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A Balancing Act: Walking the Tightrope of User-Centered Design

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This article is re-posted from User Centric’s blog.

We have seen time and time again that users are fickle–preferences change at the drop of a hat. The last thing a business competing in this environment would like to do is give users a reason to be disappointed. But how do you give yourself the flexibility to move forward as a business without worrying about scaring off your user base? The answer is simply balance. One must learn to consider the needs and wants of the user, without forgetting about the needs of the business. The intersection of the two is user-centered harmony and the foundation of ideal design. Incorporating a philosophy of balance is the first step toward achieving this interface Zen.

For a long time products were developed with business goals as the primary driver. For most, this approach has long been outmoded by varying degrees of user-centered design. What many have found, however, is that simply scratching the surface of  user-centered design will not yield the greatest return. In fact, we have seen examples of when a blind approach can be damaging; where this paradigm shifts too far toward the other end of the spectrum.  So what happens if you do not achieve this balance? How severe are the consequences if companies ignore their users and focus only on business goals?

Here’s a look at two companies with recent user interface redesigns gone wrong, all due to an imbalance of business and user needs.

Digg

Digg put its own financial aims before user needs with its new UI in August 2010. The site was originally designed to organize news posts based on web traffic and user interest, rewarding stories by placing them at the top of the page. To many users, the 2010 redesign betrayed the democratic nature of the process by promoting sponsored links above those which gained momentum organically. What was once a great hub for authentic, comment-worthy content turned into a transparent marketing machine.

Too heavy of a focus on business objectives may lead users to feel that they are not valued, that they are being ignored. User-centered design demonstrates a company’s commitment to creating positive experiences for consumers. Digg demonstrated just the opposite, and despite a roll back of many changes, its reputation is still recovering, after having initially lost over half of their user base.

MySpace

MySpace is a popular lesson in catering too much to user wants without considering business goals. When MySpace was bourgeoning social network site, users loved the idea of carving out their own space on the net by customizing their profile. However this open ecosystem allowed users to do just about anything to their page, creating an interface that was inconsistent, cluttered, difficult to navigate, and hard to pick out salient pieces of information. Take a look at some of the variations that were possible.

MySpace hoped that the ability to customize one’s page would be a feature that attracted people to the site. However, they did so without fully understanding what happens if the user customizes their page so much that it becomes confusing, unreadable, and unusable. Many would argue that these negative consequences led to a dramatic loss of users when confronted by a competitor with a cleaner, more consistent interface.

Don’t go blindly

One way to ensure balance is to follow the principle “find out why and why not.” Knowing exactly why a potential user does not use a product is at least as useful as understanding why one does choose a product. It’s well known in the user experience (UX) community that countering shortcomings through design that anticipates real world user behavior is good for business.

If your product is not performing as well as you think it should, consider your approach to design: maybe it’s shifted too far toward one pole. Maybe you need to incorporate more feedback from users, or maybe you have allowed too much unfiltered feedback to poison the experience and obscure the business goals.

Luckily, this balancing act need not be done blindly. With a proper combination of research based findings and recommendations which consider business goals, a positive experience can trickle from your mission statement all the way to the user interface.

Bottom line: Achieving balance will not only further the understanding of user interaction with a product or service, but influence an entire company’s point of view. When businesses align user research with their own business objectives, an exceptional user experience will flourish.

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