Why UX is better marketing than marketing

Attending MX 2012, I was struck by a pattern that I’ve been eager to share, but have waited until the videos from the conference were posted, which happened yesterday.

I saw the pattern after connecting three dots. The first dot came long before MX, when I found out that the reason you no longer see television ads for Amazon is that they shifted all the money they spent on advertising to Amazon Prime, their $79/year service that provides 2-day shipping on any item, streaming videos, and the Kindle Lending Library.

The second dot was Hotwire’s’ Melissa Matross’ talk at MX, where she explained how she turned “bad revenue” into good. Her approach was to take meaningless banner ads that existed solely as a tacked-on income stream, and use that screen real estate to allow shoppers to easily compare Hotwire’s prices with competitors. That might seem nuts(“You’re sending traffic to the competition!”), but her research had shown that users were comparing across multiple sites anyway, and wouldn’t it be better for Hotwire to get some money (through referral fees) rather than no money at all? The strategy paid off big — users were happier, and Hotwire had more revenue.

The third dot came from Brandon Schauer’s closing talk. Among his examples were Tesco’s initiative to offer grocery shopping in South Korean subway stations — not by locating a physical store there, but providing QR-coded wall-sized print outs of store shelves, where advertising was typically shown. Commuters photograph desired items through a smartphone app, which are then delivered to your home. South Korea is infamous for its overtaxed workforce, and this service allows people to complete necessary household chores without taking additional time from their day.

In each case, we have resources that were once dedicated to advertising instead being used to enhance a customer’s experience, and proving far more beneficial both to the customer and the business. Traditional advertising grew up in an industrial age world dominated by mass-manufacture and products. As we shift into a connected age built on services and customer relationships, savvy businesses are those that recognize money is best spent not cramming messages down people’s throats, but tirelessly figuring out how to enhance the service experience.

Addendum (1:31pm May 16, 2012)

Something I meant to mention, but forgot in my original writing, was since MX, I found out about the phenomenon of the Growth Hacker. The idea is that a web service’s best marketing opportunity is to figure out how to embed the service meaningfully into user’s lives, to go where they are, not with messages, but with a functional aspect of the service.

Work With Me: Inflection Seeks Product Design Leads

Given my recent posts claiming that there’s no such thing as UX design, it was… ironic that to still have jobs for UX Designers at Inflection. Well, that’s starting to change. We just re-cast our “Senior UX Designer” role as a Product Design Lead.

This change is the result of realizing how our teams work best, and that’s with a senior, seasoned, take-charge kind of person at the helm. Simply being a good “senior UX designer” is not sufficient — we need someone who can work with product management to articulate a vision, craft a plan, and lead a team of designers and front-end developers to make it real.

With the imminent departure of Archives.com, Inflection is very much once again in a startup mode, but with a level of organizational stability and sanity uncommon in Silicon Valley. If you seek the freedom to create and innovate like a startup, but have been unwilling to sacrifice things like work/life balance and employee respect, this Product Design Lead could be a great opportunity for you.

User experience is strategy, not design

User experience, when addressed appropriately, is an holistic endeavor. The emerging conversation of “cross-channel user experience” is redundant, because if you’re weren’t thinking cross-channel (and cross-platform, cross-device, etc. etc.), you were doing “user experience” wrong.

As the holism of user experience becomes more broadly realized, something else becomes clear. Earlier this week, designer Jonathan Korman tweeted, in response to a conversation taking place at the Re:Design UX conference, “STILL having trouble defining the UX design profession.” I would argue that that is because there is no such thing as a UX design profession. User experience is a strategic framework, a mindset for approaching product and service challenges. In that regard, it is akin to Six Sigma or Total Quality Management.

It’s only once we recognize UX as “an integrative philosophy of management for continuously improving the quality of products and processes” (to borrow Wikipedia’s definition of Total Quality Management) that we appreciate it’s truly massive scale, and how limiting it is for UX to be solely associated with specific (and usually screen-based) design practices. It’s no wonder why at this year’s IA Summit, which was explicitly about “cross-channel user experience”, the primary emergent theme was how organizations need to break free of their industrial age, bureaucratic, and hierarchical ways, and embrace cross-functional means that align every employee’s work around the customer experience.

The practice of user experience is most successful when focused on strategy, vision, and planning, not design and execution. In other words, UX adds value by bringing design practices to strategic endeavors. This means generative and exploratory user research, ideation and concept generation, scenario writing and roadmap planning. The impact of those strategic endeavors will not be limited to product and service design, but should be felt across business development, corporate development, marketing, engineering, sales, and customer service.

With respect to design execution, user experience should serve to coordinate and orchestrate a range of design efforts, not just that which has historically been called “UX design” (wireframes, architecture diagrams, prototypes, screen design). This includes industrial design, retail and space design, marketing and collateral design, and more. I think a huge challenge for “UX designers” has been to square the design legacy of making with the new reality of planning and coordination, because many don’t feel legitimate if they are not building something tangible. It’s great to build something tangible, but that is no longer “user experience” — it’s just one of many activities that, in sum, fulfill on a user experience strategy.