A product designer's guide to the user experience oxymoron

A guest post by Rochelle Williams, Product Designer at Ve Global.

It is common knowledge that the millennial generation changes jobs more frequently than any that has come before. We are constantly questioning whether we are happy in our work, and strive to do something ethical that ‘makes a difference’ in the world. In this environment, it is challenging to ever be truly satisfied by our work.

Unfortunately, we can’t all work for Greenpeace or the UN, and some think even those organisations are not the pinnacle of ethical cleanliness. So I propose we try to make positive changes and think ethically whenever possible in our current and future workplaces.

In this article I will be discussing ethics in the context of building better user experiences; more specifically looking at business needs versus user needs, i.e. thinking “customer-first”. To give a little insight into how this can be achieved, I am going to delve into my personal experience working as a Product Designer for Ve Global.

Part 1: The oxymoron

Part 1.1: User needs

Ve Global specialises in ecommerce: users of our solutions shop online. We are constantly researching their habits, wants and needs.

One of our teams’ major research initiatives is investigating shopping modes. We are currently focusing on browsers, researchers and product focused shoppers. This research includes qualitative user research sessions, observational shopping exercises, and analysing changes in user behaviour at various stages along the path to purchase; essentially anything that shows our team how people shop online and why.

These shopper modes form the relevancy segmentation we are using for all Ve products; it comes down to context - showing the right messaging at the right time.

On top of this, each user has a unique shopping profile. A few increasingly popular attributes in these profiles include: believing in experience over material goods, being anti-fast-fashion, and favouring ethical goods.

In a YouGov survey, almost a quarter (24%) of respondents said they had bought products in the last year specifically because of their ethical reputation.

Ethical Consumer

An increasing number of brands within the industry are seeing a shift towards ethically sourced products and a move away from fast-fashion. Anti-consumerism is becoming a growing user need among shoppers.

Part 1.2: Business needs

Another important part of our role is working with stakeholders and aligning to business needs. For ecommerce this often includes increasing conversion rates and client revenue, with a few exceptions for branding campaigns. As a general rule, business needs are pro-consumerism.

In this we have the oxymoron: the user need is anti-consumerism; the business need is pro-consumerism. It’s not just ecommerce, there are many industries seeing similar oxymorons.

Another example can be seen in manufacturing for supermarket chains. We are trying to cut land-fill waste, and yet the biggest packagers and manufacturers still have a maximalist approach to product packing to protect their products and give a better “user experience”.

Britain’s leading supermarkets create more than 800,000 tonnes of plastic packaging waste every year.

The Guardian

As a product designer still fresh to the industry, this creates a challenge. You start questioning the ethics behind these companies, and whether they really do have user needs at heart.

Part 2: How to turn scepticism into your strength

One lesson I’ve learnt over my career so far is the value of having a sceptic in the room. I am often that member of the team constantly questioning why someone is making a decision, asking whether what they’re proposing is the best possible outcome that could be achieved.

Part 2.1: Justification

Having an ethical standpoint at a company experiencing one of these oxymorons gives you the opportunity to fight for what you believe is right. It forces you, and your team, to come up with a rock-solid rationale for every decision you make. This justification means anything you produce should be valid and valuable, for the business as well as the user.

Part 2.2: Empathy

Customer feedback is a major part of our process at Ve. We’ve all had that response from a client or consumer who is having a bad day, and only sees the negative side.

Coming from a sceptical point of view prepares you for these scenarios. If you’ve rationalised your own doubts you’ll have the ability to empathise with your users. This makes you better prepared to answer the difficult questions, react intelligently in a high-pressure scenario and frame negative feedback in a constructive way.

Part 2.3: User centric KPIs

Most of us work at a business that needs to make money. For an ecommerce-focused business, this generally means we need to increase our clients’ sales. This can work as a starting point, but to truly give a “customer first” experience we need to embrace alternative KPIs. These metrics should stem from the user needs.

Balance the quest for positive conversion rates with solving your users’ problems and you’ll create value that’s sustained for the long term.

Nielsen Norman Group

We need to become advocates of the more user centric success metrics. Encouraging the business to consider alternatives such as providing a relevant onsite experience for users, increasing brand advocacy and increasing lifetime value will make your products stickier and more unique amongst your competitors.

Once these user needs and business needs are measured in tandem we no longer have to work within the constraints of our industry’s oxymorons. Instead of these needs working against each other, they can work together.

Part 2.4: Applying to the real world

To explain how to apply the business need plus user need logic, here is an offline example.

Dry cleaners

Business need:
“Our revenue is highly variable. We need more consistent returning customers.”

User need:
“I have trouble getting to the dry cleaners while they’re open. Their opening hours are 9-5, while I’m at work.”

Possible solution:
Provide a drop-off and pick-up point at the local 24hr supermarket.

Measurable KPIs:
  • Increase in number of returning customers.
  • Customers use service outside business hours.
  • Revenue becomes more consistent.

This example is one of millions of possibilities of how this situation could unfold, both offline and online.

I challenge you to reverse the oxymoron by working with user needs alongside business needs, and continuously justify every decision you make to ensure you are aligned with these needs. This change in perspective will make your company a better place for its employees, its users, and in the end, its bottom line.

user experience


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Posted by Rochelle Williams

Product Designer (UX/UI), Ve Global