Product Principles: Relationships Are Everything

Editor’s note: This is the fourth post in a seven-part series from Levvel’s Product Innovation team that details the critical product principles the team lives by. Also see parts one, two, and three.

If you ask most people, they’ll tell you that user experience (UX) is about things like pixels, colors, margins, and wireframes. But if you look more closely, you’ll see that UX is really about relationships. While mockups and wireframes are the visible artifacts of those relationships, how the artifacts are created and why is really what drives product success.

UX is a sum of the relationships between the application and the user, the designer and the business, and the team members with each other.

Product and User

Designing a product, especially one with an interface, is about designing a conversation. The recent explosion of conversational interfaces and chatbots on platforms like Facebook Messenger, Alexa, and Google Home has only made that conversation more literal. Graphical user interfaces have always been conversations.

A user approaches an application for a reason. They have a question that they think the application can help them answer. They silently ask the application this question and the application answers with a mix of interface and content. Every user gesture, click, and eye movement is a question or a statement. Every application input, graphic, and content element is a response. The sum of the tacit questions and responses between the user and the application is a conversation.

When we have conversations with other people, we appreciate clear, concise, and considerate answers to our questions. They make us feel respected, understood, and capable. A thoughtful conversation strengthens our relationship with the other party. A thoughtless one is rude.

That concept rings true whether the party we’re talking to is a person or an application. A well designed user interface anticipates the questions and concerns a user will have, providing clear and relevant answers.

Well-executed UX is a great conversation that strengthens our relationship with an app. Bad UX is rude.

Design and Business

To produce a well-designed experience, there needs to be trust between the business and the product team. There has to be shared investment in business and user goals across disciplines to achieve a proper marriage between the two. The designer should care about business goals as much as the stakeholders do, and the stakeholders should care about the customers’ experience just as much as the designer does.

The business and design teams have different areas of expertise. There needs to be a stable and respectful relationship between the two groups if everybody’s skills are going to be put to good use.

How many times have you been on a project where the UX designer knows that what they’re designing is awful UX? The only reason they’re implementing it instead of what they know is right is because they don’t have the right relationship with their business counterparts. Either they have no voice, or they are too afraid to speak up. This type of relationship means the designer’s talents can’t be leveraged to their full potential.

Stakeholders with Each Other

At Levvel, we run product strategy workshops with our clients. One of the key components of these workshops is to build consensus between stakeholders. Sometimes, this is a piece of cake. Other times, it feels like marriage counseling. It all depends on the relationship the stakeholders have with each other. Building a strong working relationship between the stakeholders is job number one. Without it, the project is instantly in critical danger of failing.

If you have ever been on a project where stakeholders had competing visions, or worse yet, did so secretly, you know how hard it is to get momentum. Every time the team starts to make progress, some new information is introduced and you’re back to square one. The team gets restless and loses focus, and it’s hard to tell why. This happens when stakeholders aren’t communicating—the root cause is a poor relationship.

The way we solve the relationship problem is by having the team focus on the customer rather than themselves. We help people take the focus off of themselves and onto an objective measure of customer success. It’s not about my position versus your position, it’s about the customer. Our workshops are about aligning focus around the customer by creating an atmosphere of intellectual safety between stakeholders.

The Business and the Customer

This leads us to our last and most important relationship: the relationship between the business and the customer. You don’t have a business if you don’t have customers, so this relationship is the most critical. Consider that your product is really an extension of your direct relationship with your customer, which cuts across many touch points. Your relationship with your customers can only thrive when supported by all of the other relationships mentioned here. In order to create products that hit the sweet spot of where business and customer needs intersect, you have to have internal alignment on those needs.

Are team members at all levels of your organization aligned with each other on how to solve problems for the customer? The answer will determine how well your products contribute to a great customer relationship, especially as it pertains to people on the front lines. That same alignment is critical to enabling great team member interactions with your customers. Disney has mastered this by empowering their team members to solve their customers’ problems and create happiness at every level of their organization. Zappos is another company that has mastered this concept.

Your Relationships

What does your relationship with your customers look like? Are you listening to them and respecting their time? Does that respect show through in thoughtful UX across the customer experience? What about your team? Do different teams at your company have competing agendas? Can a stronger working relationship help you create better products?

Think about these relationships and ask how you can make them better. Ultimately, technology problems are just people problems in disguise. If you want to get the product right, get the relationships right first, because relationships are everything.

Devin Smith

Devin Smith

Product Innovation Director

Devin Smith has 12 years of experience in UX design and front-end development across a plethora of industries including advertising, retail, and banking. When not working on product strategy and UX, Devin is creating artwork, practicing kung fu, and hanging out with his family.

Assaf Weinberg

Assaf Weinberg

Product Innovation Practice Lead

Assaf leads Levvel’s Product Innovation Practice. He has over 15 years of experience in Product Management, UX, and web technologies across industries including banking, travel, and manufacturing.