As a technologically driven culture, we are always focused on the next shiny new object. We hear about the next must-have gadget months before it’s even released. That goes for not only products, but platforms as well.

For many businesses, Web 3.0 is the latest shiny object in the online world. From my perspective, Web 3.0 is, in essence, the semantic Web – where data becomes more relative to the user, and users see the benefit of the Web understanding them as individuals and producing content automatically for them. For example, the Web will one day know that you like to shop at a specific store, that summer is coming and that you haven’t bought any short-sleeved shirts in more than six months. You will be automatically shipped two season-appropriate shirts in styles and colors you prefer from that store. The Web will essentially become your automated digital personal assistant. We are already seeing budding signs of this today with services such as Siri, a “personal phone assistant” application for iPhone.

However, we are far from seeing this type of interaction become a seamless part of our everyday lives. For organizations attempting something practical and useful now, focusing on the Web of the future might be a little premature. It’s fun to think about, but the foundation hasn’t been laid, and the data just isn’t there yet. These kinds of connections are not happening due to security and Big Brother concerns, not to mention technological hurdles. Standards for capturing, storing and distributing data are still in flux. And the intellectual horsepower – computing power and artificial intelligence – isn’t there yet either.

Something we can do now is ask ourselves how we can optimize and get Web 2.0 right before we move onto the shiny new object.

Compared to the early Internet, Web 2.0 is a more engaging, more social and richer content web. It’s focused on interaction and user experience, demonstrated by the advent of social networks and rich Internet applications. Many companies, however, are still using our modern Web to simply push data out to users versus interacting with them. In other words, they are using the Web to talk to their customers instead of talking with their customers.

The first questions companies ask as they work toward more engaging connections with their customers through Web, desktop or mobile applications are often the wrong ones. They are wondering whether they should focus on the iPad or the Slate and whether to use Flash or HTML5.

Businesses should first consider their business goals, what they want to accomplish with their application and how it will provide value for their customers. Once everyone agrees on the answers to these questions, you can safely move onto technology platforms in a secondary conversation about the overall user experience.

Building a UX-Based Business

Unfortunately, user experience (UX) has become somewhat of a buzzword. Many companies believe they can hire a chief experience officer and bingo – they suddenly care about UX. A true focus on UX starts with the organization and its culture. It comes from the bottom up with an old-fashioned belief in customer service – you either have it or you don’t. If you don’t, you need to start with the organization and determine your approach to customer service before you can create an engaging user experience on the Web.

Beyond that, good UX requires collaboration among IT, the brand, the business, the design team and user interaction. None of these disciplines is more important than another when it comes to UX. This is a difficult concept, because no single person can fully master all five disciplines. It requires a team of individuals who work well together, represent each of the disciplines, provide longevity and understand the power of collaboration. Because this is a challenge for many organizations internally, and because the discipline of UX is an emerging field, it often makes sense to outsource UX design and development to a service organization that has experience bringing these disciplines together and knows how to enforce this kind of collaboration.  

In any case, the UX factor ties into your business’ bottom line. Companies have two major financial objectives: decrease cost and increase revenue. UX is one of the only things capable of having a major impact on top-line revenue and bottom-line saving.

Decreasing Cost: Customers are more likely to use self-service channels when they are easy to navigate and generate the result they’re seeking. By developing intuitive, efficient Web interfaces that are consistent and responsive, companies are able to reduce the number of live customer service representatives needed to manage their customer base. It goes back to the customer service culture and only works if the interaction is as simple as, or simpler than, speaking directly with someone to answer a question or perform a task. Additionally, studies have shown customers actually perceive higher brand value when a digital channel is easy and intuitive. Almost every consumer today understands and appreciates the term “user-friendly.”

Investing in user experience up front can also result in significant savings in overall cost of ownership for software development projects. On average, the total cost of creating a Web portal or piece of software breaks down to about 20 percent development and 80 percent maintenance. A significant portion of maintenance costs go toward improving usability. By focusing on UX at the onset – conducting research, understanding the users and their motivations, testing – businesses can save significant amounts of money in maintenance fees once the application is launched. IBM estimates that every dollar spent in user research and experience architecture up front will save $100 in maintenance costs.

Increasing Revenue: Creating engaging user experiences results in an increased customer lifetime value. The better the engagement with your brand, the harder it will be for a customer to switch to another company. UX differentiates your business and increases the value of your brand as you become known as a company that cares about elegant, effective interactions. Finally, the UX factor can ultimately increase conversions.


