The Great Differentiator

21 Aug

by julian-hirst 21.08.12

Design is now seen as a critical differentiator for digital products and services in the financial services sector. Other industry sectors are following suit as Design makes a direct impact on business success and, in troubled times, even survival.

Chris Tobias recently wrote a piece for FX-MM on User Experience Design as a powerful differentiator in what the Financial Times described as the “forex tech ‘arms race’”.

The role of Design as differentiator – and its direct impact on the bottom line – is not limited to the financial services sector; nor is the mass emancipation of users; nor the breakneck democratisation of technology.

Digital’s evolution has overtaken us in every sector. We live in the future. Anyone designing digital products and services today is designing for very savvy and demanding digital natives.

From the systems that should be making us happy or successful at work, to the applications we carry in our pockets and embed in every corner of our lives, we are accustomed to deciding for ourselves which will dazzle and delight, which will improve life, and which are best to simply get the job done. We routinely reject those that confuse, frustrate, and slow us down. We can finally decide for ourselves how, when and where these products intersect and fit together to make everything better.

This has long been technology’s tantalising promise, and one that it is now ready to fulfil. But technology can’t do it alone. Every industry sector – from financial services to FMCG, energy to healthcare, manufacturing to media – is littered with failed products and services telling cautionary tales of technology, let down by poor design, failing to hit the mark.

When design works, however, digital products and services, do – at last – deliver on technology’s promise. The finest examples see awareness of technology dissolve almost completely into a user experience that anticipates our every need and removes every obstacle. Technology is noticed only when gets in our way.

Obeying the rules of mature product design

Design has evolved over millennia, producing everything from sneakers to skyscrapers. Software design is still in its adolescence but, as it matures, digital products and services increasingly obey the rules of mature product design, succeeding or failing as a result.

In building software or applications, Design is no longer restricted to the middle of the development lifecycle; or, worse, at the end. As Chris says, it’s not just about the colours, layout and interface any more. When Design is holistic and stands shoulder to shoulder with technology it is a powerful union.

From trading platforms to geo-location to shopping carts, if technology can do almost anything we ask of it, the question becomes: what do you need it to do? This question, and those that spring from it, cannot be properly answered by business + technology; or even by business + technology + users. Even the smartest business analysts and consultants, working alongside the most skilled technologists and engineers, cannot give a complete answer to this question.

This claim was once controversial. But too many organisations have dropped millions developing systems based on what the business wants, what technology can do, and what the business assumes the users need, only to see the end product fail; and to find themselves doing it all again one year later.

Lessons learned in adolescence

These organisations have learnt a costly lesson; if the big questions are never asked, or the answers provided are incomplete or unproven, subsequent investment in design and technology can be largely written off.

We encounter these situations less frequently now that Designers are invited by business + technology to help identify challenges and opportunities before any code is written. And they are becoming a thing of the past as serious Design firms are engaged as partners rather than vendors.

Designing for the bottom line

The best Design firms, who have matured as strategists and problem solvers as well as creative conduits, are doing this already. They know how to help businesses answer the big questions in detail. These questions do not intimidate them. Good designers are trained to do this; and they have the skills, processes and tools to make sure everybody gets it right.

Design researchers gather meaningful requirements from a group of humans using tools to carry out tasks, alongside other humans, in a particular environment. The research methods are identical, whether the tasks involve shopping for shoes or trading FX swaps.

Design strategists use this data and work with business analysts to identify and describe the real opportunity for the business; and how to explore and test concepts quickly and cheaply, prioritising the essential while discarding the rest.

Lastly – and perhaps most importantly – designers and creative technologists deliver design reality, getting it right first time and then measuring and improving a product or experience continually, as markets and users evolve. They have been fine-tuning these skills for centuries. Technology propels us forward but designers can keep up, and the best among them know what is going to happen next. 

Chris’ concluding comment about differentiation is worth repeating: for any organisation expecting to engage customers or users with digital products and services, Design is now the great differentiator. Recognising this, and investing wisely in a strategy for Design, is a fast track to success.

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Tags: design ux

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