Fixing A Broken User Experience

This article was written by Stefan Klocek.

Unless you’re developing completely new products at a startup, you likely work in an organization that has accumulated years of legacy design and development in its products. Even if the product you’re working on is brand spanking new, your organization will eventually need to figure out how to unify the whole product experience, either by bringing the old products up to par with the new or by bringing your new efforts in line with existing ones. A fragmented product portfolio sometimes leads to an overall broken user experience.

Understanding an organization and its users and designing the right interaction and visual system take exceptional effort. You also need to communicate that system to teams that have already produced work that doesn’t align with it. This isn’t easy work. In this article, we’ll introduce you to a strategy for fixing the broken experience that starts with surface improvements, goes progressively deeper into structural issues and ends with a big organizational shift.

The Hierarchy Of Effort

Many large successful companies end up in a situation where they must maintain dozens, if not hundreds, of applications in their product portfolios. These huge suites are the result of mergers, acquisitions, different sets of user needs, legacy services and contracts, and the inefficiencies that naturally develop in huge organizations. Sometimes the reasons for so many different product lines are legitimate; other times, the wide set of offerings doesn’t serve anyone’s needs particularly well. Users will often struggle to learn a suite of related products because of major differences in how they look and operate.

The initiatives to fix these broken experiences are referred to in ambitious and somewhat generic terms, such as “common look and feel,” “unified online experience” and “unified look and feel.” Regardless of the term, the common elements represent a drive to bring consistency to a large set of products in multiple stages of development and spearheaded by a centralized internal group. There’s a sense of urgency; we often meet with some internal resistance; and frequently we’re charged with fixing a previous agency’s failed attempt to deliver design and guidelines that can be metabolized by the client.

The Hierarchy Of Effort
The hierarchy of effort to fix a broken user experience

One effective approach begins with surface improvements, goes progressively deeper into structural issues and ends with big strategic organizational shifts. We start with the low-hanging fruit and at each step reach higher to develop products that will ultimately deliver great experiences. It’s worth noting that this approach was developed to make it possible for a team to make incremental improvements to products already under development, but also to look ahead to future releases, when rewriting code or rethinking interactions won’t be so disruptive.

If your organization is working on its first product, then this approach would be totally backward. But in a large organization with a lot of history and many products, this approach will help you articulate both a short-term and long-term strategy for building a product portfolio that delivers a user experience that is learnable and builds confidence and a portfolio that makes your work easier and more effective.

Visual Consistency and Simplification

The lowest amount of effort required is at the bottom of the pyramid, so we suggest starting there. Sure, it’s lipstick on a pig, but simply taking a consistent visual approach will help to bring many different products under a shared brand experience.

Visual Consistency

Assuming you’ve done the groundwork to articulate the design of an ideal experience, the simplest and arguably easiest way to start implementing it is to reskin the products currently under development. Finding ways to simplify and excise unnecessary information, unifying the information architecture, and adopting standard fonts, colors and controls are all relatively low-effort ways to improve existing products.

This is the foundation. It won’t improve a poorly designed interaction, but it could dramatically increase the appearance of unity to the end user. Products that have a consistent visual language will clearly convey their membership in a single portfolio. The benefit of improving the visual system first is that changing or adjusting the skin of an application is much easier than changing things such as behavior, which will require rethinking and recoding fundamental aspects of the application.

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