Sunday, August 10, 2008

Sustainable Product Design: Terry Swack on the Importance of User Experience

UX shapes approach to "green" product design ...

"A 25-year veteran of the design and technology industries, Terry Swack hopped on the Internet bus a little earlier that most of us. As founder, in 1994, of web strategy firm TSDesign, and later Green Building Blocks and BlueEgg, she has witnessed firsthand consumers' enthusiasm for (and resistance to) adopting new green products and technologies. She now heads up Clean Culture, a customer experience research and strategy consultancy focused on making clean tech and sustainable products more understandable and desirable. We asked Terry how the concept of user experience has helped shape her approach to product design.

SLM: What's "user experience strategy" and how can companies harness it to drive product sales in the environmental arena?

Terry: Also referred to as "customer experience strategy" or "customer-centered strategy," "user experience strategy" involves creating products and services based on a deep understanding of who your target users will be. You've got to begin with an understanding of the people for whom you're creating the product to know what would be most relevent, useful or appealing. Typically this process results in some redefinition of the product, or the discovery of a new user group, or "segment," within the market that might become the focus for the product. By better understanding the needs and challenges of your target user you can create a product that best meets the market need.

Green Building Blocks.com is a great example of this process. I first became interesting in green building in 2005, when increasing homeowner demand for green building began to outstrip the industry's ability to deliver qualified services, and building professionals could see building green as a profitable new trend. At events and conferences I met plenty of architects, designers, builders and contractors who wanted to build green, but to do so had to acquire a lot of new knowledge about process, collaboration and products. I created Green Building Blocks based on my understanding of these professionals, who needed the ability to source, evaluate and contact other qualified professionals to collaborate with on projects. The site enables them to build an online profile that includes a description of their company, all their credentials (education, certifications, specializations) and relevant experience around building green, plus a portfolio of their projects with case studies and images. Today it's by far the largest directory of residential green building professionals anywhere."

SLM: Your first company, TSDesign, was an Internet strategy and product design firm founded in 1994 the infancy of the Web. Do you see any parallels between our initial adoption of Internet technology and any barriers to adopting greener product technologies?

Terry: Yes, as a matter of fact it's these similarities that prompted me to start Clean Culture. New technology trends are generally started by the technologists, but they can only take it so far. Technologists started building web sites, but by around 1994-5, people began to realize that more folks than just programmers were needed to build a successful online business. You needed business and design people to make something that people would want, use and pay for. The challenge to adopting any new technology is, first, creating something useful, and then explaining to people what it is and why they'd want it. How do you demystify the benefits of technology? People don't really care how stuff works they care about what they can get done or how their life will be made better by using your product. It's the same challenge with green tech. A whole range of people and skills are required to make new clean and greentech products useful, understandable and desirable.

SLM: How does a consumer-oriented website like BlueEgg.com help "power the demand for clean and green products and services"?

Terry: When I founded The Beam [now BlueEgg] in 2005, the initial focus was on teaching people about clean energy and energy efficiency through a very mainstream consumer brand experience. The site's collection of Web 2.0 technologies and tools provided something for everyone consumers, manufacturers, and green building service providers. The idea came from watching the tremendous investment growth in the cleantech space, but realizing consumers had no idea of what existed today, what was coming, or what could even be possible in the future. Because of this lack of awareness, demand for clean and green products hadn't been there. The goal was to show consumers the realities and possibilities to enable them to make better purchase decisions. The other side is that the makers of clean and green products want to sell their products in places where there are qualified leads, i.e. educated and motivated consumers. In essence, we designed an online space that both creates more demand and helps fulfill that demand. We've since broadened the content portion of the site to reach a larger, mainstream audience. There's a lot of educating and motivating to do to move people from apathy to action. That's the impetus for me to work on Clean Culture to better understand what needs to happen in both the consumer space and the manufacturing space so there will be more great green products that people will want to buy."    (Continued via Sustainable Life Media)    [Usability Resources]

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