Innovation and UX: Towards an Adaptive and Motive-Based Approach

UX is more than just key performance indicators (KPIs). Yes, they are helpful for standardized testing or measures of satisfaction, but commonly used UX KPIs do not show the whole picture when assessing user needs and experiences. This is because current UX KPIs like efficiency, satisfaction, and learnability constrain the perspective to the already known and pre-defined UX dimensions. They neglect other at least equally important aspects of the user’s reality. A holistic UX approach is needed that incorporates user needs and motives and allows technical product innovations to be truly human-centered.

The Two Spheres of Innovation

Product innovations can be assessed on two dimensions or “spheres”. The first sphere is the technical sphere of products, most often referred to as the usability perspective. Designers aim for high usability to guarantee that the product fulfills its designated function and provides a positive usage experience.

The second sphere addresses the symbolic dimension. This sphere encompasses the symbolic meanings of products: What does the product and the interaction with it communicate about its user or social group? For instance, a complicated user interface lacking in usability could indicate the user’s savvy and skill level in operating the device. Also it could highlight the user’s progressive mindset and taste, using a product that is cutting edge.

Often product inventions fail due to a narrow focus on just the technical sphere of product innovations. Think of Microsoft’s mp3-player Zune for instance;it offered decent technology and a solid feature set but failed quickly after its launch in 2006 because the market had already been saturated with similar products. So, as previously mentioned, innovations need to go beyond technical assets and address the symbolic sphere to succeed in the market. The importance of the symbolic sphere of a product correlates with the type of product and how it is used in daily life. Recent research by the Hochschule für Technik in Stuttgart, Germany on the analysis of the “sweet spot” for product design innovation indicates that the more visible a product is to the public and the more often it is used, the more relevant its symbolic qualities are to the user.

Manufacturers need product innovations to stand out from competition and get the attention of their customers. This is particularly true for consumer goods like electronics or home appliances where markets are increasingly saturated and products seem to be interchangeable. For instance, washing machines are standard-sized boxes that look similar and have more or less the same feature set. Without looking at the brand logo it’s hard to assign appliances to one brand or the other. Hence, product innovations like the LG Twin Wash or Haier Duo, which combine a double drum for two simultaneous washes in a single device, may act as a major key differentiator. Another example is how the success of the vintage-style SMEG washing machines in many European markets can be attributed to these devices’ one-of-a-kind aesthetics. They not only look different but also cater to many a consumer’s need to transform their bathroom—a primary location of the washing machine—into a more stylish “wellness oasis’’”.

Yet, innovations just for the sake of innovation are not enough. Many technical product developments remain inventions instead of becoming innovations because they fail to be innovative in both spheres.

From Pragmatic to Hedonic to Symbolic

Product development often focuses on the technical sphere of innovation, as do many UX researchers (see Figure 1). Typically, UX evaluations measure pragmatic qualities such as effectiveness, efficiency, controllability, and learnability. They exclusively focus on product usage. Lately some approaches also consider hedonic qualities like stimulation or joy of use that address the appeal of using a product. These approaches take the users’ emotional state into account and thus touch the symbolic sphere. However, they only focus on the impact of the product usage on the self. User identities are also defined by a social dimension and to fully understand the user experience it is critical to incorporate the social dimension into our research and design.

Spectrum of the two spheres as a thermometer. Bottom: Technical sphere and pragmatic qualities which focus on usage. Middle: Hedonic qualities which focus on self. Top: Symbolic sphere with symbolic qualities that focus on social.

Figure 1. The two spheres of innovation, technical and symbolic, relate to different sets of UX KPIs. The technical sphere corresponds with the pragmatic qualities of a product usage. The symbolic sphere transcends the mere product level and relates to the subtler socio-psychological aspects of a user experience.

But what are symbolic qualities of a usage experience that can affect meaning? Symbolic qualities are attributes that go beyond the product features and relate to underlying aspirations and motives of the user; for example, an extraordinarily designed user interface that demonstrates the user’s exquisite taste and avant-garde mindset.

From our perspective, the following symbolic qualities are not yet fully covered by current hedonic attributes:

  • Safety & preservation. Given their conservative mindset, some consumers prefer well-tried and proven ways of operation, for instance, knobs instead of touch screens when it comes to the use of domestic appliances
  • Status-seeking. Some consumers seek an extraordinary tactile experience which can be endorsed by high quality and honest materials such as a leather-coated steering wheel.
  • Caring & sharing. There are consumers who desire a sharing experience when using products, for example a satellite navigation system (sat nav)that can be connected with other cars when driving in a convoy.
  • Self-realization. Other consumers seek product experiences that enable them to live out their creativity. Interestingly, this may result in the need for more instead of less interaction with a product, for instance, a state-of-the-art baking oven equipped with a multitude of predefined one-touch-cooking programs. This mode of interaction may undermine our user’s creativity and might be perceived as patronizing. He would probably opt for a more classic UI (just knobs) instead.
  • Some consumers seek individualistic usage experiences, for instance by using an app that can be customized in many different ways.

How to Capture Symbolic Meaning

Now we have a better understanding of what symbolic qualities are, but how does one identify these symbolic meanings? To answer this question, it’s worthwhile to have a brief look at classic sociological theory about motives.

The sociologist Alfred Schütz, in his book Phenomenology of the Social World, distinguished “in order to’ and “because” motives, to understand the “subjective point of view” and thus the underlying intention of human (inter-)actions.

The first class of motives (in order to motives) describes the purpose of an (inter-)action. This is what is mainly analyzed by current UX researchers: What is the user doing with the product and how can we optimize this (inter-)action?

