Lessons in #UX: It’s not about “channels”, it’s about doing things

I’ve been in lots of business meetings discussing mobile and/or tablet “strategies” lately, and I often shake my head at what I hear proposed by people who, frankly, should know better. Too many of these proposals are about features and channels and devices, and that’s a great way of think about things… if it was 1994 and the #1 tech company was Microsoft. As I glance over at my desk calendar, I note that it’s now 2012 and the #1 tech company is currently Apple.

Times have changed.

I love features, and as a technologist I also love the latest and greatest gadgets. But when I hear people talking about “channels” and how they should focus on one particular channel to gain market share I sometimes reply, forcefully, “It’s not about channels, it’s about doing things.” Users arent technology geeks, or product managers… they just want to do things quickly and simply. They don’t think like companies or (way too many) product designers do.

Two examples, and both are “cross channel” experiences. Example one: I, like many people, use iTunes to organize my music and media. I am a “tweaker,” and I like to update the metadata of my collection to be as accurate as possible. I even go to Wikipedia to make sure the genre that I assign a particular artist is correct (I know, but I can’t help it, I’m a tad ADD). As a tool, iTunes has been incredibly useful in this effort and I have been a (mostly) happy user of the app.

Then I started using iTunes Match, the cloud-based service that helps me sync my music collection across devices.

And it royally screwed things up.

I would make a change in a listing (genre, artist, etc.) and then I’d come back later and see my change went away and things reverted back to the way it was before. How? Because the older data in the “cloud” was apparently more important than my newer revision. Here you have a “cross-channel” experience that as a user experience professional I understood and, when it worked, appreciated. But as a user, it was (and is) a frustrating experience.

The lesson? I think the iTunes Match team, like many product managers I work with, have focused on the wrong thing – the cloud, not the end-user experience. Most users don’t care how things like this work, they just want it to not screw up and “break” stuff they have and use. If I change something, I want it to stay changed. Period.

Example number two: Dropbox has a very simple offering, a syncing service that (like iTunes Match) keeps certain files the user selects synced across multiple computers. That’s it. It’s simple, and just works. It has become a vital part of my workflow, and supports my day-to-day work and personal activities because it doesn’t overcomplicate things. It does one thing very well and (here’s the important part) gets out-of-the-way. It works across channel, across device, and does a great job.

Final thoughts: When it comes to designing solutions for users, the challenge and the opportunity is to align with what they need to do and give them tools to help them do it. I have often told my peers that this is the hard part of user experience design, and that creating UI screens is easy. I say that because you have to really focus on making an offering that “fits” with how people think and do things, and the only way that “channels” matter is the context of use… WHEN and WHERE the user accesses your solution.

Any additional emphasis on “channels” should be limited to business presentations and financial planning.