What’s with all the hype around AirBnB? Booking.com makes it much more effortless to book your stay and if you are lucky, you can get some insane discounts.
Both apps, or the portals behind them, serve the same user need: „I would like to stay overnight at a foreign location“. However, both have a wildly different mission statement and completely different user interfaces. Resulting from that, they have defined their focus areas totally different. UX Designers who are working with Lean UX or the Centigrade-approach Continuous UX are consistently building their user experience concepts based on a suitable Persona. But if both apps are building on top of the same user need, how can they be so different from each other?
The answer is as straightforward as it is frustrating: knowing the user need does not necessarily deliver the best solution. At this point, you have to be creative. This is what AirBnB and Booking. com perfectly show.
Booking. com’s team interpreted the User Need “I would like to cheaply stay at a foreign location” with the obvious solution “I would like to book a hotel”. The concept of hotels is well known and offers a giant, lucrative market. The strategy of Booking. com is playing with the vastness and sheer size of the sector. By directly meeting the user needs of tourists looking for a hotel, they have basically implemented a search engine that is specifically catered towards hotels. Booking. com even displays how many other users booked a specific room in the last hour. This not only shows the popularity of the hotel but gives the feeling that you are getting a real head start by acting quickly. All of those are great ideas for their goals.
AirBnB however interpreted that same user need with a fresher look. They did not jump onto the hotel bandwagon but concentrated on the ancient principle of hospitality and formed their user need to something along the lines of “I would like to be the guest of someone at a foreign place”. The result is an idea that formed a whole new market.
Both portals are useful and successful – this example just illustrates how one can develop completely different solutions although the goals and needs of their users are so similar. Design is still not a science, even when we strive to put our decisions on a stable foundation, do User Research and try to analyze our results both quantitatively and qualitatively. All those steps on the road to a stable and well thought out user interface are a great deal of work and always carry the risk of misinterpretation. This makes it hard to conserve creative freedom, which is why I would like to stimulate a debate on how to keep our ideas and freedom while working within the constraints and requirements of a conceptual and UX designer.
The term „ideation“ always sounds esoterically mysterious –like divine inspiration or a talented genius. This is because an idea can be so powerful and trend-setting. The right idea can be a game changer for a whole market and can informally spread from mind to mind if it is catchy and good, like in the case of AirBnB.
I do not want to imply any designer has no ideas. As a designer, but also as a programmer or project lead, you always have ideas because you always have to solve specific problems. Be it problems like “The user does not understand what this button does. Can we label it better?” or problems that are only loosely related to the outcome of a project like “Because of dependencies to other teams, we cannot complete the sprint task. How can we break this blockage?”. Each and every link of the chain that is software engineering is confronted daily with its own larger or smaller problems and develops ideas on how to solve them. Additionally, there are many requirements the various team members request or requirements that are pouring out of the product specification on the designer. Because of all that, it is not rare that fulfilling all requirements on paper is considered an achievement. Being “feature complete” just does not cut it in most cases. Ultimately, this is why we add UX designers in a project.
My point is that between all these challenges and the potential risk of deciding for a too obvious solution in a crucial moment, you could always miss that one “game changer”. AirBnB had the courage to not follow the established path and was able to stir up a whole industry. It is not enough to just solve the small and big problems in order to let the end product stick out from the mass or to fascinate the management for more project budget – you need the courage to move into open waters, swimming past the quickest solution. What is needed is a vision, a direction on which everything else can be measured. You need a powerful leap which catapults the team as a whole in the right direction.
Innovation driver: UX?
A designer is expected to be creative – especially in the wide world of apps and services. If, however, industrial machinery, a medical device or other hardware is developed, most people will expect an engineer to be the leading force in innovation. In universities, scientists are thought to be the drivers of innovation, in the Silicon Valley, it probably is the hacker or computer scientist …
In the end, it does not matter whose idea it was. According to design thinking methods, good ideas only emerge if people with completely different perspectives and backgrounds brainstorm together. The “inventor myth” and the resulting egomania of a single genius has no place in a real development team. That is why it would be wrong to expect a single role to come up with the idea. However, it is of utmost importance to have someone in the project team who makes room for ideation, consolidates the perspectives of different people and facilitates the opportunity to innovate, especially in adverse circumstances.
