Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 February 2019

Interactive strategy pushes the button

An entire generation has grown up with the internet, and therefore takes it for granted. So it is important for companies to engage with them on that very basis.
The Middle East’s young demographic composition grew up with the internet and is enthusiastic for digital products. Abedin Taherkenareh / EPA
The Middle East’s young demographic composition grew up with the internet and is enthusiastic for digital products. Abedin Taherkenareh / EPA

Digital natives — people who have grown up with the internet and have known only the digital era — now form the largest target audience for most businesses. As a result, the most far-sighted companies will develop products and services with the specific needs and wants of digital natives in mind, not least their tendency to buy lifestyles, not just products. To accomplish this mission, these companies will need to adopt a human-centred design (HCD) approach which places these users at the very heart of its philosophy.

In the Middle East, the outlook is promising because of its large young demographic. Some 40 per cent of the population is under 40 years old, making them a generation that has grown up with the internet and is enthusiastic for digital products, particularly from the Middle East.

The human-centred approach has four principal attributes. 

First, it is intuitive. It is a long time since the average digital native studied a user manual. Products need to be easy to use straight out of the box. Apple is one company which has mastered this art. People do not need manuals to use its products. The objective for any company seeking to emulate Apple’s success is to bridge the gap between what users already know, and what they need to know to operate the product. 

Second, HCD should be focused. Users are looking for products that serve a very specific purpose. Bundling services is no longer the way forward. The history of Instagram offers an example. Before it became the phenomenon it is today, its functionalities were embedded within a much broader application called Burbn, which facilitated socialising and taking pictures. Burbn’s low adoption rates and user research led its co-founders to turn it into Instagram, the focused photo app that sold for US$1 billion less than two years later.

Third, HCD should be consistent with the technology experience already familiar to users. Digital natives have set ideas about how apps should behave and what websites should look like. Departing too far from established precedents may therefore alienate users. Facebook understood the importance of adapting to established practices by integrating tagging, hashtags and lists into its functionalities after Twitter’s popularity had made them mainstream.

Fourth, HCD should eventually lead to products that are delightful, involving instant gratification for users. Products should resonate with users, invoking a positive emotional response, exciting them at every touch point. Take, for example, US-based Polar, a social polling app. Luke Wroblewski, Polar’s CEO and co-founder, infused the app with small touches that made the process of collecting and sharing opinion fun, such as having the company’s polar bear mascot dangle from the top of the mobile screen.

Players in the region are following suit and have started differentiating themselves and integrating HCD design attributes into their offerings. CityGuard, an app that allows Abu Dhabi residents to report incidents, is easy to use: capture, report, follow up. Marka VIP, a shopping portal app with an elegant user interface and seamless user experience, provides access to designer brands at discounted prices. With offices in Beirut and Dubai, Anghami, which allows users to find music, get recommendations, build a library and share songs through social media, is providing more than just a service. The effort to create a fun experience has given Anghami a large user base that promotes and recommends it.  

To develop products and services through HCD, companies will require an adjusted work process that is highly attentive to user needs. This process must be fast-moving, open-minded and flexible. It should always maintain its focus on generating energy, excitement and emotional response from users.

Companies should engage users throughout this entire process by observing them in real-life settings. They should test ideas and designs with them. Making use of existing quantitative data is a good way to start understanding the user base. 

The resulting research should then enable companies to devise personas which represent the user types that the product is likely to attract. To ensure that user needs remain central to the process, assumptions and new ideas can then be tested against these personas. 

Low-fidelity prototypes allow this testing process to get started quickly. These prototypes are simple and incomplete, but sufficient to elicit an initial response to broad concepts. Once this minimum viable product is launched, companies should continue to test and iterate in rapid succession. 

User testing insights can then be incorporated into the prototype, ensuring that the design process never veers off track. If the product design is not working, companies should face reality and start again. But they should never lose sight of the need for the product to forge an emotional connection with the user.

HCD is an essential feature of any digital strategy. It entails a new approach, recasting the existing digital culture. If successful, HCD has the potential to provide a company with a following of loyal and happy users who preach the value of its services to everybody they know. If the burgeoning Middle East tech sector is to supply the digital products the region demands, it will need to ensure those products understand what it means to be human.

The authors are Samer Bohsali, partner, Abdulkader Lamaa, principal, and Krystal Kougioumtzi, user experience designer, at Strategy& (formerly Booz & Company)

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Updated: April 25, 2015 04:00 AM