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- January 26, 2015
- Darayush Mistry
- IT & Technology
Last year, Coupa joined up with the User-centric IT movement, a group of companies dedicated to creating technology that puts the needs of end users first, allowing them to work the way they want, without getting in their way. User-centric is bit of a mouthful to say, but it’s actually a very simple concept.
We’ve all had experiences with technology that works “technically” but as a practical matter makes your life harder. Remember the clocks on VCRs? Setting the time should have been easy for anyone, but did you ever see one that did anything but flash 12:00, 12:00, 12:00? Not user centric. Or the original Xbox, which launched with a controller so big and clunky it made playing a video game frustrating. It seemed to have been designed by a committee that had heard of human hands, but never used them. Also not user-centric.
Easier said than done
User-centricity sounds great, and it is great - but it’s also easier said than done, especially as your company grows.
There’s a lot of talk about this right now – hence the movement - and a lot of the talk is by big companies who’ve hopped on the bandwagon but don’t really deliver, or by up and coming startups who still only have 10 or 20 customers and so their commitment and adherence to to user-centricity hasn’t really been tested yet. There’s nothing that tests a company’s commitment to user-centricity like growth.
Staying the course as your company grows requires three things: a broad view of who the user is, a commitment to walking many miles in the user’s shoes, and the ability to resist the temptation to keep adding on.
User centricity versus customer centricity
First, let’s be clear: User-centricity and customer- centricity are not the same thing. Customer-centricity is much narrower and can take the shape of making the customer happy at any cost, and that can lead you down a path away from user-centricity.
User-centricity is broader and more diffuse. The customer is somewhat of an abstract entity. It’s a company, or a set of stakeholders in a company. Users are anyone who uses the software or interacts with the service. Those are specific people within the customer company, and they will also in many cases be people external to the customer such as suppliers, contractors, partners and others.
For example, at Coupa, a user could be an employee at the customer company who's trying buy a keyboard, someone in finance who's trying to keep track of spending against budget or someone in IT who's administering the software. Or, it could be a supplier to the customer company who is trying to invoice through a portal. User-centricity is about making sure the software and service is easy to use and focused on successful outcomes for everyone who will ultimately interact with it.
User centricity versus UX
User-centricity is also not the same as user experience. It’s broader than that. User experience can be about the broad experience or specific things like, where do you click, what is the flow through a page or pages and what color the buttons are. Those kinds of things could support user-centricity.
One of the best ways I know to stay focused on user centricity is to hang out with users – a lot. Product managers need to meet with them several times a month. If the users are on an oil rig in the gulf, that’s where the product managers need to be, gathering information to relay back to their team. The key is to be the user, in order to develop a deep understanding of the kinds of issues the users are facing so that you can look at everything you develop through that lens.
This has to become ingrained in your company culture, because as you grow larger and priorities shift, your less entrenched practices will fall by the wayside and you’ll get lost along the road to user-centricity.
Waylaid by feature-function
In my experience, what most commonly gets in the way of user-centricity is the temptation to add on a lot of features and functions. There’s always a lot of internal debate about how to build and market the product, and what the right balance is between software and APIs. Sometimes that can go in the direction of adding features and functions now and letting the customer - or an army of services folks - figure out how to use them later.
That’s the approach a lot of big companies take. Customers can become successful with that kind of software, but not without a lot of cost and time spent because you’re moving away from user-centricity and making things more complicated.
Less is more
Building using-centric software requires you to think about this more holistically and maybe, in some cases deliver less. But less can ultimately be more valuable to the user. Apple is perhaps the most widely known example of this; they stayed focused on delivering fewer models of iPhone and executing elegantly on a smaller feature set, while the competition put out dozens of versions with hundreds of features. We all know who won that battle.
The bottom line is, that model doesn't work. People’s initial excitement about a vast array of features evaporates quickly as they have to struggle to use them.
I think it’s actually easier to just cram more in; that’s why it’s such a temptation. It’s harder to boil it down to the essentials, and often harder to build something that’s deceptively easy for the user. But this is the essence of user-centricity.
It takes discipline, dedication and extra effort to build user-centric software, but this is where the value lies. User-centric applications are valuable not just in and of themselves, but they are also able to add a layer of value on top of more complex software, extending the latter’s reach beyond a small handful of power users to every user. So, if you find yourself in a user-centricity argument, remember it’s not just about principles or a point in time. It’s about staying true when the urge to deviate is strongest.
Darayush Mistry is vice president of product marketing at Coupa. He previously held product management roles at Salesforce.com, NetSuite and Oracle.