As a UX design company, we believe business objectives should be accomplished by reducing friction and creating simple, yet compelling, ways to improve the user experience. We’ve developed the Objective-Based Design (OBD) philosophy to deliver ongoing value to any project or business through iterative research, strategy and design. OBD is not just for designers—it’s a way of thinking that anyone can use—including you.

The idea is to focus on your business objectives and work backwards to determine strategies that will accomplish them. Your objectives can relate to huge goals or a simple growth project. A key ingredient to this process is identifying friction. Friction hinders your customers’ journey and it holds the secret to how you can design solutions to improve their experience.

This introduction post to OBD will help you discover your greatest friction points, brainstorm and implement strategies to improve the user experience, track the results and iterate your way to success.

Objective-Based Design helps you make creative decisions to achieve business objectives.

What Is Your Objective?

The first step in the process is to define your objective and validate it. Your objective should relate to the part of your customer lifecycle that has the most potential to push your business forward. For example, you may want to increase user acquisition for your sales team or reduce user churn to increase average lifetime value. Either way, start with your best guess based on your current performance and user feedback. Once you land on your objective, you can use it to identify areas of friction to pinpoint clear opportunities for improvement.

Research:  Find Your Users’ Friction

Research helps to validate your primary objective. Through surveys, observation and market research you can identify what is causing your users’ friction. Then you’ll soon discover that there’s opportunity to improve it.  It’s vital that you gain insight into the current state of your users’ experience so you can determine why you’re creating strategies. Without first identifying friction, you’re just making your design different, not better for your users.

The first step in uncovering your users’ friction is to analyze your quantitative data. Dig into web analytics, funnel analytics, event tracking and heat mapping tools to gain data-driven insights into what’s holding your users back. Go deeper by looking at your lead-to-close performance ratio, or your churn rate.

Next, use these insights to drive your qualitative research. Start by having conversations with users, both those who did and did not experience friction. Simple questions, such as, “What drove your purchase decision?” or “What held you back from upgrading?” should provide interesting, helpful insights. Employ on-page surveys for quick feedback about the immediate experience and form-based surveys for more comprehensive feedback on their overall experience. For hyper-detailed audience analysis, implement online, or in-person, user testing to help uncover additional friction points that the quantitative research did not uncover.

The Formula for Better App Design

Research will validate your objective and identify where you should focus your efforts to achieve better results. For instance, you might have been focusing on increasing user acquisition, but user data and feedback show that the greatest opportunity for improvement is user retention. In this case, your research should focus on the friction causing churn.

The research phase of OBD allows you to create a hypothesis around each primary friction point, which we call breakthroughs. Breakthroughs drive the strategy phase by spotlighting all of the opportunities to improve the user experience.

Strategy: Create, Queue & Prioritize Experiments

In the strategy phase of OBD, your research fuels ideas on how to reduce friction and create a better experience for your users. You can achieve this through brainstorming sessions with the whole team, including stakeholders, designers, strategists, developers and other roles, such as marketers, product owners, etc. Using the research breakthroughs as fodder, discuss ideas to improve the user experience. Use stickies or a whiteboard to record these ideas in the form of experiments. An experiment can be a big or small evolution to the current user experience. Once implemented and measured, you should be able to determine if an experiment helped you achieve your objective.

In order to prioritize your best ideas, you must assign a value to each experiment. On a 1-10 scale, score both your estimated effort (time and/or money) and potential impact (on the objective) of each experiment. To create a value, just divide the potential impact by the estimated effort.

Calculate the value for each experiment with this simple formula.

For instance: If experiment A was a 9 effort and 5 potential impact, it would have a value of 0.56. If experiment B was a 3 effort and 8 potential impact, it would have a value of 2.67. That means that experiment B is more likely to succeed with less effort.

Your organized list of scored experiments becomes your queue. The queue holds all current and future strategies to accomplish your objective. The final step of strategy is selecting what experiments to implement in the current iteration of OBD. Sort your queue by value. Then, select the experiments to implement that will make the largest impact within your time and budget constraints. The remaining experiments stay queued for future OBD iterations.

