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The customer is always right…

By Max Middleton - Last updated: Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Creating products that consumers desire – and therefore want to buy – comes from carefully listening to, and understanding, the needs of potential users. We’ve been doing that for more than 50 years. But how does a company that’s grown from solving technical challenges hold these fragile ideas aloft during the crush of engineering problem solving – to achieve a final product that works well, is cost-effective to sell, and still delights the customer?

Investment in early understanding

There is no point designing for a consumer you haven’t met and don’t understand. For a few very talented people, this understanding seems to come from some hidden well deep inside them. Try watching an interview with the modest Jon Ive, who famously eschews any form of user research yet still shepherded in the best example of a user-focused success story of our time.

The rest of us need to spend some time understanding the potential consumer. It can be hard to stop yourself jumping straight in and starting the design. Everyone is excited and raring to go. But mistakes made at this point can be very hard to correct. Bad assumptions can become embedded as fact and the invested work can act as a barrier to even questioning the original decisions.

Good systems engineering

Systems engineering might sound odd in an article about user-focused design. But it needs to be at the heart of any development. Many Cambridge Consultants projects involve complicated systems with mechanical, electronic and software elements working in symbiosis.

However, the user – and their world – form part of the overall system and the design needs to take this aspect into account.

The systems engineering process has requirements management at its core – the art of defining what success for a particular product means. If there is an understanding of this at the start of the development, it can be translated into deeper-level requirements that can drive technical solutions while maintaining their link back to the original source… the user.

Championing the user

Processes are all very well… actually, they are crucial if you want to have some form of consistency to your success. But processes are hollow without champions to embody and drive them. In fact, if you are willing to gamble, the champion is sometimes more important than the process (Jon Ive again).

So, the last of the three important pillars of creating products for users is the user champion.

The lead designers must be challenged to discover and understand the user’s needs, communicate them (through the requirements) and review the design as it emerges. And they need to stay embedded in the development team throughout the process – guiding the engineers where the requirements cannot hope to capture the subtleties of the user, and acting as the focal point of the product vision.

Remember, no matter how different the technologies, they usually have one vital thing in common – the user.

Read more from Max and his colleagues in our Interface magazine.


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AuthorMax Middleton


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