by Chris Stone

Why software engineers should focus on users, not the competition

May 02, 2017
Enterprise ApplicationsInnovationInternet

Why coming in first doesn’t mean you won.

Today, we thrive on instant gratification: consuming the news via 140-character tweets, watching videos instead of reading long articles, scrolling through photos or gifs and skipping over the captions altogether. There are no shortage of user experience lessons to be learned from this cultural shift. Whether a user is designing, managing or personalizing websites, finding success should be (almost) as easy as scrolling through a photo-filled listicle or typing up a tweet.

The thing is, most software engineers and user experience designers are very smart people trying to prove just how smart they are. We want to be the best at everything we do, and we get frustrated when someone creates something better or achieves something faster than we do. This often manifests itself in difficult or cumbersome UX design. As a result, navigating from point A to point B becomes a challenge for the end user.

Why coming in first doesn’t mean you won

At almost any software company, you’ll find engineers eagerly working toward what’s new and next, and building features to help them stand out from the competition. I see it all the time. The problem is, those engineers aren’t necessarily the ones using the software on a daily basis. When they release dozens of new features each sprint (often every three weeks), they make it impossible for users to keep up with the innovation they’re pushing out. When they look to the side instead of straight ahead, they’re losing sight of their goal: creating user-friendly software that’s accessible to their target audience. And when that target audience doesn’t have software they can easily understand, they’re not going to use it. Suddenly, being better than the competition doesn’t sound so important, does it?

I see this every day with marketing personalization tools, too. Most of these tools focus on quantity (number of lead-gen emails sent out) over quality. I’d even go so far as to call most of these campaigns spam. They don’t focus on quality, conversion or simplicity and they certainly don’t understand their target audience. In the end, it’s the thought behind the campaign that matters.

The future of “smart” web design

It’s time we start viewing the best software as user-friendly software, instead of focusing on providing users with an endless supply of features they’ll never need or use. We need to build intuitive products that make necessary business processes as simple as possible and don’t create roadblocks for less tech-savvy users. One area where I see huge potential for this is content and data. I believe that, if we get our engineering priorities in order, we’ll eventually reach a point where anyone—regardless of technical background—can not just personalize a website, but personalize all of their data, regardless of what channel or device it lives on, with a few clicks

To get there won’t be easy. We’ll need to capitalize on machine learning to make this a reality. Right now, the systems used for personalization are typically rules-based and pattern-oriented, not based on AI. We’ll need to create an environment where, as I’m creating content, I’m fed recommendations for additional content sources or images to pull the entire piece together. I’d liken this “next-best offering” experience to the content management version of Google’s “did you mean?” search feature, but happening in real-time as someone assembles web content—bridging the gap between pictures, words and user goals to create the smoothest content management experience possible.

Thankfully, we now have access to the tools to prioritize data-driven approaches over rules-driven approaches. And thanks to natural language processing, those data-backed approaches are only getting smarter. Machine learning captures the relationships between different words to achieve text classification, sentiment analysis and help complete virtually any project that relies on text similarity. Now imagine content managers using this to access recommendations for additional content, identify duplicate (but not identical) content, ask free-form questions and get accurate answers, or build a better conversational interface. If more software engineers and user experience designers work this into their approach, the end-user will win.

There’s no denying that most software companies are under extreme pressure to innovate quickly and get things to market before the competition. But sometimes, that approach isn’t the best one for the user. And when this happens, take a second to consider whether your UI passes the instant gratification test, and aim to strike an ideal balance between game-changing software development and a smooth user experience. It won’t always be easy, but it will certainly be worth it.