Implement: Test Your Theory

It’s time to put your strategies to the test. The implementation phase should reflect your own design process, whether you have an in-house team or an external design partner. At Digital Telepathy, we wireframe, create design mockups, then develop and test before pushing complex experiments live. For smaller experiments on existing products, we may prototype using existing style guides and go live as fast as possible. No matter what your process is, the goal is to release your experiments quickly while avoiding disruptions to your userbase.

It’s critical that your quantitative and qualitative measurement points for testing the experiments are firmly in place. Make sure to annotate Google Analytics, add new events or funnels, and prep qualitative questions to assess the new experience.

Measure: Are We Winning Yet?

The measurement phase of OBD gives you the opportunity to collect and analyze your data to determine the effectiveness of each experiment. In most cases, successful experiments should remain as part of the experience. You can revert the design of failed experiments back to the original experience or evolve it in the next iteration of implementation. It’s up to you based on your iteration speed and your users’ tolerance for experience disruption.

Did you hit your objective in the first cycle of OBD? If you did, either A.) Consider yourself lucky, skip the next section and go buy a lottery ticket, or B.) Aim higher next time. In most cases, you are just getting started, so it’s important to learn as much as you can about why each experiment was a success or a failure. These learnings serve as the foundation for the next iteration of your research.

Iterate. Because Design Is Never Done.

It takes many attempts to design amazing experiences. Using our churn example again, let’s say your objective was decreasing churn by 20 percent and based on the measurement stage, you were only able to accomplish a 5 percent decrease. That’s better than nothing, but there’s still work to do. Since you are a pro now, we’ll keep it brief:

Conduct research to find friction.

Create strategies to accomplish your objective.

Implement experiments.

Measure the impact of your work.

Then iterate as many times as it takes to get at the heart of your user’s friction and reach your objective.

Behind the Design View Reading List

How do you know you’ve accomplished your objective? Although it’s true that design can always be made better, don’t get sucked into the iteration vortex. We use the 80/20 rule. If we accomplish 80 percent of our objective, sometimes we’d rather tackle another big, juicy objective instead of cranking on the last 20 percent. In addition, if you see minimal gains after a few iterations, it may be time to set a fresh objective to make a larger business impact. If you want to be adventurous, add in a second objective and pick experiments that will impact both objectives. Just be warned that the measurement stage gets much more challenging in this mode.

OBD Is A Holistic Approach to Design

Objective-Based Design is a simple, effective way to accomplish your business objectives by improving the user’s experience. Instead of  technical specs and gantt charts, it’s powered by empathy for your customers and alignment within your team. It allows you to work with your customers, employees, stakeholders and partners to gain clarity on what is causing friction and how to design a better experience. Using OBD helps you avoid the paralyzing tunnel vision of task-based projects and forces you to design solutions that impact your objectives and benefit the whole of your business.

Because OBD is iterative, you can start small and begin to see immediate results. Research fuels strategies that turn one dial, or pull one lever, to measurably improve the user experience. The results from those experiments inform future experiments to help solve even the most complex problems. Like links on a chain, one good turn affects the next link. It’s this cycle of setting an objective, finding your users’ friction, strategizing experiments to address this friction and then implementing solutions to squash it that will consistently and holistically solve any business challenge.

We feel it’s important to share the roots of Objective-Based Design. It is a philosophy that we’ve evolved  after more than a decade of experience in the user experience design business and 1,000+ completed projects. In addition, OBD was influenced by many of our favorite business concepts that we have adapted for the design space. Some of these standouts include: the Build, Measure, Learn of The Lean Startup, Brian Balfour’s Growth Machine, The Design Sprint by Google Ventures, Sean Ellis’s early growth hacking concepts and, of course, our early involvement in the Lean UX movement. We were inspired by everything from the methodology of science, to our real world experiences in life and business everyday.

Comments
  • Could not help but get ODB stuck in my head while reading this…

    This is critically relevant to any business who’s mission is to improve the world around it. We’re using it at United Way of San Diego County to create lasting, meaningful change across the community. It works. Doing the most good is just good business, and OBD (or collective impact, as we call it), is an amazing framework to allocate resources to realize your noble cause.

