What customers want: Mastering the art of UX design

20 Jan 2018

Do you know what your customers really want? Image: Dean Drobot/Shutterstock

UX expert Gareth Dunlop explores the challenging question faced by many a designer: what do customers actually want?

The classic criticism levelled at consultants of many hues is that they ask for your watch, then tell you the time. They are notorious for asking lots of questions and reporting back with little more than a glorified transcription in a 50-page report, 40 pages of which are part of an off-the-shelf template.

This same criticism, viewed through the lens of the consultant rather than the customer, is that consultants are under constant pressure to give those who have commissioned them the exact outcome they desire; and so, generally need to start any engagement by earning the right to provide a challenge function (so essential if genuine value is to be added). At the risk of over-generalising, this right is earned by assuring the client of two important things.

  1. The consultant has invested substantial time and has adequate intellectual capacity to comprehensively understand their business needs and the problem they have been engaged to solve.
  2. The consultant has a strong grasp of their own specialism, through a mixture of commitment to the theory, experience over many years and the application of the theory to the problem at hand.

Yet still, consultants and agencies can come under pressure, not just to solve problems for customers, but to solve those problems exactly the way the customer wants. This is a challenge across many disciplines but is particularly acute in the world of user experience (UX).

The problems that UX design typically helps to solve are to sell more, improve efficiency, cut costs, enhance marketplace position, increase customer satisfaction, ward off competitive threat and build brand. And, perhaps counterintuitively, this is most commonly achieved not by seeking to control the customer more but, rather, by letting the customer control the experience.

For example, it’s not uncommon that conversion ratios are improved for e-commerce providers when they talk less about themselves, not more. Frequent studies inform us that design trends that remain popular – such as use of the hamburger menu and parallex-led long homepages – frequently under-perform against a range of heuristic criteria. We know from years of research that the ‘hero shot’ decreases user trust and propensity to buy, it doesn’t increase it.

‘Try to pull together a group to talk about findability, task-completion efficiency, navigation speed or internal site search, and you’ll discover that no amount of strong coffee or sticky doughnuts will persuade people to come along’

Hero shots include transport companies boasting about the size of their fleet (users are usually happy to take on trust that the company will have a bus to take them to their destination), universities putting shiny pictures of their buildings on the homepage (it turns out that users are prepared to take the step of faith that the university will have rooms in which to conduct the lectures), and  – my own bête noire – the large organisation that leads on its homepage with a ‘web version’ of their TV ad or billboard (in all my years involved in digital I have never been involved in a single project where the replay of a TV ad registered more than half of 1pc of homepage activity).

At the time of writing, far too many such Irish websites remain live.

Rather, users value a range of things that too many comms professionals find too dull. Invite a group of people to a meeting to talk about brand and visual aesthetic, and you’ll fill the room. And so you should – these are important considerations. Yet try to pull together a group to talk about findability, task-completion efficiency, navigation speed or internal site search, and you’ll discover that no amount of strong coffee or sticky doughnuts will persuade people to come along.

To our loyal clients, and those who one day might become customers, I assure you of the Fathom team’s commitment to credible challenge function.

In return, I ask you to accede to the paradox that if we simply gave you everything you ever wanted, it wouldn’t be what you wanted.

By Gareth Dunlop

Gareth Dunlop owns and runs Fathom, a user-experience consultancy that helps ambitious organisations get the most from their website and internet marketing by viewing the world from the perspective of their customers. Specialist areas include UX strategy, usability testing, customer journey planning, web accessibility and integrated online marketing. Clients include Three, Tourism NI, Firmus Energy, PSNI, Permanent TSB and Tesco Mobile.

Gareth Dunlop runs Fathom, a UX consultancy that helps organisations get the most from their digital products.