In digital age, soul is in the design

Ever wondered how a glass in a metal case went on to transform the mobile phone industry? The iPhone, when it was first launched a decade ago, was nicknamed the 'Jesus phone' or jphone, as many believed it to be miraculous. Cut to 2018, the iPhone has lived up to its hype, impacting the lives of millions of customers worldwide. Wonder what makes this glass in a metal case perform like magic?

User experience (UX) design existed under different titles till it was brought to the forefront by Steve Jobs, with the launch of the iPhone. Apple wasn't the first to release a smartphone. However, its user experience was clearly far ahead of anything that existed before.

It made things so simple for everyone to use that it became a runaway success, creating an entirely new category of products, transforming major industries and setting a new price point for every player in their space.

Simply put, what UX design means is creating an interface that is easy enough for customers to understand and use. Any human-machine interface, from your microwave touch-panel to an app on your smartphone was designed by a practitioner of this skill.

Despite its importance, UX design is still one of the least discussed subjects. This is especially the case among Indian startups, even though numerous studies have shown that every dollar spent on "implementing focus on customer experience" can make between one and two hundred dollars. Additionally, UX can increase a user's willingness to pay more by 14.4% and to recommend a product/service by 16.6% (Forrester). Given the facts, it is time we paid attention to what this field can do for the bottom-line of startups.

What we instead observe is that UX conversation is postponed further in India until the "product/service has already been built and is functioning well." While we consult architects before constructing a building, we don't see the same principle being applied to UX designers in the technology world.

UX is not the consideration subject of many Indian entrepreneurs, as the field is still evolving. Earlier, designers were largely entrusted with presenting things aesthetically. The industry then progressed to answering certain questions about customer experience, as a result of the e-commerce wave in 2011 - how can we convince people to shop online because most people were disinclined? How can we ask multiple questions of users so we can profile them better and show them relevant products?

It's not just e-commerce but also Fintech and BFSI (Banking, Financial services and Insurance) businesses that are gradually adopting a "UX-first" strategy to design business prototypes, with a threefold increase in results - reduce cost in software development; serve as vision-document for the company internally; set the milestones to be achieved; pitch to potential investors. Recently a popular Fintech startup was able to raise a Rs 600 crore investment using exactly such a prototype! That's the magic of UX.

Today, UX designers are able to do ethnographic and psychographic research about users and provide better solutions. The savvier ones are even able to have conversations about business models that may impact the revenues of a company directly.

The dark side

But it's not all good news. Practitioners of what is known as "dark UX" have directed the same efforts towards developing interaction patterns that make an unaware user perform unintended transactions. For example, if an application asks you, "allow this app to access your contacts? Multiplayer functions may be disabled without it."

A user who has paid for the application is most likely to answer yes without knowing what "multiplayer functions" include or mean. However, the real intent of the app would be to mine your contacts list, thus opening up a Pandora's box of risks.

Such patterns when applied to sensitive and critical systems such as government schemes or banking services, are likely to affect two segments of society the most - those new to technology and senior citizens. These people are used to sharing personal information worry-free, leaving them susceptible to identity theft - a real threat in a world that's going to rely more and more on electronic systems.

Therefore, it is now imperative that we are aware of all that this powerful yet little-understood field of UX design can do, so it can be put to the right use. We can't wish the technology genie away. However, we can use UX design to make technology safe, reliable and trustworthy.

(The writer is CEO, Redd design studio)

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