The second class of motives (“because” motives) reveals the why, the reasoning behind the (inter-)action: Why is the user doing what he does? What is the underlying psychological/symbolic need? In other words, what is driving the user’s actions?

The history of the TouchPad tablet is a good example. Hewlett-Packard developed the technologically powerful TouchPad tablet and launched it in 2011. Tests showed that its user experience regarding operation and performance was excellent. However, only seven weeks after market launch, the production of the TouchPad ceased. Two problems turned out to be substantial:

  • The TouchPad lacked a sufficient market differentiation on the symbolic dimension. Apple’s iPad was already a must-have for people feeling innovative and forward-thinking. So why should they use another tablet for technical reasons only?
  • There weren’t enough apps available for the TouchPad. As a result of this scarcity of apps there was no strong reason to use it.

HP exclusively focused on “in order to” motives and developed a good working, user-friendly tablet that did the job of a laptop. Yet this need was already sufficiently covered by the competition, a product that also provided a multitude of user-friendly apps. By limiting themselves to technical product aspects, HP ignored the users “because”motives for using a tablet; they should have looked for reasons to use a tablet not built by Apple or Samsung. In other words, they neglected the symbolic sphere of their own product invention.

The Great Fun of Vacuum Cleaning

The TouchPad tablet example made it clear that technically oriented UX testing is necessary but not sufficient for product success in a competitive environment. The basics of functionality and technical performance have to be fulfilled, but that is not enough for being successful in the market. Thus common UX KPIs such as time on task, task success rate, or user error rate are appropriate for the testing stage of user-centered design. But it is necessary to go beyond this framework and to understand the underlying “because” motives of the users. Too many products pass the gates of UX tests without becoming really competitive on the market.

Let’s have a look at robot vacuums, a product that is relatively new on the market and is definitely a technical innovation. Let’s assume its interface doesn’t perform well on the dimension, “joy of use.” The R&D team would probably search for a solution within the “joy of use” framework. For example, the KPI performance could be optimized by more guidance on choosing the right program, by a gamification of the interface, or by a bigger display for more information. In other words, the solution is searched within the realm of “joy of use.”

But what if the problem emerges outside this KPI framework and long before the user purchases the robot vacuum cleaner. Say, the user of a robot vacuum doesn’t seek the experience of joy at all. Actually, our user doesn’t want to be bothered with the process of cleaning. In this case, the solution may not be to optimize the KPI performance but to re-define the joy-of-use dimension. A possible solution could be to establish joy by having less interaction with the robot vacuum instead. Thus a user-centric implementation could be a one-button automatic program that minimizes the effort to clean dusty and dirty rugs.

The latter especially accounts for the “lazy convenience seeker.” The “tech savvy perfectionist” in contrast may prefer a complex user interface option. Although both user groups share the same “in order to” motives (“I want a robot vacuum in order to have clean floors at all times and to be released from vacuum cleaning,”) they differ with regard to their “because” motives. The lazy user-type obviously aims at 100% convenience and the entire delegation of chores. More interestingly, the second user type aspires to perfect cleaning results that can only be achieved by using a robot vacuum cleaner with detailed control, setting, and monitoring options. For him, the robot vacuum is a means to highlight technological skills and a forward thinking mindset.

In other words, “in order to” and “because” motives do not necessarily have a 1:1 correspondence. One and the same “in order to” motive may be nourished by different “because” motives—and vice versa!

Towards a Motive-based and Adaptive UX Approach

Against the backdrop of the latter, what can be done to optimize current UX approaches?

The first step is to catch up with the user. UX researchers are quite good in describing how a product is used and perceived. Is it easy to use? Is it appealing? From our experience it’s essential to flip perspectives and to approach product development from the user’s point of view:

  • Why is the product used?
  • Where, how, and how often is it used?
  • What are the expectations of users?
  • Are the needs and motives met by the product?

This helps to find solutions beyond the standard KPIs and common UX dimensions.

The second step is to broaden the horizon of researchers. As practical as standardized KPIs may be, UX researchers should calibrate the framework for each product/category. As Figure 2 shows, we seek to adapt our research setup to each context:

  • Does each KPI correspond to a user’s “in order to” and “because” motive?
  • Is the operationalization suitable for this product/category?
  • Do we have to include further KPIs? Many motives are currently not covered, particularly the “because” dimension (the “why”). Most current KPIs relate to functional needs, but hedonic and symbolic motives become more and more important when it comes to using technical devices.
1. Technical sphere (effectivity, efficiency, controllability, learnabilty) and the symbolic sphere (hedonic qualities, self-esteem, status, preservation). 2. Category and usage context. 3. Adapted ux approach (represented by a cupcake with a cherry on top)

Figure 2. The adaptive UX approach: product category and usage context act as filters that determine which KPIs should be taken into account when assessing the user experience of a certain product.

A third and last recommendation is to spread the word that this adaptive and motive-based thinking not only serves as a blueprint for UX research and testing, but also for product design and development. If R&D’s performance is assessed only on standardized UX KPIs, there is a risk of neglecting innovations beyond this narrow framework. Truly striking innovations often require creative environments that are not domesticated by strict normative structures. Hence, only with an adaptive and motive-based approach are R&D and creatives enabled to leverage ideas outside the standard UX KPI box!

Breuninger, C., Dennig, B., Klein, S. (2016). Innovation and UX: Towards an Adaptive and Motive-Based Approach. User Experience Magazine, 16(4).
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