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Michael-Centered Design

Thanks to Steve Jobs and some lesser known masters who showed the world the value and power of user-centric product and service design, now every single marketer and brand wants to be identified by this latest and greatest buzz word. Having worked with various brands over the past few years, I know some really get it and go all out to bring about a complete mindset change, along with process changes. And for a few, unfortunately, all it is, is a simple 2-word addition to the “About” section of their websites. But most companies fall between these two ends of the spectrum: they introduce new human centered processes into their product lifecycle,  they train their employees in these processes, and the employees also follow it to a T. But at the end, when the product comes out, the “magic” is missing.

Ben Horowitz once said in an interview: “All the management books are like, ‘This is how you set objectives, this is how you set up an org chart,’ but that’s all the easy part of management. The hard part is how you feel.”

User-centered product design is much the same. It is easy to learn how to create personas, or draw user flows or conduct surveys. The hard part is really “feeling” the user.

As with all “feeling” related topics, there isn’t one easy, documentable way to get it right, but once you do get it right, you know you have arrived because it is a determinate state: You don’t empathize with “The User” or “The Consumer”. You empathize with “Michael”. Even if the design meets the documented requirements, you know you aren’t done there. “Will Michael, given his dispositions and inclinations, like it?” [Jack Dorsey prefers "customer", but frankly replacing "user" with "customer" isn't going to solve the empathy problem. Go "Michael"!]

Who is Michael?

I was consulting with one of my clients on this project that was to do with a user’s purchase and post-purchase experience. Just as I was starting to work on the project, one of the team members happened to be transitioning out of the team to another one. He was Michael.

Random lightning strike: We decided to use Michael’s profile as the user in all our prototypes. No John Doe. No Lorem Ipsum.

And all of a sudden, our “user” was a real guy – flesh and blood and quirks and all – that everyone on my team knew or had at least briefly interacted with. It made a world of difference to make arguments on behalf of “Michael” instead of “the user”.

“Michael doesn’t intend to make mistakes… so don’t let him make them”

“Michael is putting a good sum towards this purchase; let us reassure him that it is worth it”

Some of you product managers and designers know exactly what I am talking about when I say: You know how sometimes you feel so strongly about a design decision (especially the ones involving these tiny details) because you are able to see it from the eyes of a user, but have trouble justifying it - to your engineers, your management.. whoever - using words?

Communication strategies aside, the problem there is that while everyone is inherently empathetic, there usually isn’t an environment that allows them to get in touch with their empathetic sides. Analogy: Do you feel more empathetic when someone you know has a serious health issue or when you read about some random person having the same concerns? Point.

And that is where Michael helped. People can't not empathize when they literally see their user roaming the hallways.

Tom Kelley of IDEO fame said: “Companies periodically need an empathy check”. I say there are ways to not lose sight of it in the first place.

The point of this blog post is this: By all means, do your click-through analysis and market segmentation and all that good stuff, but make sure you have a process or an artifact or a behavior in place in your company/team that keeps ‘Michael’ (or ‘Maya’ or ‘mom’ or ‘Mr. wannabe-chef’) in front of your mind’s eye – to remind yourselves that your users are human. And don't stop this practice with just product design. Take it all the way through to your marketing teams. That is the only way your brand can create ads, campaigns and initiatives that evoke true, intense reactions. (Here is a great Q&A about emotional branding).

Again, I am not refuting the power of data - big data is a big deal for a real reason. But soon, big data will be the only kind of data. And big data analytics will become as matter-of-factly as click through analysis is today. What will set you apart that day is knowing that the answer to human behavior and sentimentality is not completely numeric.

Brian Chesky, CEO of AirBnB said it best: “You’re not going to A/B test your way to Shakespeare!”

iMedia Communications, Inc. is a trade publisher and event producer serving interactive media and marketing industries. The company was founded in September of 2001 and is a subsidiary of Comexposium USA.  ...

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