it.”

It seems someone just forgot to ask a kid if they would play with it.

(Learn more about my approach to Digital Design & Development.)