Products rarely exist in a vacuum. Take digital hubs, for example. Folks use hubs like streaming sticks and smart speakers to make their lives a bit easier, so they expect them to integrate seamlessly into their lives.
What Is a Product Ecosystem?
Product ecosystems are a collection of interconnected devices, software and services that work together to enhance and complement each other’s functionality. When ecosystems help make these interoperable systems and devices integrate seamlessly, the result is a more unified and convenient user experience.
To support products that integrate across ecosystems and with users’ expectations, it’s helpful for manufacturers to ask a few simple questions, such as: Does the device perform its intended functions in its designated usage environments? Can an intended user easily identify the problem if an affordance fails to work? And overall, how straightforward is it for the user to find a solution to their problem?
Here, I’ll highlight what manufacturers should keep in mind when answering these questions for individual products and for how those products are used across ecosystems.
Support UX That Reflects Real-Life Use
As an example that can offer a complex ecosystem experience for users, let’s consider troubleshooting a smart speaker.
Here’s how it works: A manufacturer develops hardware (for example, a smart speaker). Then third-party developers create apps that interact with this hardware through affordances such as a speaker’s voice-assistant technology. These integrations allow users to play music from third-party streaming services, order food or control other connected smart-home devices. In this way, the ecosystem allows the hardware to function as a home hub.
The convenience of these hubs depends on the seamless integration of various third-party apps. So when troubleshooting is necessary, it’s important to make the process as painless as possible.
Say a user has a problem playing music from a new streaming service on their smart speaker. The manufacturer of the smart speaker is responsible for the on-device voice integration, but that speaker — and the voice commands that can control it — also interacts with the third-party developer of the streaming service. Making matters more complicated, the user manages playlists on their phone, which is the product of yet another manufacturer.
To address these challenges, qualitative UX research can be conducted to identify the mental models that users form for these systems. For troubleshooting in particular, a real-life context one might research is how to navigate to a help menu. Consider:
- Where do users first look for help and why?
- Can all users access the help options?
- Once there, are the help options easily discoverable?
- What type of help do users expect (interactive demos, videos, text-based FAQs, etc.)?
While these are only some of the questions you may find useful when working on how to troubleshoot a product in a broader ecosystem, the important takeaway is that they offer the type of thinking that can make it easier for you to support your users throughout a product’s lifespan.
Menus, for example, need to be located in the areas that map to users’ mental models, such as a menu bar at the top of the screen or as interactive elements near key features, and be easily discoverable. Furthermore, users need to understand where and how to use physical and digital affordances, such as those that help them access support menus, like buttons and voice commands or clickable links.
Refine Back-End Management
End users’ experiences are paramount. To support them, manufacturers need to efficiently manage their own experiences as users on the back end of a product’s development and management. This means it can be helpful to consider how your teams manage and experience product updates and maintenance.
Let’s say you’re researching the design of a smart-home hub that integrates with a range of smart home devices, such as thermostats, doorbells and indoor/outdoor lighting. During extended vacations, users may want to automate actions, for instance turning on indoor lights when outdoor lights activate in response to motion sensors, or turning on all lights for a designated period of time when the smart doorbell detects motion. Additionally, users may want to maintain consistent indoor temperature and humidity levels despite fluctuating outdoor conditions.
Clearly outlining workflows for back-end processes, such as whether the hardware or software team supports fixes to bugs in voice commands prompting music to play on the speaker, can help minimize friction that users may encounter when setting up or using your product.
UX research helps manufacturers determine which use cases reflect users’ real needs. Research also can identify how manufacturers can most efficiently meet these needs in the most seamless manner possible. That information can in turn be used to drive development and integration priorities for both the business and individual teams.
Take a Data-Focused Approach to Product Updates
IoT devices generate and collect vast amounts of user data. The value of this data, however, depends entirely on how manufacturers choose to use it.
For instance, home hubs gather a wealth of intricate data about user behavior, such as logging instances when users prompt music to play on their smart speaker via voice commands or manual affordances as compared to if and when they automate that task.
By utilizing a mixed-methods UX research approach that pairs quantitative analysis with insights from qualitative methods that help answer the “why” behind behaviors, you can identify patterns among users who use voice commands to play music and those who do not. Using this data, researchers can create distinct user personas, such as those who frequently use voice commands versus those who prefer other affordances like physical buttons.
These personas can serve as the foundation for future qualitative research, helping UX teams gain more insight into each group’s needs and motivations. The research findings can then be analyzed and recommendations made to fulfill the unmet needs or address the issues for each user persona.
For instance, your team may discover that the voice control feature doesn’t accurately interpret commands from people with deep or high voices, ultimately leading users with such attributes to avoid it despite preferring voice commands. Armed with this knowledge, your team can update the software to work more effectively for all users, including those with diverse vocal timbres.
Finally, use data to assess the impact of the update on user behavior, determine the best means of advertising the update in the app and ultimately define the update’s success.
It’s no secret that UX research is a vital component of creating successful products. That’s why it requires continuous attention. Refining a product’s design based on user feedback and behavioral data can offer invaluable insights into how effectively the product is meeting user needs and what further changes can be made to enhance the user experience.
In the best instances, this feedback is solicited and then harnessed for each product update, enabling your team to create a truly evolutionary product that meets the needs of its users.