Originally published in Smashing Magazine 9/27/2012

Unless you’re developing completely new products at a startup it’s likely that you’re working in an organization that’s accumulated years of legacy design and development in existing products. Even if the product you’re working on is brand spanking new, your organization will eventually need to figure out how to unify the whole product experience, either by bringing the old products up to the new or pulling your new efforts in line with existing ones.

Many large successful companies end up in a situation where they must maintain dozens if not hundreds of applications in their product portfolios. These huge suites are the result of mergers, acquisitions, different sets of users or customer needs, legacy services and contracts, and the natural inefficiencies that develop in huge organizations. Sometimes there are really legitimate reasons for so many different product lines, other times the wide set of offerings aren’t serving anyone’s needs particularly well. Often users rely on a suite of related products and struggle to learn and become effective because of major differences in how the each individual program looks and operates.

The initiatives to fix these broken experiences have ambitious and somewhat generic names like “Common look and feel” “Unified online experience” and “Unified look and feel.” Regardless of the name the common elements are a drive to bring consistency to a large set of products, often headed by centralized internal groups, at various stages of development. There’s a sense of urgency, often some internal resistance, and frequently we’re following another agencies’ failed attempt to deliver design and guidelines that can be metabolized by the client organization.

This isn’t easy work, it takes exceptional effort to understand the organization and the users, design the right interaction and visual system and communicate it to teams that have already produced work that doesn’t align to the unified vision.

One successful approach starts with surface improvements and goes progressively deeper into structural issues and ends with big strategic organizational shifts. We start out with the low-hanging fruit and at each step strive to reach ever higher and toward developing products that will ultimately deliver great experiences. It’s worth noting that this approach has been developed to make it possible to make incremental improvements to products already under development, but it also supports looking further ahead to future releases where rewriting code or rethinking interactions won’t be so disruptive.

If this is your first product in an organization, this approach is totally backward, but in large organizations with lots of history and many products this approach helps articulate both short-term and long-term strategy for building a product portfolio that delivers a user experience that is learnable, confidence building and makes work easier and more effective.

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Hierarchy of effort to fix a broken user experience

Visual consistency and simplification

The lowest amount of effort is at the bottom of the pyramid so we suggest starting there. Sure it’s lipstick on a pig, but simply bringing a consistent visual approach to a product helps bring many different products under a shared brand experience.

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Assuming you’ve done the groundwork to articulate the design of an ideal experience, the simplest and arguably easiest way to start implementing it is to reskin the products currently under development. Finding ways to simplify and excise unnecessary information, unifying the information architecture, adopting standard fonts, colors and controls are all relatively low effort ways to improve products that already exist.

This is the foundation, it won’t make a poorly designed interaction better, but can dramatically improve the presentation of unity to the end user. Products that present a consistent visual language clearly communicate their shared membership in a product line. The benefit of starting with improvements to the visual system is that it’s much easier to change or adjust the skin of an application than change things such as behavior which will require rethinking and recoding more fundamental aspects of the applications.

Behavior consistency

If your organization has simplified and unified the visual language, the next step is making behavior consistent. This is basic stuff, disciplined reuse of patterns instead of ad-hoc application from a grab bag of widgets and unifying nomenclature and conceptual frameworks. Hopefully any individual program has internally consistent patterns, it’s when you look at a set of applications you usually see wide divergence in situations where applications are developed by different groups or acquired through acquisitions.

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Assuming upfront design has articulated high-level principles and provided a basic set of pattern libraries the effort at this stage is evaluating individual programs, and figuring out the amount of work to bring them into alignment. This work will mean at the very least replacing widgets in some applications. Often it means a decent amount of coding and testing to ensure that the revisions deliver a consistent experience. It takes more coordination between development groups to maintain a shared approach and understanding.

For the end user behavioral consistency means it’s easier to learn a tool and transfer these skills when picking up a related tool. It means they only need to build a single mental model of how applications work. This gives them confidence and the ability to pick up new programs without steep learning curves or confusion about how things are done.

