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Offering a “compelling user experience” is now the Holy Grail when it comes to making successful digital products and services. Indeed, an endless supply of books, blogs and tweets testifies to its importance from a wide range of perspectives—from ethnography to app development to business ROI.

But what, exactly, is a “compelling experience”? And how do you know if your product or service provides it?

Simply put, compelling user experiences elicit strongly positive emotions. And the best user experiences evoke these emotions during product use or service delivery as well as after the fact. In other words, we have positive feelings about these experiences as both means and ends.

The means.  Products and services succeed when they help users get into a positive state of “flow” and actively engage with the solution. At the risk of going Zen, flow is that feeling of focus and enjoyment where time slips away and you become one with the activity. Video game developers are extremely effective at harnessing this feeling, and the term “gamification” really means leveraging the principles of flow to achieve the same effect.

Not coincidentally, three key conditions necessary for a state of flow are fundamental to the design of a successful game or “gamified” user interface:

1. A clear goal–you know what you can do, and how to do it.

2. Immediate feedback–crucial for for learning and developing confidence.

3. A sense of user control. Things that are simple, intuitive and pleasant to do are easier to remember, contributing to a sense of control. As user skill increases, the level of challenge can increase to further reinforce this sense.

And ends.  A digital product or service can elicit positive emotion by delivering not just the actual objective benefit, but also the subjective feeling associated with the broader benefit—typically after the action is carried out. For example, a security system not only keeps intruders out of your home, but makes you feel confident in the knowledge that you have made your family and belongings secure.

Emotion plays a large factor in all aspects of the consumer experience—from expressing needs, through forming initial impressions and making purchase decisions to using and recommending solutions. This framework offers a helpful reminder to product designers and marketers alike to keep both the means and ends in mind.

Last month, scores of new products made their debut at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. How many products, you ask? Check out the infographic below (courtesy of electronics retailer sortable.com): over 20,000, or 10 products per minute. Many, if not most, vying to catch the fancy of early adopters. Needless to say, relatively few will win the hearts of these all-important consumers and even fewer will ‘cross the chasm’ to find favor with the vaunted early majority.

consumer electronics show infographic
Sortable The Consumer Electronics Show Infographic

Products that do will likely be successful, in part, because the companies behind them took into account key differences between early adopters and members of the early majority. Here are three of the most critical:

 1.   The product must do a superior job of meeting a felt need. I use the term ‘felt need’ to emphasize the immediacy of the need at hand. To borrow the language of Clayton Christensen, the product’s job must not only be self-evident, but inspire a hearty ‘At last!’ Early adopters often purchase products with limited utility. That’s just who they are. Their emotional reward lies in the acquisition as much as in the product’s actual purpose. Members of the early majority? Not so much.

2.   The product must be easy to use. You knew this was coming, right? Just because it’s a cliché doesn’t make it any less true. Early adopters have traditionally been willing to put up with glitchy first-gen products as a proud sign of their chutzpah. But members of the early majority, spoiled by a recent wave of design friendliness (remember when Target resembled a dry goods warehouse?), won’t tolerate such products. They expect perfection out of the box. Even more, à la Apple, they expect the box itself to be perfection.

3.   The product must be a low-risk purchase. In the absence of zombie consumerism, the product should be easy to trial, come with an appropriate level of support and/or have a compelling guarantee (money-back or otherwise). Members of the early majority are risk averse by nature, so companies need to allay their fear of future regret with as many outs as possible.

One of the implications here is that many first-gen products require re-tooling for the early majority. Think Amazon’s Kindle. The company released several versions before hitting it big with the Kindle Fire, which was designed and successfully positioned as a low-cost alternative to the iPad. It’s all a matter of conscious evolution, idea-led and research-informed.

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