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So, what does an Experience Strategist do?
Job profiles at Serviceplan
Booking platforms, sat navs, dating apps, ATMs – we make use of digital systems on a daily basis. If an application does what it is supposed to do, we give it no further thought. But if we lose our way in a poorly designed user interface, it sets our nerves on edge – leaving the provider with an image problem. With a professional user experience strategy, established findings regarding user expectations, perception and behaviour can be channelled into ensuring smooth and therefore satisfying experiences that encourage users to come back for more. We probed our expert – Mathias Becker, Director Experience Strategy at Plan.Net UX – extensively about this topic.
I imagine an experience strategist to be like someone who represents user interests between concept design and product design: the concept developer has a clever idea; the designer comes up with a fancy look and feel and the experience strategist ensures that users achieve their expected outcome as elegantly as possible. Ideally, they would also be pleasantly surprised by an appealing design. Is that close?
That sums it up pretty well. Although tacking design on the end made it sound a bit secondary. The fact is that the importance of an appealing design has increased again recently. There has been huge growth in the number of apps and other interactive digital products, meaning that user expectations as regards design have also increased. If something is difficult to use, poorly laid out or just plain ugly, users won’t touch it with a ten-foot pole. And they don’t have to either, because with all that is on offer, they are sure to find something that they feel comfortable with. Neglecting design would be a serious mistake. Following up on something else you said: yes, it is completely true to say that we represent user interests – but at the same time, we also represent the interests of the brand for which we are creating the digital product in question. This means that the product not only has to feel right, but it also needs to feel unmistakably like Coca-Cola, BMW, or whatever the brand is. The user experience and, in turn, the brand experience associated with using our product is determined by more factors than just its look and feel, its logo and its slogan. What do the animations look like, how are error messages worded, are fundamentally complex content and correlations presented in a simple and understandable way? All of this is relevant for branding.
How do you get to be an experience strategist in the first place?
Like many new professions in the digital world, there is no predetermined path that you can set out on with a view to becoming an experience strategist. I trained as a media designer specialising in web development and then also worked for years as a web developer. After this, I focused more on concept design, in other words on the theoretical and structural preparation of ideas and requirements prior to the actual development stage. I put together concept teams and acted as technical consultant for a partner in the USA. When I came to Serviceplan, I shifted my focus back to concept design again but also worked on advancing digital transformation. But getting back to concept design: at some stage, you ask yourself strategic questions like whether the concept design is right for the project you are working on. Are we making the right assumptions in our concept design work? At this point, it was only logical that I should end up in the role of experience strategist. That’s how it happened for me, but there are countless other ways. In any case, I don’t know of any standard way to train to be an experience strategist and I can’t imagine there is one.
As an experience strategist, how do you know when you’ve done your job well?
We compare the results with what we had set out to do at the beginning of the project and base our evaluations on performance values that were also defined at the outset. We determine the performance values for example by storing and analysing user interactions. This is done based on A/B testing, where user behaviour in an existing version is compared with a new version. As well as this, we invite test users to our offices to discuss this with them in person. Or we invite them to our customers, where test scenarios are set up with prototypes. This means that we have a whole host of tools that can provide us with wholly objective information with which we can gauge the quality of our products. And then there is another new version. We are constantly producing prototypes, testing them and optimising them afterwards.
Are experience strategists occasionally taken by surprise at just how stupid users can be? For example, when users do things that a professional couldn’t have envisaged?
Of course! As it happens, the users we like best in the development phase are those who do things with the product that would never have occurred to us. To take one example: imagine someone is looking for a button with a particular function at the bottom right even though logic dictates that it would be found at the top left. The first time they see this, everyone in the team thinks the same thing: What the hell? What’s he playing at? That’s completely illogical! But then the user gives us a coherent explanation for his seemingly illogical behaviour and we take his feedback on board in the next stage. But seriously: strictly speaking there is no such thing as the fabled “dumbest imaginable user”.
Do experience strategists sometimes have to suggest compromises? For example, if a major application aimed at the general public needs to appeal to various user groups with different needs – such as a train ticket machine suitable for less digitally-savvy older people but also for the younger, more technologically-minded generation.
