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Why is UX Valuable?

October 11, 2018 by Jason Frasier
We tell a story here at DesignMap that talks about the importance of the “action of making” as opposed to the “inaction of thinking”. The story comes from the book Art and Fear, and revolves around a ceramics class:

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot – albeit a perfect one – to get an “A”.

Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

We like this story because it speaks to our process with UX design. The story characterizes one of the many attributes of design and to a larger extent designers that are critical to UX. Notably a “bias for action” which, like the “quantity” group in the ceramics story, means we are synthesizing our thoughts and ideas and putting them down on paper instead of letting them ruminate in our heads. Here is a description of designers by Nigel Cross, a professor of Design Studies, that speaks to the value of the UX process:

Designers typically produce novel unexpected solutions, tolerate uncertainty, work with incomplete information, apply imagination and constructive forethought to practical problems and use drawings and other modeling media as a means of problem solving.
– Nigel Cross 1999

This is a great description of the underlying mindset that designers need to have in the UX process.

So, why is the UX process valuable?

The central tenant of the UX process is that it’s a generative process, it relies on moving forward in the face of uncertainty in order to create something. Whether it’s simply a hypothesis to a problem or a prototype to test with end-users. The UX process generates an artifact that can be pointed at, evaluated, tested and built upon.

A key part of why the UX process is valuable is its speed and efficiency. With a small team of UX designers who work closely with the product and development team, a prototype can be created in a short amount of time. This prototype can closely represent a final product that an end-user might experience, and will serve as a valuable testing tool. This allows product, development and the UX design team to identify, iterate and fix friction points early on in the development process. This idea of early prototyping is best reflected in the notion that:

It’s easier to move a mountain when it’s still a hill.

Understanding the 1:10:100 rule

If the same product mentioned above were to be built end-to-end with full product, engineering and QA teams and then launched to the public, the total development time and costs would be astronomically higher. So the UX process can get to better solutions to user problems faster and more efficiently. This turns out to be quantifiable in numerous ways, here is one example:

Sun Microsystems has shown how spending about $20,000 on user-centered design could yield a savings of $152 million. Each and every dollar invested could return $7,500 in savings (Rhodes, 2000)

As James Thompson points out in his post, The ROI of UX in Enterprise Software, there is a general rule that can be applied to this type of efficiency. Its known as the 1:10:100 rule, where it helps describe the efficiency of finding problems early. It posits that $1 spent on research is equal to $10 spent on a design change which equals to $100 spent on a change in development. The UX process’ repeatable steps of constantly iterating and going to the end-user for validation is clearly more efficient and cost effective than fixing problems once they are deeply embedded into a final product.

A/B test cycles and derivative thinking

Jim Manzi wrote in his book, “Uncontrolled”, about commercial experimentation.

Perhaps the single most important lesson I learned in commercial experimentation, and that I have since seen reinforced in one social science discipline after another, is that there is no magic. I mean this in a couple of senses. First, we are unlikely to discover some social intervention that is the moral equivalent of polio vaccine. There are probably very few such silver bullets out there to be found. And second, experimental science in these fields creates only marginal improvements. A failing company with a poor strategy cannot blindly experiment its way to success …

The challenge of continuous A/B testing is organizations get into a derivative mindset. If I were to paraphrase Jim Manzi above and apply it to A/B testing, one can’t experiment with a known set of variables and expect to create a new strategy. I like to call this “Derivative Thinking”, where a solution to a problem might be outside of testing parameters and will therefore never be realized.

The UX process, anda proclivity to “apply imagination and constructive forethought” as Nigel put it, helps UX designers break out of that derivative mindset. The UX process is much more of a solution-based approach with initial foundational research, synthesizing, constant iteration, and a human-centered mindset that helps determine the right solution to the problem that needs to be addressed.

UX Value: More than dollar figures

The value of UX, and to a larger extent design in organizations, have been written about numerous times; from the ROI of (UX) Design to The Bottom Line: Why Good UX Design Means Better Business. In fact, there is even an index that lists companies who acknowledge design as a core competency, and measures their combined value in relation to the S&P 500 – The Design Value Index Shows What “Design Thinking” Is Worth. All of these instances are ways to measure the value of UX to shareholders and stakeholders alike. However, the value of UX design is much more than a higher return. The true value of UX design within an organization stems from how the UX process helps organizations get out of a derivative mindset with its generative, “bias for action” approach and efficient product prototyping, to ultimately better enable product, development, and design teams to start building products that truly meet the needs of their end-users.


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