Sustainable UX: the rising tide that lifts all boats

part of a graph showing The value of top task based customer experience design

By Tim Wouters, senior UX Designer at Internet Architects

Last week we completed our co-hosted event in Antwerp to celebrate World Usability Day. The main theme for this edition was ‘Sustainable UX’, a multi-faceted topic that will no doubt become even more important over the coming years as businesses and organisations seek to incorporate user experience in their daily operations.

Amongst the myriad ways in which sustainability applies to UX, we chose to focus on building durable and reusable building blocks (‘components’) as the foundation for a robust user interface.


Picture of people in a workshopOur Internet Architects colleague Clovis Six animating an interactive workshop around reusable UI components


Not only is this approach core to every website or app we design, it’s also part of our wider belief that great customer experiences are not built overnight, nor are they built in one smooth operation starting with a solid plan and culminating in a superb edifice where everyone can move in, live their lives and do their thing.


photo of hotel in DubaiImage credit:


Unfortunately, that’s how lots of UX design projects are conceived. Huge requirement documents aim to set budgets, timelines and scope in stone. This holds up to humanity’s natural belief that everything can be organised, classified and planned for.

But as anyone with more than a couple of years of experience in the field will tell you, this approach is flawed, ineffective and expensive. There is no way to build the perfect solution from day one, because human behaviour is unpredictable and volatile, so the outcome of our design efforts is inherently uncertain regardless of how much expertise you throw at it.

This is backed up by numbers too: Forrester research showed that only 25% of CX professionals say that their companies’ CX efforts actually improve customer experience; Avaya found that 81% of organisations fail to deliver on their customer experience programmes.

So why do so many initiatives fail while the stock markets clearly show that investing in customer experience pays off?


1. Ride the tide, not the waves

Websites, apps and their underlying technologies all too often live along a wave pattern: built up as a single monolith with a fixed scope and huge upfront costs, then riding the ‘useful lifespan wave’ until they are considered outdated, amortised, updated with another big release, or someone simply decides it’s time to replace them. This is then the sign to throw out the old and bring in the new, to build another wave adapted to the ‘cutting edge’ of today’s standards.


Capturing customer value through big releases, leading to value attrition over time.


It goes without saying that this approach has a high risk of putting your product in a position of competitive disadvantage:

  • Because of the high upfront investment, organisations are not motivated to change a design if it proves to be ineffective or not meeting its projected goals. And the competition continues to plough forward in the meantime.
  • In many cases, the team that created the original solution is disbanded after the go-live, making it difficult to implement complex changes after the fact.
  • Completely replacing existing designs or technologies (the ‘tabula rasa’ approach) puts you at risk of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. To make worse what already worked, causing existing users to revolt against what is known as a ‘redesign disaster’.

If you’re serious about your customer journey, you’re better off aiming for the long run. Starting small. Testing out the waters. Keeping launch costs under control. Then gradually adding layers of functionality as customer feedback and data start pouring in. This ‘rising tide’ approach builds upon what’s already in place and has proven its worth (durability), it allows you to throw out and adapt what doesn’t work (agility) and keeps you less attached to the status quo (opportunity cost).

graph showing customer value through continuous improvement at a sustainable pace

Capturing customer value through continuous improvement at a sustainable pace


To do this right, though, we need to embrace the inherent uncertainty behind customer experience design, and reinforce our design processes with a number of checks and balances to avoid misconceptions and wrong decisions. Which brings us to our next point.


2. Get your priorities straight

As a wise man once said, there’s no worse way of designing a product than to put a bunch of smart people in a room with lattes. Emboldened by their respective areas of expertise, and however well intended, each one will defend their own priorities, experiences and biases. Which might result in your continuous improvement roadmap looking more like this:

graph showing The danger of opinion-based customer experience design
The danger of opinion-based customer experience design


Honestly: when was the last time you were asked to ‘put news and campaigns prominently on the home page’? Even if you know for sure that all users want is to find the right contact person for their problem? And when was the last time your UX design project was cancelled because ‘priorities have shifted’?

In the end, the most sustainable solutions are the ones that get to market, are actually used, contribute to the bottom line and continue to gain new users over time. And the best way to ensure immediate user adoption and ongoing satisfaction is to align your roadmap with the things your customers value the most. We call these priorities ‘top tasks’:

graph showing The value of top task based customer experience design
The value of top task based customer experience design


By prioritising value creation, new solutions will reach ‘good enough’ (MVP) status faster, users are less likely to churn because of ‘missing features’, and your product will not suffer as much if budgets become depleted half way through.

How do you define these priorities? By asking your customers. The beauty of knowing what to prioritise is that every other decision down the development chain can be based on these top tasks: roadmap decisions, technology acquisitions, business processes and change management. Which brings us to our next point.


3. Don’t outrun your business capabilities

As much as it pays off to focus on the customer experience in UX design, there’s always an implicit danger of leaving your organisation behind. If the business model doesn’t fit with the desired customer experience, or there are no business processes in place to support and maintain a new service (fulfilment, customer support), costs will rise to critical levels and user experience will ultimately be impacted as well.

This is the flip-side of customer experience design: it needs to be sustainable on the business level as well. A rising tide needs to lift all boats, not drown some unexpecting sailors in the process.


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