Enough with only user-centered design. It’s terribly unpopular to say that, but it’s more naive to avoid the issue. Yes, for too long we ignored our users. Some ill-fated brands still do.
But this is not a post in which I berate organizations for that ultimate sin of arrogance, or more kindly, child-like narcissism, in which one confuses the self and other and assumes the desires of everyone else—the desires of one’s users—are the same as the desires of the organization. You are not your users, we argue with fairly equal repetition and success. People who focus more extensively on user-centered design preach that approach better than I do, and with good cause. Some organizations still need to hear it.
But as ethical consultants, we’re better than all-or-nothing abstraction. We need to swing the pendulum back to the middle, and advocate for user- and brand-balanced design that takes into account the communication goals of both parties. And content strategists are especially (Uniquely? Tell me in the comments.) qualified to address these external goals and internal workflow as we advocate for clearer and more sustainable interaction between brands and their users.
You are not your users. It’s a necessary mantra. But of equal importance in the hard work of identity and self-actualization is a much older drumbeat: Know thyself. Organizations, brands, and clients, know what you stand for, what you do better than anyone else. Know what qualities you can bring—clearly and consistently—into the conversation. Know the brand attributes you can use to guide and shroud products and services so as to ensure they reach the right audiences at the right time. Do not abdicate and abandon your own worthy brand in blind, obsequious deference to your users’ needs.
This is my problem, and it’s one of both language and the philosophy it belies: when we talk about user-centered design, our users alone are at the center of our work and focus. (Think of your last project. Which activities gained greater focus in your budget and timeline: user research or brand articulation?) Our users deserve a role in our process and priorities, and the priorities of the organizations we serve, but focusing our efforts exclusively on their needs, requests, and goals isn’t right. It isn’t fair to the brands we serve. And when we fail to fairly serve our clients, we also do a disservice to their users.
Pure economics and content strategy
I focus on brand-driven content strategy because I think the most satisfying and effective communication occurs in a rhetorical arena that equally weights the needs of the rhetor and audience. (That could mean the organization, brand, website owner, community host, etc. and the customers, users, readers, supporters, community members, etc. Choose the words that best fit your context.) That doesn’t mean only the brand gets to shout its beliefs and spout off about the products, events, and content it finds most important; as search statistics prove, the web is a relatively pure economy. The content that is most popular—in clicks, purchasing, and retweeting—rises to the top in most indices. Similarly though, I don’t push my clients to simply offer their audience only what it wants to hear or read, in the labels and voice it prefers. (Three-year-olds who’ve always gotten their way will be upset, I know.) And that’s the balance I think we need to encourage. As consultants, we have to help the brands we serve better serve their audiences, often by preserving their own identities in a crowded marketplace.
In any industry, users’ demands can push brands to all hit the same goals. Airlines? Give us efficiency, we cry. (It seems like such a basic expectation, but klugey forms and workflow on most airline websites defy expectations.) Beyond nailing efficiency, be safe, dependable, caring, and cost-effective. That’s all most customers want. In a service design and website design model focused exclusively on user-centered design, those are the qualities every airline would offer. Commercial flight would be a commodity, with every airline offering the same reliable, pleasant, similarly-priced options. But it’s not a commodity, because user-centered design isn’t the only principle that drives the industry.
Instead, airlines like Southwest, Virgin, and jetBlue—three more popular carriers in the US—practice user- and brand-balanced design that also allows them to articulate their own communication goals. Southwest communicates value, with lower pricing options, scaled-down amenities, and less fussy cabin design. Virgin America communicates a swanky sense of luxury, with enhanced in-seat accommodations and anticipatory service. jetBlue communicates a hip and tech-savvy sense of efficiency and responsiveness, accumulating awards for customer satisfaction among low-cost airlines.
Actually, all three airlines have won praise from consumers and industry trade associations—and for very different reasons. Options among these airlines may appeal to overlapping target audiences, but their services are far from the same and they’re hardly commodities. The airlines differ in everything from website nomenclature (“Where we jet” on jetBlue would be Southwest’s “Routes”) to in-flight amenities. By differentiating their brands through voice, communication goals, website features, and service design, each airline can better segment a broad audience and serve niche loyalists. Brand- and user-balanced design allows each airline to continually reach and serve its audience while preserving a unique value proposition. Each brand knows itself—and doesn’t lose its voice among either competitors or customers.
When an industry shares the same target audience, and organizations in that industry successfully practice an exclusively user-centered design approach, they run the risk of commodification. Each organization may offer the same desired, expected features and language, but those organizations and would-be brands will lose themselves in the process. By advocating for an approach that balances the needs of users and brands, we can help both parties communicate and realize their needs—and differentiation—in the end experience.