You do have to make compromises at times. But in the case of train ticket machines, the main thing is that older people who are less comfortable with digital operating interfaces should be able to use them easily. Needless to say, having a user-friendly design with a clear, high-contrast visual layout that can even be used by partially sighted people will not bore digital-savvy users, let alone put them off.
What particular skills do you need for your job?
Scepticism is important. A healthy sense of doubt that users will be able to get their head around what is being offered. On the other hand, of course, openness – there are times when you have to offer users new, unfamiliar interfaces and be confident that they will embrace them. This can be a necessary expression of innovation – which, by definition, is always unfamiliar. You might think that scepticism and openness are direct opposites, but they complement one another as well. And a certain degree of naivety is useful in warding off the so-called voices of reason that say things like: “A telephone that you use by sliding your index finger around a glass plate – what a load of nonsense!” But, far from being nonsense, the iPhone has been instrumental in influencing this kind of digital communication. In this job, you should be willing and able to communicate and discuss things with others. After all, we are faced with an infinite number of possibilities every day and every possible solution has something going for it. And then you need to be pragmatic – to be willing to make a decision at the right time so you don’t get caught up in endless discussions.
I imagine you also need a high degree of empathy to be able to put yourself in the shoes of the target group in question.
Certainly, empathy is extremely important and absolutely essential for anyone working in product concept design. It’s quite common at the start of a project for us to develop personas – i.e. fictitious user profiles – and to ask ourselves hypothetically how such a person would use the product? What would they look for – and would they find it? For example, we might ascribe the attribute “sceptic” to one particular persona. Our assumption might be: “This user would not carry on clicking at this point because some important information is missing.” If we then provide this information in this user scenario, we can assume that even such “sceptics” would continue, because they can now rest assured that clicking on the “Next” button will not trick them in buying something against their will.
What is a typical day for an experience strategist?
Our everyday routine definitely includes actively observing what is new. For instance, new media or applications or new ways of using these media or applications. How are teenagers using Snapchat or Musical.ly (now TikTok)? Why are people spending six hours a day on Instagram and what are they doing there? Apart from this, you work closely together with your team, ensuring that solutions for the previously discussed strategy are working well. This means lots of explanations, lots of inferences and deductions, and lots of discussions – with your team and with your customer.
I imagine that you also develop innovative user interfaces yourselves, right?
Sure – innovation is of course a major factor. It starts with research that we also conduct ourselves – for example observing how people use voice-controlled assistants and how they would do this if confronted with future product generations. As well as gauging the importance of trends such as Augmented Reality, Mixed Reality and Extended Reality. We are constantly working on ways to maximise benefits for users. And AI – Artificial Intelligence – too, of course, which is being pushed extensively by major players like Apple, Google, etc. Many users who, for instance, communicate with chat robots would believe these were real people if they were not told that they are essentially algorithms. Here, we concern ourselves for instance with the essential question of whether, how and under what circumstances this should be made clear to users. And we build more prototypes to gain answers to these questions.
Which trends might well pose entirely new challenges for experience strategists in the foreseeable future? We have just been talking about the artificial intelligence of chat robots and suchlike. But there is plenty more where that came from.
There certainly is. Artificial intelligence, for example, is leading to an enormous increase in complexity for developers and users alike. And because a product has such an amazing scope that it comes across as being complex, it needs to feel simple and be simple to use.
So you could say that the importance of experience strategists as a profession will increase enormously?
Absolutely, the importance of our role will increase and far more experience strategists will be needed – experience designers too. That is certain. This is because the range of products and application areas will expand as well. But some existing systems are also in dire need of improvement. After all, there are still people who are exasperated by ATMs or train ticket machines. The product should bend to users and not the other way around. Another dimension is globalisation: if we have found the ideal solution for users in developed industrial societies, there is no guarantee whatsoever that this solution will work in places with a completely different language or culture. This means that lots of intermediary work will be needed in both directions.
More and more experts will be needed in this area, while at the same time you are constantly building on your own personal expertise. Are you also willing to take on young people for training?
Absolutely! In fact, we already are. As well as this, we are working together with various universities, talking to students about this exciting field and the opportunities it offers. So we are always delighted when someone accepts our invitation to see how things work in practice. If we can interest them in this profession and get them on board as an intern, everyone’s a winner!
THANK YOU MATHIAS FOR TAKING THE TIME TO TALK TO US!
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