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Faculty Viewpoints: Why User Experience Design is Vital for Innovation

In the Faculty Viewpoints series, Tufts Gordon Institute faculty share thoughts on the latest on news and trends in leadership, business, technology and entrepreneurship.

Debra Reich, User Experience Design Strategist at Bose Corporation and Lecturer at Tufts Gordon Institute, has been developing products across diverse industries for over 25 years. In her studies and throughout her career, she has been concerned with the integration of people and technology.  User experience design has always been a crucial factor in this equation.

With technology companies trying to become more tuned in to individual’s emotional needs, the field of user experience design is an integral part of the innovation process.

Q: How would you define user experience design?

A: It’s deceptively simple in principle. It’s ensuring that whatever product or service you are creating, has been examined from the perspective of the person using the service. When you delve into the user experience, you begin to recognize that the user’s experience with your company, product, or service begins far before they’re actually interacting directly with you. A user’s experience encompasses everything about the human’s body, mind, environment, and culture.

The prototypical example that everyone can relate to is Disney. On the surface, it’s an amusement park. But look at their tagline: “Where dreams come true.” Embracing user experience design means that every touch point that the company has with their users – any mail, any phone communication, et cetera – has to be in service of making this dream-like reality. Everything about the user’s experience is designed with this in mind.

Even, for example, making sure that there is only ever one Mickey Mouse on the park grounds. Because if a child saw two Mickey Mouses, that would shatter the illusion. In reality, if you had multiple Mickeys, you would have more photo opportunities and satisfy more business needs. But the threat of shattering the dream is too great to risk.

Q: Is it difficult for a company to embrace a product development framework like this?  

A: It’s a common challenge because there are so many details that need to be considered that could be onerous for a company. The mindset has to be infused in the corporate culture at all levels, which is no small task.

Q: How has user experience design evolved over time?

A: It’s both very new and very old. When business was personal, it was more implicit. No one really thought about it when more business was done face-to-face. I would care about you as a customer and a human, and care about how the product or service affects your emotional well-being.

As time and technology removed the people creating the product from the person consuming the product or service, it became easier and more efficient to not think about the details and motivations. Technology solved some problems, but not all of them. So now, the user experience design process begins with what was called developing empathy. In reality, it is a great deal of in-depth research.

Q: How are technology companies shifting to focus more on the user’s needs?

A: They are starting to address problems, and not just produce products. For example, at Bose, we just launched a product on Indiegogo to help people with sleep. You might say, isn’t Bose a company that makes primarily headphones and speakers? In this instance, we are addressing part of the wellness domain, specifically sleep. We know that sleep is a problem worldwide.

At the outset, it might not be clear that Bose has anything to offer anyone in this realm. But using the user experience design mindset, we realized that our products are used to create a favorable acoustic environment. In the case of sleep; we can help protect the user from unwanted noise (a snoring bed partner, for example).

Q: So the role of a user experience design researcher is shifting?

A: That’s right – you can go back to what Clayton Christensen says – don’t look at what the product does, look at the job the product does for that person. Why are they hiring the product? In the sleep case, you’re not just buying an earbud — you are buying extra sleep.

User experience professionals are becoming involved earlier and earlier in the development process – at a time when we don’t even have a product yet. Companies should use user experience researchers who are ok with that ambiguity at the front end. They need a bit of breathing time.

Q: What kind of company or team excels at user experience design?

A: We tend to have a multidisciplinary team to look at the technology, the user, and the business model. If there’s one thing that most people can agree on, it’s that a diverse team of people is more likely to find innovative ideas than a team of people with all the same backgrounds. As problems and interactions become more complex, it’s just not feasible for one person to do everything.

For individuals, human factors degrees are most common; however, we are seeing more people with psychology degrees, and anthropology degrees. Ethnography, which is a form of user experience research that is especially useful before you have a concept, is a parallel to anthropology.

Q: What are some trends in user experience that you see, going forward?

A: There is going to be more emphasis on the emotional experience of people. Users can forgive little details if the product does something that makes you truly happy or gives you a sense of connection to another human – brings you closer to your “tribe.” It’s part of the human experience – securing your place in the tribe is also a matter of survival.

For example, with so many options on YouTube, you can find something that really resonates with your core beliefs and something you enjoy. You can get involved in the conversation through comments and you feel closer to other people. That’s also why Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook are able to bring people together. I also see that user experience designers will need to be able to tell a very compelling story – storytelling is another fundamental human experience that companies should embrace.