So you think you are user-centric?

6 ways to assess objectively your user-centricity

Many companies pretend being user-centric but very little really qualify for it. There is a huge gap between considering oneself as user centric and acting in a user centric way. Unfortunately, many companies are honest when seeing themselves as truly user-centric and miss the behaviors it really takes to be user centric. Below follow 6 items that will allow you to assess objectively to what extent you are a user-centric company:Focus on discovery rather than delivery

  1. Focus on discovery rather than delivery
  2. Qualitative before quantitative research
  3. User metrics rather than business metrics
  4. Journey rather than moment
  5. Talking to users rather than about users
  6. Innovation as a mean rather than an end

1/ Focus on discovery rather than delivery

When talking to a company, you can quickly evaluate to what extent employees are focus on delivery rather than discovery. They often talk about the progress they made on their velocity through continuous improvement, are proud of the number of features they shipped last quarter… If you want to go one step deeper, you can analyze the way they write their project or product brief and compare the part that is allocated to the discovery (need, problems…) against the delivery (solution UI, technical requirements…). It is usually a 10%/90% ratio… Others bells that can alert you: there are no UR (User Researchers) in the company, teams are tasked to develop or validate new solutions (aka projects).

User centric companies will spend way more time to explore the problem space, understanding deeply their customers’ needs before digging into any solutions. As Einstein stated, if he were given 20 days to solve a problem, he would take 19 days to figure out the problem and one day to solve it.

How you can fight this behavior ?

1/ Ask management team when they come with a solution to uncover the problem they are trying to solve. If not clear, ask for exploration. If clear, see if other solutions could candidate at a cheaper cost

2/ Make exploratory phase a mandatory step for each project, even if the project the manager is asking for is “it works for sure” (usually because it worked for him or her in a previous company but this misses the point that each context is unique)

3/ Emphasize to your management team the cost of developing the wrong features, whatever the speed ! The faster you develop them, the more technical debt you create…

2/ Qualitative before quantitative research

Supposed user-centric companies will pride themselves for doing intensive data analyses to understand customers behaviors. They have the right analytics tools stack, conduct several AB tests every week. But by looking only at figures, they get access to what their users do on their app but miss the why they do that. Let me give you an example. Many Saas companies try to increase their “time spent on the app” metric. You could get satisfied when seeing this metric going up. But what if this metric raises because users struggle to perform the tasks they are supposed to do ? Another pitfall is to rely on broad user surveys: users often lie to you (unconsciously). Paypal for instance regularly performed surveys to understand where people lastly used Paypal. One of the biggest answer was Amazon. The problem is that Paypal is not available on Amazon…

How can you fight this behavior:

1/ Consider quantitative research as pieces of information, not the truth.

2/ Prefer starting with qualitative research and see if quantitative data can back your qualitative findings

3/ Use qualitative research to define the most compelling metric to measure how efficiently you solve one user problem. Use quantitative data to measure your progresses.

3/ User rather business metrics

This one is my favorite. It is very easy to spot when talking to company’s executives. Get them list their key objectives and the key metrics that relate to them. If you get answers like conversion rate, profitability, growth rate, revenues (which are all legit), you can be sure that user centricity is not the top priority. Business is, since all these metrics relate to business needs. Conversion rate has never been a user need. Business metrics also make sense but then the company shouldn’t bring to the forth its user centricity. The good news is that user-centric metrics usually deeply contribute to business metrics. For instance based on qualitative research, you could find out that catalog’s accessibility is what prevents most your users for buying. Catalog’s accessibility is a need, you can measure progress against it for instance through the add to cart rate on your most technical categories. At the end solving catalog’s accessibility will improve conversion rate. Some metrics like “time spent on the app” can look like user metrics. Even if they are more user centric than for instance AMRR (Average Monthly Recurring Revenues), if you really want to make it user-centric, you could turn it into something like “time spent to perform task X”.

How can you fight this behavior:

1/ Perform qualitative research to understand what really lies behind a business objective and refocus team’s efforts around a user perspective

2/ Replace business metrics by user metrics at team level. Even if at company level you might need these business metrics (eg. for investor relations), you should fight for setting user-centric metrics at team levels

4/ Journey rather than moment

Too often companies focus on the specific part of the user journey that relates directly to their app. This is a company-centric approach denying the broader journey the user goes through. How can you spot this behavior within a company? Employees are focus to optimize their app journey. They do a lot of AB tests. Tactical projects are often prioritized to the detriment of longer term strategical projects whose ROI is uncertain. Strategic research is rare whereas usability tests are frequent. And yet, so much value can be untapped from the study of the extensive user journey in which your app is only one part of the big picture. Have a look at an example I love from Kleenex. If you only think of your user journey, basically snoring, you will think of project like flavor the tissues, make them a bit thicker… But if you take a broader look at your user experience, especially to where many Kleenex end up their lives, you would discover that washing machines is a good candidate. And if you already experienced it, you can spend hours to remove all the tissues pieces. So a better opportunity for your product would be to make them resistant to washing machine! Fortunately for me and my kids, that’s what Kleenex did.

How can you fight this behavior:

1/ Do qualitative research all along your user’s journey, not just on your app journey to understand his or her context

2/ When designing your product, always think in term of flow rather than screen. Where does your user come from ? What did he already do ? What will he do next ?

5/ Talking to users rather than about users

Many user-centric self-appointed companies have developed a strong skill of talking about their users… Instead of talking to their users. Signs of such behaviors are phrases in meetings like “our users tend to be living more in countryside than in cities” or “our users are highly technical users” with no other evidence or test. Some can go one step further and exhibit persona which make them feel confident about their user centricity. But persona, even if better than nothing, can be very vague and might not uncover real users’ needs… If you really want to know if employees do talk to users you should ask questions like “Who were the last 3 users you talked to and what was their biggest need ?”.

How can you fight this behavior:

1/ Always ask for tangible behaviors, not general characteristics, when talking about users. Uncover the needs that lie behind these behaviors

2/ Get your employees on the field. There are so many opportunities: send them as a pair with sales rep, shadow customer support (or even better, set a “EBS” routine : Everyone Behind Support).

6/ Innovation as a mean rather than an end

I am usually a bit skeptical when being told “we are an innovative company”. I don’t really see the point of making innovation a goal. If existing solutions can answer to our users’ needs, what’s the point innovating ? Innovation should be a mean to answer to a user’s need if no other existing solution can do the job or if innovative solution can do it better (cheaper, quicker…). Too often the race to innovation prevent a company from digging deeply into their users’ needs. Again, it is a solution driven approach. Back in the beginning of the 10’s, there were many start-ups who tried to develop mobile payment apps with QR codes. The truth at that time was there was no need for this kind of solution (poor network, low adoption of QR code because no native integration on camera apps). These companies were trying to innovate without answering a clear user’s need. On the contrary, I remember the first time I withdrew cash from an ATM and I was offered directly from the home screen to “Withdraw 40€ without receipt”, something that usually took me 5 to 6 screens to achieve before. This was far from a groundbreaking innovation but that perfectly answered to my need of quickly withdrawing cash.

How can you fight this behavior:

1/ Challenge innovation based projects. This kind of project should ring a bell. Ask why they want to push such an innovation. Which needs will it better address than other existing solutions ?

2/ Challenge innovative solution with existing solutions. Too often innovative solutions will win because of bad reasons like sexiness (for the team who builds the product, not the users), PR for the company (again not for the users).

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Tech entrepreneur, Consultant | ex-CPO (Chief Product Officer) at ManoMano | ex Founding Partner at Artefact