Power Shift: Why users have become control freaks, and what it means for UX

Power Shift: Why users have become control freaks, and what it means for UX

In July of this year, Apple discontinued the iPod Shuffle and Nano, marking the end of the line for its dedicated portable music players. It’s not a surprise, considering that the way we consume music has fundamentally changed since the iPod’s mid-2000s heyday, but it’s a marker of how far user experience has come in fifteen short years.

At the time, the iPod was groundbreaking not just in its convenience – its central idea that you could carry thousands of songs with you at once – but in that it allowed the user to set the agenda for their music listening. They could choose to play random tracks from their entire library, listen to all the hip-hop songs they had that began with the letter ‘A’, or hear, in chronological order, every single track they had from the 1980s.

The iPod put the user, not the label or artist, in control of how they listened to music – and it was only the tip of the iceberg. The same transfer of power from gatekeepers to users has swept quickly through virtually everything else, from TV, movies, books and videogames, to transportation (Uber and Citymapper), shopping (Amazon, with their Dash buttons and personalised online stores), and travel (when was the last time you looked at a holiday brochure?).

The generation that grew up with iPod expect a direct, instant influence over their experience of using a product, and they’re now wielding significant financial clout. To figure out how to meet their expectations for control, perhaps it’s best to look to some of the youngest and most powerful companies in the world – Google, Facebook, Netflix and Amazon.

Fifteen years ago, two of these firms didn’t even exist, and the other two were a fraction of the size they are today. One reason they’ve grown so quickly is down to how carefully shaped their products are to their users’ needs. Judicious, on-going use of their ever-expanding resource of data on how customers use their products has allowed them to change their products from what they think they should be into what users know they want them to be. The design and functionality of these tools is constantly tweaked, tested and refined based on how users react to it – you might even say the customers of Facebook, Google, et al are as much the architects of these services as the engineers who built them. At the very least, we’re the muses.

 Most companies don’t have access to the type of big data that Google rely on. And they don’t need to – any company can start giving customers a say in their product design, simply by talking to them. Brands that assume that they don’t need any input from the customer are in danger of suffering from a bad case of designer arrogance. It can be tempting for some to fall into the designer-knows-best trap, and eschew user feedback.

A designer’s expert insight is important – but when the world’s most powerful technology companies are using input from their customers as a primary starting point for their product development, it’s time to evaluate whether you’re making your users’ needs sufficiently central to your product.

Application of the right customer approaches to engaging with customers will allow you to gain a thorough understanding of what they want and need from a product’s design – we know because it’s what we’ve successfully done for a range of high profile clients over the course of thousands hours of face time with their customers.

Today’s users demand control, and they expect to have a say in how they use your product. Refuse to give it to them at your own risk.

Find out how to start making sure you’re designing your product around what your customers want, not what your designers think is best. Talk to us.