Behavior optimization

The prior step was aimed solely at bringing alignment to behavior of the product line. A deeper level of work is required to optimize behavior, making applications more powerful and easier to use.

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This step takes the rework of products even further. It means evaluating the current programs against the user needs and goals, looking for ways to eliminate work and simplify the patterns. This assumes some level of design effort beforehand to identify the areas where this will make the most difference. It assumes a commitment to user centered product design, some research, personas and scenarios. Without these you’ve got no way to make decisions on what patterns to simplify, on which work to excise, and what needs you can anticipate and solve for.

An optimized experience allows users to perform their tasks with less or more effective work. Any work that’s performed is captured in such a way that users aren’t asked to perform the same task twice. Smart defaults are captured and leveraged to make tasks flow more quickly. Where possible shift computing work to computers, and judgements to humans. Mine data to see bigger patterns and opportunities that allow the system to anticipate and meet needs before they become issues.

This is where you do everything you can to make each application the best it can be. It takes lots of work, new interactions are introduced, much code is rewritten; it takes considerable investment of time and effort.

Unified experience strategy

The results of last iteration are a set of products that do what they do best. The point of this iteration is to rethink how the suite works together. Frequently this means rethinking product or service strategy.

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Designing a unified experience takes looking at the bigger picture, reevaluating the internal product silos in the organization, reconsidering the ideal workflow for individuals and between roles. It may result in collapsing multiple products into one, it may mean adding products to bridge gaps, or eliminating redundancies in capability, or refocusing the service. This kind of work takes deep organizational commitment and a strong mandate. It takes long-range instead of short-term planning. It can’t be done quickly, and it takes organizational honesty and courage to do it well.

The real beneficiary in this kind of effort is the end user, because this is a user centered product strategy. It recognizes that the product exists to help people perform work, and that they may use other tools or services to accomplish their goals. Users don’t exist in isolation but share work with others. Success isn’t measured in performing the task, but in ability to competently traverse a complex and dynamic ecosystem of people, data, devices and services. When a company brings their product offering to this stage both the organization and the product offering has been transformed.

UX culture

All the prior steps were aimed at fixing a broken user experience. Follow them as an iterative path and it’s possible to greatly improve a severely broken user experience. The way you avoid repeating the cycle in a few years is to transform the organization itself. Software and services are conceived and developed in a particular organizational culture and this has a profound imprinting effect. Products coming out of an organization focused on engineering bear the unmistakable form of technology first, services with a sales focus deeply communicate this, and products coming out of organizations with a UX focus cannot avoid tendencies toward a good user experience.

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If you want to repeatedly deliver great user experiences it needs to go deeper than applying design to the surface; it takes becoming an organization that understands and makes a commitment to make user experience a core value. This means executives that support or represent the unique perspective design brings, it means capable designers working for a user centered approach, and it means organizational integration of a user centered way of building things.

Great user experience almost never just “happens”, it takes deliberate work to understand the user and to keep the user’s goals and needs as a priority through design and development. Products and services are made from teams of people collaborating to bring an idea to life. The agreements about what is important, the methods of performing the work and ways things are measured is what ultimately shapes the output. Organizational cultural shift takes the most effort and the longest time, but results in the largest, most pervasive, coherent shifts, not just for the organization or their products, but for those who use them.

Isn’t this all backwards?

So you’re thinking, but wait, isn’t this all backwards? Shouldn’t you design the whole system around the right workflow, optimize the behavior within it, make sure it’s consistent with other products and finally make sure it’s visually simple and clear? Yes. Yes you should. Especially if you’re making a brand new product.

But we see again and again that few large companies really have the ability to clear the table, start with a clean slate and build something utterly new and great. Most start with a stable of products that they can’t abandon. They have applications supported by various teams around the world, maybe owned by different organizations and in various states of compliance. While you can design the ideal experience, you can’t just build it. It takes many iterations to move toward something that delivers on the design. It’s not awesome, but it’s reality. When you find yourself here, you can’t boil the ocean. You have to start somewhere, in our experience starting at the bottom is a really practical way to move forward.