Laws of UX

Now that I’ve covered the user experience and its importance, let’s explore how you can tactically implement the UX factor into your business. I’ve developed six laws of UX that dig deeper into the ways companies can execute UX and create positive customer connections with their brands. These laws are built under one overarching, guiding principal: Never lose focus on the end user.

Rule 1: Define Success. Know what success means for your business by listing how you will measure that success. For example, do you want to increase user adoption by 10 percent within 30 days of launch? Do you want to eliminate data entry errors? Is your goal to push 25 percent of customers through self-service channels? Don’t forget to list the impacts of success on your users. Reducing frustration and making data entry 25 percent faster are measurable goals that will mean something to your customers as well.

Rule 2:
Value Good Design. Most people upgrade the operating system on their computers because it looks newer. Likewise, users are more likely to trust data from a website that looks modern. As Raymond Loewy, the father of industrial design once said, “Ugliness does not sell.”

Rule 3: You Are Probably Not Your User. We are all conditioned to think that the end user is “just like us.” Even worse, we’ve relegated the end user as just a detail in our process. In reality, your end users are your livelihood, so it’s critical that you understand as much about them as you possibly can. Companies should dedicate at least 20 percent of their website or software development budgets to user research and interaction design. There is a caveat, though; the less like your user you are, the greater your budget to learn and understand them should be. Don’t just focus on the “who,” but also get to know your users’ environment, their motivations and goals and the circumstances under which they are interacting with your website. Ethnographic evaluations are a great way to learn these variables and I usually find the best requirements during these user research sessions.

Rule 4: Do Not Try to Build For Everyone. If you build for everybody, you wind up building for nobody. Define a small set of user types – or personas – to help you understand who your audience is and what they want to accomplish on your website. A common mistake made when building for everyone is to concentrate too much on features. The current thinking asks us to build applications with fewer features; the focus should extend to the customer making fewer decisions. Asking users to make unnecessary choices often delivers frustration with what should be a usable website.

Rule 5: Gather Feedback Through Conversation. I hear a lot of companies say, “We’ve already done the research – here are the survey results.” Why aren’t they actually talking to users, watching how they work, listening for pain points and understanding the tasks they need to accomplish? It sounds nebulous, but it’s very important, and many companies miss this step altogether.  

Rule 6:
Rigid Plans are Plans to Fail. This is the law that is broken most frequently and the area where we see the most failure. Web design and development projects are predictably unpredictable. Focusing on the end user means you have to plan to be flexible. Create interfaces, test them with users, and expect to throw away half of what you create in the name of meeting their needs.

Looking Ahead to Web 3.0 and User Experience

The whole idea of Web 2.0 and Web 3.0 should be a focus on the user. We often forget that the goal of software, and technology as a whole, is to improve interaction that fosters understanding. In the software industry, we too often get lost in solving the technical problems and forget that there is a human being sitting at the keyboard, tapping an iPad or dialing a cell phone. For the last 20 years, we have focused on creating robust back-end architectures and integration points. We’ve built the foundation for great UX, but the market, your business and the consumer are now demanding we focus on the end user.

In my vision of Web 3.0, we will deliver experiences tailored to each individual. Today, however, the technology doesn’t exist to dynamically adjust UX to specific end users, so we’re wise to keep our focus on groups of people – demographics or personas.

Let’s remember the Web will only be part of it; 3.0 will be focused on more integrated, meaningful user experiences that combine multiple platforms, outlets and technologies.

If I step out on a limb and try to describe the future, here’s what I might see. I envision my daughter walking into a mall 10 years from now, and as she passes a billboard, it identifies her with facial recognition technology and serves up a custom ad specifically for her. The billboard uses the Web to access a database of her likes and dislikes, and also knows that she’s just been applying for new jobs, has an interview scheduled and hasn’t bought a suit in more than two years. The billboard pulls up an ad for Ann Taylor highlighting new suits from the store’s Fall line. It also lets her know that her favorite scone is still available from the Starbucks around the corner because it knows she hasn’t eaten breakfast yet, and that there are only three left.

She walks up and touches the billboard, and a picture appears of her wearing the suits it recommends based on her personal preferences. She can choose to buy a suit right there from the billboard or walk 40 yards to try them on.

How’s that for user experience? As I’ve said here a few times, we’re a ways off from this type of interaction, but we can work with our current Web and keep the UX in mind. If we don’t get into the mindset of putting the customer first now, Web 3.0 may not be nearly as close as we think.

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