“When was the last time you talked to a user?”

This is a question Gideon Simons, who holds a double degree in psychology and computer science, and is the current UX Lead for leading Singapore broadcaster Mediacorp, often poses to the companies he consulted for.

UX or User Experience design has become a hot buzzword in the tech industry in recent years. Most of the web platforms now are unlike the ones that blossomed in the late 80s/ early 90s, when the internet was still uncharted territory; where only tinkerers ventured — ease of use was far from their minds.

Today’s internet users are not so much like the explorers of old,  they are the mainstream masses who value user experience. The internet is the foundation of the biggest business in the world — and a small shift in design can have a major impact.

Simons, who was giving a workshop on UX at the Startup Academy (supported by General Assembly) at the Echelon Asia Summit 2017 today citied the example of famed UX designer Donald Norman.

Before Norman was brought on to Amazon, the e-commerce site forced all buyers to register a new account before they went to the check out page of their shopping cart. What Norman did was simply to put the prompt to register after buyers after they “checked out” their purchases — essentially, making registration optional.

By making registration optional, Amazon is consumer purchases went up by 45 per cent. In the first month, the e-commerce giant reaped US$15 million in additional revenue.

Knowing the user

A good UX designer places the customer experience at the forefront of their design philosophy.

“If you create a product for yourself, you won’t make money out of it,” said Simons. Too many companies assume they know what’s best for their users.

For example, many companies have an overly-idealistic (and narrow) picture of their target customers: young photogenic adults with high spending power.

But the reality of the world on the ground is that consumers are a varied bunch and can differ greatly from marketers’ expectations.

“A lot of startups draft [customer] personas of fake people. These are not real people because they are not backed up with research,” he said.

But companies are not their user, he said.

Companies “must talk to them [users], observe them, and understand them to create a really good product for them, added Simons.

Companies need to know what questions to ask. Don’t ask subjective questions like “do you like the product” or “do you want this?”. Instead, ask questions that reveal how users interact with the product and how each component of the product felt to them.

Also, no guidance should come from the company so their customers’ will not be impaired.

But observation is still the most objective method, he said.

Simons cited a previous assignment, which was a ride-sharing project for disabled people. Instead of drafting ideas in silo, he went to observe how employees from different parts of the company performed their jobs.

For example, one employee managed logistics by writing drivers details on her calendar. So what he did was digitise this calendar design. Thus minimal relearning was needed on the employee’s part.

“UX is not really about usability or designing a nice interface, but understanding what exactly users are looking for and their goals,” he said.

A good UX design is also about being hyper-focussed.

“When you design for everyone, you design for no one. You need to narrow down your focus to a target audience and make sure you are looking at their pain points.  You can’t build a product and assume your grandma will use it the same way as a student,” said Simons.

The bottom line still matters

But at the end of the day, the bottom line is still what drives consumer behaviour. A clunky website may have more customers than a well-designed website because their products are cheaper.

It all boils down to the target audience. An e-commerce site like Taobao has a very different customer base than Chanel, for example.

At the end of the day, UX is the study of the psychology of a user.

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