The great UX fraud: when ‘user-centric’ is really ‘business-centric’ and why you need to stop pretending

I’m going to say something quite controversial for an experience strategist; sometimes it’s actually OK not to follow a purely user-centric process. Don’t get me wrong – it would be great if we could all afford great research and maximum creativity based purely on what users need, but those kinds of ambitions are not always helpful for the diverse range of businesses across Australia. However, because user-centricity has become such a part of the corporate agenda, there are many businesses who are clearly not ready to commit to a fully user-centric approach but feel the need to pretend that they are. I’d prefer to help businesses to adopt the right approach based on what they can successfully implement, which is how everybody wins.


Let’s be clear; ‘user-centric’ means that the absolute starting point is for us to say to customers  ‘if you could have what you want, what would that be?’ We do this before we look at technical and business requirements, before the business has predetermined the most plausible return on investment for a predetermined product or service. When we ask customers what they want, the research techniques are designed in such a way that users don’t give us a literal solution but they reveal needs that are not currently being met. Then we kick into a ‘design thinking’ process and determine a solution. The insight we gain from users allows us to quickly develop multiple low-fidelity prototypes (‘divergent thinking’) before we refine the most promising product or service that delivers on both user and business needs (‘convergent thinking’), iteratively testing that we are hitting the mark with users. The business and technical requirements are developed out of what the user wants.


Fraudulent UX means that businesses are claiming to be user-centric while not taking this approach. Often they will claim to be ‘thinking about the user’ when making decisions, when the process is really a business-centric team guessing at what a user may want. UX fraud damages not just outcomes, but relationships;  those with customers, those with colleagues and those with great design talent.


However not all business-centric approaches mean that a product will be badly designed or that it operates without user insight, as I explain below.


When you should follow a full user-centric approach


If you want to follow a truly user-centric approach because you want to create a new product or service or you don’t know why an existing one isn’t working, you will need to be able to meet the following requirements:


  • You have the budget, time and experts to conduct discovery research with users
  • You can wait to lock down the solution until this research has been conducted and the design team has had the opportunity to develop and test multiple possible solutions with users
  • You can iteratively test the solution with users as you go and pivot if it doesn’t hit the mark
  • You have enough organisational discipline to prevent the opinions of stakeholders overruling the opinions of users and UX experts
  • You may be looking to disrupt the industry and are prepared to try something new

The benefit of this approach is that you will open up multiple opportunities to design something new and something that resonates with your users in the deepest possible way. True excellence emerges from this approach.


When you can improve usability while still being business-centric


‘Business-centric’ means that we start with a locked set of technical and business requirements and not user research. This can only result in a good user experience when we are already certain that the product is the right one but suspect it isn’t the most pleasurable to use, deciding to improve the usability of the product only. We would still test the solution with users as we build it, to ensure it is usable, but we don’t need to research which needs are not being met by the product because, ideally, the business knows this. We are refining a winning idea. This approach is best used in the following scenarios:


  • You have a product that definitely fulfills a very clear need but it’s difficult to use because of poor design choices. Ideally you have evidence to support this
  • The technical restrictions are non-negotiable but reasonably flexible from a front-end perspective
  • You have no real desire to disrupt your industry but want a user-friendly product
  • You have extremely knowledgeable stakeholders running the project, ones who have experience designing successful products with design teams, and design teams who are solid in their knowledge of UX best practice
  • You have the budget to test the usability of the product with users

There is nothing wrong with this approach if you meet the requirements above. Sometimes it is the only feasible one.


When business-centricity hurts the user


Sometimes you can be business-centric in all the wrong ways, making it extremely difficult to create a solution that any user would need. This is the kind of business-centricity that creates bad products and services:


  • The budgets determine that proper research or design thinking will not be included, not because it isn’t needed, but because it isn’t valued
  • Partnerships internally and externally have meant that certain technical and business solutions are a given, regardless of whether they are the right ones
  • There is a clear risk aversion within the business, which leads to a tendency to fear any insight that might point to a new solution
  • Dominant stakeholders control the process, negating the needs of users in favour of their political needs and ignoring UX experts
  • Workshops with stakeholders who have an opinion about how users *might* feel is genuinely seen as an adequate replacement for research with users

Don’t be fraudulent, just be more realistic


The most fraudulent approach is to never research the needs of the user in any capacity and to guess at what they want, while claiming you are user-centric.  Maintaining that you are ‘thinking about the user’ when creating your products and services is what any business with a customer has done since the dawn of time. This cannot be called user-centric. If you do, it is tantamount to UX fraud. The best thing to do in this scenario is to change your expectations about outcomes. You need to remove the unreasonable expectation that the product will still miraculously resonate with users and pivot the entire business to be a leader in its field, without ever having researched with your users.


If you are practicing business-centricity and managing to create usable products by testing as you go, that’s something to be proud of. Maybe that’s enough for now, until you decide to change your products and services. When you do that, you may need to bite the bullet and change your budgets, stakeholders and processes to include more research and design thinking in order to progress to full user-centricity.