The Importance of User Experience

In early April, we made user experience one of our top priorities when we moved our User Experience Director, Steven Sundheim, to Chief Experience Officer.  In this blog, Steven explains what his top priorities as CXO are, the path to enter the field of UX design, what happens when UX is done well, and the value that focusing on user experience can add to a company.

My role as CXO of Geniuslink wouldn’t work without the founders’ belief that good user experience (UX) is a critical competitive advantage.  It sounds like an easy belief to maintain, but in practice it often means a company needs to make trade-offs, such as improving existing features instead of adding new ones. That can be a tough mental shift for companies. I moved to CXO as we collectively made this shift and decided to cultivate a more user-centered approach across the company.

In my new role, I’ve set two initial priorities:

1) Establish metrics to allow for ongoing measurement of customer “success”. 

2) Re-align our development efforts with customer feedback.

For example, we’ve taken time to comb our customer support conversations and aggregate feedback for specific requests and complaints. We’ve discovered a handful of important, highly-validated user needs. And now, because we have the data, we can confidently prioritize things that might have felt questionable before. Conversely, (and maybe more importantly) we can confidently say “no” to work that may have seemed important or exciting, before. This approach, plus better usability metrics, helps us stay accountable and should help us discover better ways to help and delight our clients.

Before coming to Geniuslink, I had started a couple tech companies and managed them for 12 years. I had always gravitated towards UI, marketing, and product development.  After exiting those companies, I consulted with startups for a few years and began to focus more on the discipline of UX and usability.  Geniuslink was one of my clients, and, after 4 years, they ended up hiring me full time. I started as UX Director and moved to CXO after about a year.

Like other senior positions, there is no single path to becoming CXO, especially since the field of UX design is still relatively new. In fact, when I got into tech in the late nineties, I don’t think I ever heard the words “experience design” mentioned (We still had people called “webmasters”). Today, people can get advanced degrees in human computer interaction and UX. For someone just entering the field today, that is probably a great starting point, but I can imagine people coming from other educational backgrounds and building the experience needed. A CXO should certainly have many years of UX work behind them, but also experience working in leadership alongside or within other company departments. Working across disciplines is crucial because, to me, the most important role for a CXO is to cultivate a company-wide sense of user empathy. That way, we not only get better answers to our questions, we start asking the best questions.

When UX is done well, users feel smarter, more empowered, and they save time. Today, that can be a relatively easy competitive advantage, if it is prioritized within a company at the highest levels.  Over time, as more companies catch on, I expect this will be less a competitive advantage and more of a competitive necessity. The field of marketing can play a direct role in this, as customer research has typically been performed as a marketing function. In addition to using research to show what features people want, we can use qualitative analysis to guide product design in more detail, including content organization, visual design, and interaction design.

Our intuition about how users interact with and perceive our product can be totally different from reality. That illusion has always fascinated me. I almost cringe when I look back on some of the projects in my past companies and think of the amount of time that I or my teams had wasted working on features that seemed exciting but did not move “the needle.”

That has given me a deep appreciation for the clarity that good UX research can provide. For example, we can do non-leading interviews with clients to establish something called a mental model. This model can reveal the tasks that are important to users, their philosophies, and the words they use to describe their behaviors. All that translates to better visual and interaction design, while exposing needs that can be met through features or content. More importantly, it is incredibly satisfying to know that developers are working on things that customers care deeply about, and it can help us build UI that feels immediately intuitive.  

These efforts help teams outside product development, too. This kind of deep understanding translates just as well to marketing efforts, where teams need to know what resonates with prospective clients.

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