It is not really a surprise that giants of innovation like Google have a completely different work ethos for recruiting and product development. They are trying to create freedom using the infrastructure and professional environment in order to motivate people to get together, discuss their problems and start new projects.
Sadly, project teams that are not part of a multi-billion dollar company rarely have the financial means or resources to do something like this, but one can imitate the systematics of Google and company by taking a look at their methods:
- Consolidate different perspectives
- Create a forum for brainstorming
- Try different directions
At Centigrade, we used this basis to develop the format of “concept ideation workshops” – a method to give all important stakeholders the opportunity to add their existing solutions and ideas and to develop and discuss new ideas at the beginning of a project, as soon as the requirements are defined.
It is important to not lose sight of another problem during this process: The user is (usually) not a participant of the workshops. Although he is the most important stakeholder, he does not have a voice in the project. That is why it is one of the most important responsibilities of a UX designer to immerse him or herself into the users’ perspective and making sure the users’ needs are not forgotten in the discussions. The persona the product is designed for must not be forgotten during ideation. If UX designers want to enable the user to have a great experience, their attention need to be directed to making sure the team not only works towards “feature completeness” but sets higher goals. This is why UX designers may have more responsibilities in driving ideation and innovation than other disciplines in a team.
Getting the team on board
The concept ideation workshop does not only allow ideas to be birthed in the first place but also facilitates their survival. There are many reasons why ideas die and are never implemented.
One obvious “idea killer” is if the technology that is used limits the development team. On the other hand, this can inspire teams to try out brand new technologies or even (if there is enough budget and know-how) develop new ones.
It sometimes happens that the ideation yields bad ideas, despite good methodology, that do not withstand the comparison with real needs, the current situation of the market or a “sanity-check” after taking counsel with one’s pillow. These ideas need to die in dignity.
The tragic side shows if good ideas stifle because the project team does not act in concert, if openness for new directions is missing, because egos clash or because existing solutions are preferred over new ones. This can happen in the best teams and no one can be blamed for that. It is natural that tried and tested solutions get favorited over an immature idea. These problems can be tackled by integrating all stakeholders in the ideation, especially those with deviating ideas or skepticism towards the solutions, by giving them the opportunity to weigh in in order to develop those immature ideas together.
As mentioned above, it is helpful to integrate different perspectives into the brainstorming. From our experience at Centigrade, it never happened that contrary positions made the collaborative ideation impossible. If you address the fears of stakeholders immediately and add them to the list of requirements, the idea profits, thus relaxing any angst-burdened stakeholders and giving them the opportunity to embark on the collaboratively developed idea.
Do not lose sight of your goals
With all the arguments for freedom and creativity, it is obvious that no UX designer or product owner wants to waste their time with daydreams. A balance between project deadlines, budgets and business goals needs to be struck during ideation. This balancing act can’t be held during the whole duration of the project, which is why we introduced a short but mandatory ideation phase, in which the goals of the persona are reduced to only the most important user stories, thus allowing ideas inside these boundaries. (If you would like to learn more about the methodology and the Concept Ideation Workshop, you can partake in our workshop).
The goal of this ideation phase is formulating a fundamental idea, a concept metaphor or a specific mental model of the persona. This basis in turn allows to faithfully develop one user story after the other, with the knowledge that you are iterating on a groundbreaking idea. This (on paper, at least) easy trick relieves a lot of stress in the next phase of design. If there is a fundamental idea in which everybody in the team believes, the following development of user needs of additional MVPs or micro-interactions is a lot easier, because everything can be geared towards this idea.
AirBnB’s features theoretically are not that different to Booking anymore. Both apps allow you to filter by date of arrival, location and number of persons; both allow you to create a „wish list“ and both allow you to read reviews. AirBnB connects all of this with concepts of social networks by introducing the guests and hosts and lettings them connect with each other to book or celebrate the individuality of their housing. It is important to leave room to such ideas to enable them to prosper because a new and innovative idea automatically spreads out across the whole interface and lifts it up above other products. This potential should be exhausted instead of stifling it.
For more information concerning ideation and design check our website.