Today’s world is a study in extremes.
On the one hand, we have great products which have changed the way we communicate, share and live our lives. Like WhatsApp. WhatsApp has revolutionised the communication scene, so much so that even grandmothers are now buying smartphones to keep in touch with their grandchildren. It is innovation at its best.
But while we have WhatsApp, we also have products that should never have seen the light of day.
Like the coffee machine we had at work.
This coffee machine was nothing like its average brethren. It was worse.
It was dumpy, inconvenient, and had an interface that would baffle a NASA scientist. And which certainly confused and embarrassed every visitor who asked for a simple cup of coffee.
The enter button represented milk, a squidgy icon was supposed to symbolize coffee, while the buttons for different cup sizes were left to the imagination.
And if you didn’t figure out that the water steam spout was hidden in an obscure corner and didn’t move your cup in time, you would end up with a mini swimming pool on the table. Just like I did.
Honestly, it was a product that was unusable and frustrating.
And completely failed me as a user.
Which brings us to the point of this article – how do such products ever pass the design test; and how do you make sure you never make one like it?
To answer that, let’s begin by examining the role of the product manager.
In this complex, competitive age, brands are pushing to create innovative and meaningful products. The product manager is responsible for synthesising the ideas of various teams, from the design team to the engineering department and the sales team – to finally create one brilliant product.
However, somewhere in this entire journey, the product manager sometimes forgets to listen to the most important stakeholder – the end-user.
The internal stakeholders are important, but finally, the end-user is the only one that matters.
Because if the end-user rejects the product, the entire ship will sink, no matter how well the developer hard-coded the product, or the marketing team studied the market.
In a nutshell, the user can make or break a product.
Under such circumstances, the importance of understanding users, studying their needs, challenges, pain points, all within the context of the problem, cannot be emphasized enough.
Potential design solutions should be validated with real users – not with engineers and designers working on the product.
A designer validating her own product is like a mother judging her own child. How can a creator evaluate limitations in her own creation with an impersonal eye?
Which brings us to the next question: who is best suited to conduct product validation studies, or as it is popularly known, usability studies?
Firstly, usability studies do not mean filling out a survey form at a restaurant, using a cold, generic rating scale.
User validation involves deeper, process-driven methods, which probe into the actual interactions between the product/service and the user.
As such, user validation should be placed on the responsible shoulders of a professionally trained User Experience Researcher, who will neither be biased nor emotionally invested in the product.
The questions asked of the user will then be insightful, empathetic and aimed at digging out the truth, whatever that may be.
And in turn, the results of such a study would be reliable, genuine, and contain hidden, compelling insights, culled from the unspoken words of the user.
With such powerful information in his hands, a product manager can do wonders for the product and of course, for his company.
To fuel innovation that actually impacts people meaningfully, companies need to actively restructure their development cycle and make users an integral part of the entire process; rather than bringing them in towards the end, almost like an afterthought.
The solution should fit the user, and not the other way around.
More importantly, product managers and other stakeholders should be sensitised to user experience studies. Every product manager should primarily be a great listener – capable of listening, understanding and incorporating the voice of the user into the product or service.
Only then will a product justify its investment; and absurdities like the frustrating coffee machine be consigned to eternal oblivion. Thankfully.