These are the kinds of questions my developer Erich asks me: “Do you feel like UX is your personal ‘discipline’ or do you feel like ‘research and design’ is your discipline, and UX is a value, goal, or an end result?”
He’s perceptive. So perceptive that I just might have to change my job title.
In a startup company it’s a given that every person wears many hats. My current title is director of user experience at Shoefitr, a company that helps people find the best fitting shoe online through visual recommendations. I’ve learned a lot about the shared responsibility of user experience within a budding company. It’s a point of pride for me that every individual in my organization cares deeply about the user experience, not only for our partner retailers but also our end users. Yet until I was asked this question, I didn’t realize that I’ve been part of a companywide UX team. After coming to this realization, I saw three ways to help encourage user experience at our startup and how, in a small company, everyone can be a UX professional from their own vantage point.
A Value, a Goal, and an End Result
User experience is not a discipline but a value, a goal, and an end result. In describing UX this way, we all address the shared challenge of creating an excellent user experience in the areas we’re best equipped to solve.
When we all share a common point of view, we’re pulling the company in the same direction. Recently we held a meeting to discuss the viability of a new feature aimed at drastically increasing the number of people we could help with recommendations by decreasing the information we needed from our users. Our core offering compares the shoe a person wants to buy with one they already own, provided we have scanned the insides of both shoes. However, we were looking for a way to help users who own a shoe that we haven’t scanned yet. John, a developer on the product team, had presented his research and then the hard question surfaced: Were we confident enough in making recommendations this way to launch this new feature? With all the decision makers at the table, John asked a simple question, “Will people trust the name ‘Shoefitr’ after using this tool?” He was advocating for the user experience backed with stats and figures. His concern was about a person using our product, getting the shoes in the mail, and slipping on a brand new pair that fits; his discipline allowed him to examine that question before we moved to development.
Sharing the user experience responsibility also requires a shared definition of good user experience. We serve different user groups, but end users buying shoes and manufacturer partners alike should find that we anticipate their needs, we are a source of truth in shoe manufacturing across all brands, and that we are objective. These things hold true regardless of your relationship with us.
Non-traditional UX Professionals are Essential
There is a substantial difference between interaction design (gestures, interactions, wireframing) and user experience as a whole. Since UX designers, researchers, and writers are all standard positions now, we also should interview programmers, mechanical engineers, and executives to see how they consider the end user through their practice.
In a company where everyone believes user experience is important, UX problems are prioritized and managed as a team. Recently, one of our manufacturing partners changed their size conversions. While this would be initially invisible to users in the application, it meant that the translated size of a women’s US 8 went from a European 43 to a European 44. Left unchecked, our recommendations would be off by a size every time. Our chief technology officer, Breck Fresen, noted, “We’d never encountered this before, and fixing what was a pure UX problem was a total company effort.”
An end user encountered the problem and reported the experience. The customer success team discovered this through application feedback that we implemented. They raised the issue with the product team, who worked with the manufacturer to determine how to re-label their shoes. Based on the manufacturer’s new business rule, our operators identified all the shoes for which the old logic should apply and all the shoes for which the new logic should apply. Our developers delivered the back-end changes required to model the new logic, and our customer success team was able to close the loop with our end users.
Fresen recalled, “All this for a real UX problem (with literal pain) whose solution didn’t involve any traditional UX professionals, any design work, or any front-end development. It was entirely surfaced, addressed, and resolved by customer success, operations, and back-end developers.”
Employees in several unique roles at Shoefitr create recommendations for a physical product. For example, Maureen and a team of operators play an important role in our company. Maureen is a shoe researcher. She examines shoes individually and creates our taxonomy, which is how we allow users to search by attributes such as color, material, pattern, or accent. I didn’t fully understand why the encoding was most effectively performed by real people until I happened to ask Maureen if she is happy working with Shoefitr. She responded saying she feels satisfied in her work because she’s solving a real problem.
When users are looking for a particular shoe they already know, there are gray areas: Is the shoe actually made of leather? This shoe has “suede” in the name, but it’s not actually made of suede. How would a person search for this if it were the shoe they were looking for? Maureen thoughtfully anticipates the dialog of our users and categorizes shoes to map to their mental models. She and the other shoe researchers meticulously cross-reference product pages with the physical shoes and their own understanding of the products. We know not all of our users are equally knowledgeable about shoes, but we also don’t want to slow down the results for users who correctly identify characteristic of their favorite shoes. Maureen balances this user need on a daily basis, making her an incredibly important non-traditional UXer.
Ego: Silent Killer of Great User Experiences
If your professional identity is too deeply rooted in your job title, allowing colleagues into the UX realm can be threatening. But ego has no place in product design, at least within your internal team. If everyone at the company buys into the process, all ideas must be welcome and heard equally.
Similarly, those traditionally associated with user experience must play nicely with those who champion other causes and add their design, research, or writing expertise to other company-wide goals. For example, we strive to deliver operational value to our partnering retailers. Tangibly, this means reducing the returns a retailer would normally receive and increasing buyer satisfaction. Fresen sums up our position well, saying, “We have to balance the needs of the user with the needs of the retailer. Most of the time this is easy because retailer’s incentives are mostly aligned with the buyer’s, but not perfectly, and we have to balance those.”
So where’s the tension? It is in letting users buy shoes that will still be uncomfortable at any size. It is not due to online shopping. For decades, people have been trying on uncomfortable shoes in the brick-and-mortar context and are not deterred in making a purchase if they like the style. In this next iteration of retail, our job is to give them the best objective information we can to help them make their decision, not to talk them out of the six-inch, T-strap pumps.
With UX as a shared company goal, I’m able to better focus on my discipline, design, and research. I balance tried-and-true methods and new approaches that we test through experiments. We’re currently running a participatory design exercise and perform routine usability sessions and concept validation. Sometimes no method exists for what we need to learn. In one case, we wanted to learn more about how our recommendations were helping people after receiving their shoes, but we didn’t have access to data from the users who go through our application.
Our solution, thanks to the cooperation of one of our launch partners, was to put postcards in the shoeboxes when they were sent out from the warehouse. On each postcard was a link where people could tell us a bit more about how the shoes actually fit, if our recommendation was accurate, and how we could better inform users about the product they received. Intercepting users at this part of the process wasn’t intrusive and people were excited to tell us about their new shoes. We’ve also held “Shoe Soirees” (see Figure 1), had users try on shoes blindly to avoid confirmation bias of size, and performed targeted contextual inquiries with people who have extreme footwear needs. At our scale, we value frequent meaningful experiments and actionable ideas from everyone on the team.
Back to the original question at hand, what I bring to my company is a skill set in design and research. It’s clear I’m not the only person thinking about the end user. Maybe I’ll stick with the job title a friend suggested as someone who gets to design things that don’t exist yet and to make users’ dreams come true: Shoefitr’s Fairy Godmother.
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