    I’ve learned that data and research should be used as a flashlight to shed light on issues and challenges, not as a hammer to pound them into the ground. Turning outwards and understanding the needs, wants, desires, and values of who you’re serving facilitates a deeper conversation that illuminates where the needle can and should be moved. It’s up to us, then, to decide the methods on how and execute.

    It’s not the easy road. It can be steep, winding, curving – but it is the road that leads to meaningful impact and lasting change. You will have to course correct and make adjustments, but the journey is as equally valuable as the end goal.

    I’m glad this is your philosophy, too. We need more businesses that think this way. (The world would be better for it.)

    • Thanks Christopher. Glad it resonated with you. Thanks for sharing what you guys are up to at United Way.

      Let me know if you ever want to stop by DT.

      • That would be really cool. I visit some friends down at Sweet Labs every now and again, so I’d love to swing by and say ‘hello.’

  • That’s great but really difficult to implement while working with many people.

    • Hey Katrina. Could you expand on that thought?

    • MJ

      Are you indicating large scale like Microsoft/Google?
      I feel like this is geared toward a set team.

      Please expand your thought KM

      • OBD is a process that can be used with small team or across the whole organization. I personally use OBD to manage the vision and direction of DT. Each year I set a series of objectives I want to accomplish. We have quarterly summits to measure the progress, review the latest research, define new or update current strategies and then prioritize what we want to implement that quarter.

        We then use OKRs (Objectives and Key Results made popular by Intel/Google) to distribute the work across our entire team. To get even more meta, some of our team members will use OBD to manage their individual OKRs. We use Trello to manage the entire process.

      • I’ll give this a shot:

        OBD is a process that can be used with small team or across the whole organization. I personally use OBD to manage the vision and direction of DT. Each year I set a series of objectives I want to accomplish. We have quarterly summits to measure the progress, review the latest research, define new or update current strategies and then prioritize what we want to implement that quarter.

        We then use OKRs (Objectives and Key Results made popular by Intel/Google) to distribute the work across our entire team. To get even more meta, some of our team members will use OBD to manage their individual OKRs. We use Trello to manage the entire process.

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  • Jonathan Chacko

    Chuck – this is a stellar article and very insightful. We’ve taken this approach to writing content, value propositions and articles (thanks to the webinars of Marketing Experiments), but not necessarily applied it directly to UX or “design”.

    Katrina mentioned that this is “really difficult to implement while working with many people” and I echo her thoughts. Selecting just one business objective to tackle is hard to do, but that just takes being disciplined and sticking to the process. Trusting the process is hard to do, but the results can so often go contrary to what’s trendy or popular and with many people involved, making decisions that are not trendy/popular feels difficult.

    Thanks for bring this approach to UX.

    • Thanks Jonathan. The beauty of OBD is that it can be applied to anything. I am actually using it to remodel my house right now.

      I’d love to hear your feedback on trying OBD with your design process. Important note, you can have multiple objectives. I purposely kept that out of this post to keep it simple. We’ve been able to manage up to 4-5 objectives. Typically we use small teams (less than 10 people). However, we expand by creating new teams for different objectives. For instance, we may have a marketing and a product team working with a client. Each team has 1-5 objectives they are using OBD to manage.

      It’s quite difficult for any team to focus on many objectives at a time. If you find that you have too many objectives to handle, try making them a little less granular and take a step back. Use the strategy, implement and measure phases to handle the details and KPIs.

    • Thanks Jonathan. The beauty of OBD is that it can be applied to anything. I am actually using it to remodel my house right now.

      I’d love to hear your feedback on trying OBD with your design process. Important note, you can have multiple objectives. I purposely kept that out of this post to keep it simple. We’ve been able to manage up to 4-5 objectives. Typically we use small teams (less than 10 people). However, we expand by creating new teams for different objectives. For instance, we may have a marketing and a product team working with a client. Each team has 1-5 objectives they are using OBD to manage.

      It’s quite difficult for any team to focus on many objectives at a time. If you find that you have too many objectives to handle, try making them a little less granular and take a step back. Use the strategy, implement and measure phases to handle the details and KPIs.

      • Jonathan Chacko

        Thanks for the feedback on this, Chuck!

  • anniesexton

    Great article!

  • anniesexton

    Awesome