• UX: It’s a Highly Defensible Investment

    One of the challenges of investing in a great user experience is the concern that it can be easily copied — you do a lot of work to find the perfect experience and then your solution is out there in the world for anyone else to copy. So if UX can be easily commoditized, you just invest in it as a commodity, right? Wrong, dude, wrong.

    Defensible de-shmensible, who cares?

    You should. If you’re pushing for an awesome user experience or a great team to support that UX, then you’re probably asking someone to give you some budget for it. But no one wants to pay for a lot of work on something that a competitor can look at and copy. ‘Defensible’ is just some PowerPoint jargon used to say, “We can keep others from copying the same thing we’re doing.”

    Done right, UX is confoundedly defensible

    Okay, I’m going there. I’ll use the easy and oft-cited example of Apple. The iPhone UX seems pretty darn easy to copy, right? But as Jeff Veen notes in his Startup2Startup talk, mimicking the UX of another well designed service will not lead to the same success because the mimicker doesn’t understand why it’s designed the way it is:

    What’s fascinating is how Apple’s has taken this one step further to ensure the material components of the UX aren’t easy to attain:

    What Apple does is use its cash hoard to pay for the construction cost (or a significant fraction of it) of the factory in exchange for exclusive rights to the output production of the factory for a set period of time (maybe 6 – 36 months), and then for a discounted rate afterwards… Apple has access to new component technology months or years before its rivals. This allows it to release groundbreaking products that are actually impossible to duplicate.
    — via Business Insider and the related Quora Q&A

    The key to defensible UX strategies is looking from the outside-in

    In Subject to Change we talk about George Eastman’s idea to radically simplify the highly technical world of photography in 1888 into, “You press the button, we do the rest.” All the complexity and “source code” of a camera went from the camera box itself off to a factory where Kodak did all the heavy lifting for the customer.

    By looking at what customers really wanted — a way to capture an image or a memory — and designing for just that, the complexity and the protectable parts of the operational solution were moved behind-the-scenes and became a competitive advantage that Kodak could invest in and protect for years.

    The really cool thing about investing in user experience is that the competitive advantages you create are hidden in plain sight.

    There are 5 thoughts on this idea

    1. Robin Rath

      Great article Brandon!

      UX cannot be created in one iteration, it has to be created over time through refinement by considering the complexities of the users needs. Sure, great ideas can be borrowed from one place or another, but how they come together to achieve the unique needs of the user in a particular circumstance cannot be simply ripped off from another app.

    2. Kris

      Sorry, but you’re examples do not share the same characteristics of web ux. The underlying technology is freely available.

      The design and layout CAN be copied. That is not going to stop people.

      @Robin, look at retailers. They have the same customer base and basically the same products. Look at used car sites, they all look very similiar. Job sites, etc.

      What I think cannot be copied is the LEVEL of user experience. Yes another can copy you, but your site leads to a higher experience. That is because of minor details they miss and because usually copies suck.

      I happen to be doing a lot right now to defend against competitors copying the UX of my client.

    3. Kris

      I want to add to what I just said, unless your competitors are methodical they are not going to pick up on the details.

      These details are what happens when you do something wrong or right.

      For example, if you mistype your email. What happens in the form? If there is an error, what happens?

      These things they are unlikely to copy because they won’t get there to see it.

      That said, if they CAN see it. They’ll copy it. Unless they are methodical about it, then there is always going to be ‘pieces’ of your UX that they miss and that helps you lead to a higher user experience than your competitors. And small gains add up.

    4. Brandon Schauer

      Kris — I think the point I’m trying to make is that a defensible UX goes further than skin deep. Good design means creating a result that is more than the sum of its (front-end or back-end) parts.

      Knowing the user and their needs well means you know why a specific interaction needs to be a flick or a click. It means you can extend the experience and continue to fit context of use. In fact, I think that’s why A/B testing often leads to plateaus of performance. A team will find an solution that the can’t improve on any further because without an appreciation for the user’s behaviors, motivations, and context they don’t know why version 12.3b of the screen works as well as it does. But I digress…

      I’d say that web UX can certainly be defensible, even if any browser can allow you to view and copy all the source code you want. I’ll take a favorite example of typekit. Lots of people could re-create the user interface, but it takes relationships with type houses and an appreciation for type, digital design, and even (gasp!) pricing to create the right overall UX for a type-linking service. Get one part wrong and the results could be deadly. Get them all right and it’s hard to emulate the same success. Sure there are other type-linking services out there, but there’s only a small few that are getting enough of it right to be competitive and there’s a potentially big market for them to compete amongst.

    5. Dan

      Not sure why this is titled “a highly defensible investment”. It doesn’t have anything to do with UX ROI and the only example given (how Apple builds a supply-chain advantage by leveraging huge cash assets) has nothing to do with designing a user experience. Yes, monopolizing a unique experience for a period of time is a smart move, but we’re really fuzzing the boundaries of UX here.

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