I bet you heard about User Experience, and your instinct as a good manager is to add this to your digital products. And you are right, but as with everything that matters in life, there are at least 50 shades of gray when it comes to UX design and research (yep, two different things), and the ideal solution for your product at this specific point in time is way less binary.
User experience comes in many shapes and forms. From simple common sense and best practices all the way to multi-million dollar exercises. In most successful cases, the UX work will be a continuous incremental exercise feeding on user data and applying it to the product as a whole.
As a rule of thumb, if your product is just starting or you don't have a lot of data from your users, the UX work will rely heavily on best practices and competition analysis, which is totally fine. This approach will render great results, shouldn't be too expensive, and, if coupled with good UI and Branding, you will have a pretty good product from the start.
If your product is a few years old and you are just starting with this, you have two options, depending on how much data you collected from your users and the size of your budget. If either your data or budget are not sizeable, the approach described above is already an excellent place to start. However, if you have the data and the budget, hire a good UX firm/team and let them cook. I'm sure you will be surprised.
There are many different ways of doing UX, and you can find a pretty long list of research methods here.
I'm not going to describe each one here. Instead, I'll give you a high-level understanding of what you (the client) need to know to understand what the UX designer will do.
Let's start from the beginning. User Experience Research is an area of User Experience Design focused on understanding the context of a given project. To achieve it, the UX Researcher will use different methods to extract information about how users interact with your product.
These methods will include Competitor Analysis, User Interviews, Focus Groups, Stakeholder Interviews, Quantitative and Qualitative Analysis, AB Testing, Screen Recordings, Interface Heat maps, and many others. Every week someone invents a different way/app to understand better how users interact with software.
As you can expect, each method requires time and expertise, which obviously requires money.
In an ideal world, we would have plenty of time and money to accomplish our goals, and therefore, go over all these processes and methods to uncover the deepest insights about how our users might use our products.
At this point in world history, I am convinced that this so-called "ideal world" isn't here.
So, for the "real world," we are always constrained by time, money, and in most cases, both. So, in these more realistic scenarios, the approach I'd instead do is to assess the current stage of the product life cycle and apply the simplest UX research methods to uncover the essential insights without burning all my clients' budgets and using the good old Pareto Principle to increase our budget allocation efficiency significantly.
Let's say a client has 100k to invest in UX for a brand new product. In this hypothetical product, and this is true for most projects at their very beginning, we don't even have real users yet.
The "by the book" approach would be to identify the audience and invite some potential users to test some prototypes – first low fidelity ones, later high-fidelity prototypes – going through multiple iterations of interactive mockups, such as XD or Figma files. This approach would mix User Interviews and Rapid Prototyping methods, and they will render great results. Your UX bill will be around your 100k budget (this doesn't necessarily include UI, Branding, nor development).
My approach to this would be a much more pragmatic, "down to earth" approach. Since we don't have real users with real issues, it would be more efficient to use a minimalistic approach to UX research while leaning heavily on UX Design best practices. By no means I'm advocating to skip the UX research step. I just believe that we can go quite a long way by leveraging other people's mistakes.
With this approach, we would still do Interviews with potential users to understand their objectives when interacting with our product. What are they trying to accomplish? What are they looking for in an interface to prioritize the different elements we will work on within the design process. You would also need a Competitive Analysis, which is pretty straightforward. Still, we would skip the prototyping phase for now. Instead, I'd suggest spending the extra budget on Marketing, putting the product in front of more people, investing it in better data collection systems, gathering more information from the real users, or maybe just saving the money for a future iteration. It doesn't mean we will ship a crappy product. Instead, by leaning heavily on best practices, we will be leveraging the "nearest neighbor" cognitive functions that will essentially borrow our knowledge from previous slightly similar interfaces.
Think of an Online Shopping Cart. Who do you think will put more effort into designing the Shopping Cart Experience? You, or Amazon? So why not use theirs as an example for yours? This is why roads and subways look similar. This is why all cars have similar controls. Or you can invest a boatload of cash and create this Mercedes, which is super cool, but I have no idea how to drive it.
My main concern when working on a new product is to do my best to make it a successful product. Success means people using it, and to achieve it, there are a few things we need to make sure the product has at the very beginning.
The adapted Maslow Hierarchy of Usability, lists these three things in this order:
It needs to work properly.
A decent look and feel to inspire trust.
A decent user experience so that people can find their way.
For each of these items, at the very first stages of a product, the 80/20 approach should get you rolling. After that, I'd invest in going above 80% on in this order:
Make it work to close to 100% (aka fix the most critical bugs)
Invest in a better UX, and here we are talking about repeating the process and identifying the UX methods that will give us the best ROI for the remaining 20% for the least amount of effort?
Invest in updating the look and feel.
UX is a nice buzzword and of utmost importance, but it makes more sense to lean heavily on best practices instead of following all the shiny new things about UX for most products, especially in their early stages.
Product Owners and UX Professionals need to be much more focused on the business side of the products.
Keep in mind that what matters is putting a working product in front of the largest possible audience. That's what makes "shiny things."