Leading with User Experience
Date: Thursday , December 01, 2011
It's raining Apples, Mangoes and Ice Cream Sandwiches. The Clouds are getting fuller and bigger and more varied. Winds of change are blowing through every crack of every screen out there; nurturing innovation, ripening products and awakening the forces of creative destruction.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is sunny weather.
Three years ago, we were ‘drinking the kool-aid’
We believed, how people relate to technology would fundamentally change, as computing innovation became principally user-driven. We believed a software product revolution was imminent. And, we believed user experience would come to govern product success.
It just felt right to be in the business of building software products with exemplary user experiences. But even as optimism-biased entrepreneurs, we didn't think this would happen so fast, and at such a massive scale... Like today, estimates say that a billion smartphones are now active. But it seems this will pale in comparison to what will happen five years hence, because as many smartphones will be sold annually by 2016.
Imagine that: a billion new smartphones a year. How will that change your world? For us, as user experience designers and technologists, it already has.
A humble submission and five big themes
Our customers are our heroes. We owe them our amazing vantage point, into the inner workings of perhaps the biggest paradigm shift in computer history. We humbly share the perspective this gift affords us. We find increasingly, software product leaders meditate upon five big themes, in their quest to create breakthrough software user experiences:
1. Make design transparent and technology, even more invisible.
2. A ‘users first’ philosophy de-risks product investments.
3. Architect for cross-platform and cross-device use, by default.
4. Software is King, but data is the Grand Wazir that controls the endgame.
5. A global product team can generate immense competitive advantage.
 ‘Transparent’ design and ‘invisible’ technology
Consider Typography – “the art and technique of making language visible” (and one of mankind’s oldest technologies.)
Type design essentially makes fonts ‘transparent’ so that people can instantly recognize whole words and understand ideas without having to interpret single characters. Also, with modern font technology, text from an email typed on a PC can also be displayed by a smartphone and printed physically on paper. It all just works.
Zoom out, and these twin ideals of transparency and invisibility apply to every aspect of product experience. Say someone buys a song from an app store. Can it magically appear on all her devices? If a key sub-system fails, can we still return something relevant to the user? Can we design a web app interface that auto-adapts to any screen size? How can we make it all just work?
For us, every detail adds up to the final user experience: from interface design, to interaction models, to core application engineering, to architectural decisions… all the way back to our mental model of the user.
 Thinking ‘users first’ de-risks product investments
Our customers who make consumer products, like many others worldwide, design actual User Interfaces as their first act of product development. They release early and release fast. They iterate rapidly by testing and tweaking features, using powerful user-centered design methods in tandem with actual product usage data.
They also constantly try to figure out how to make their product experience intrinsically persuasive; for more installs/sign-ups, more usage, more upgrades, more referrals and longer-staying customers. On the demand side, consumers have already gravitated en-masse to path-breaking user experiences. Now in enterprises too, we find more technology decision makers seek tangible benefits of “User First” thinking. They now evaluate product user experience before buying, for high user adoption, short roll-out time, more productivity, and to mitigate risk of late-stage issues like high support costs or outright abandonment.
In effect, enterprise-grade technology now needs consumer-grade user experience.
 Cross-platform, cross-device architecture by default
In the next five years, smartphones will become the first computing device people ever purchase. Also, it’s safe to assume that hundreds of millions of people will also own a tablet or a P.C. or all three. And all these people will expect the tools and information they use to be naturally accessible, on the go, and on any device of their choice.
This brings us to the heart of the epic paradigm shift in Computing: most products will have to deliver seamless Cloud–Smartphone–Thick-client experience, by default.
Therein lurks the devil. Smartphones and Tablets throw open amazing new opportunities but they also raise the bar on user experience. Product creators now need to factor in whole new kinetic interaction models, unpredictable user diversity, varied form factors; not to mention reduced attention spans, and a glut of choice.
That said; we’re already seeing a lot of customer innovation, like mobile companions for enterprise products, apps with “baked in” social media, responsive web design, sending entire platforms into the cloud and whole new content/app delivery mechanisms.
 Software is King, but Data is the Grand Wazir
In Marc Andreessen’s words, “Software is eating the world… all of the technology required to transform industries through software finally works and can be widely delivered at global scale.”
Patently true. But while Software is changing the World, Data is changing the Software itself.
Already product creators tweak features based on performance and usage data. Some are designing products as systems that self-adjust using real-time data. We already see examples of cloud services that auto-scale to fit changing usage conditions.
Still further, Data itself is becoming a linkage entity. For instance, users can already use their social graph across the Internet. Web apps, games and other products that connect to this data, can ‘know’ the user and personalize her experience accordingly. This still seems a bit sci-fi, but is likely to become a ubiquitous software design pattern.
Data could well become the new hyperlink.
 Competing through global product teams
It’s an art: running a cross-border product organization. But once mastered, it generates great competitive value through access to more high-caliber talent and faster speed to market.
As cross-border product development partners, we believe high-tech success depends on old-school values... Trust is paramount. We do everything we can, to foster trust-based relationships. For instance, our customers have full visibility into our recruiting process and we take joint hiring decisions. Each product team operates with autonomy and maintains internal collaboration channels that are open to all team members. We actively cultivate respect for Intellectual Property, insist on honest communication, and operate with transparency.
That said, there is a big elephant in the room when people consider a global development model: the promise of sheer cost saving. When it comes to products, we think speed to market and sheer quality of execution matter far more. In fact, true cost saving depends heavily on these two things.
So, we believe trust is currency, speed with quality is power and cost saved is icing on the cake.
The author is Founder & President, Clarice Technologies