In today’s competitive market, delivering an outstanding user experience (UX) is critical for product success. A well-designed UX can lead to higher user satisfaction, increased engagement, and ultimately, improved brand loyalty. But how can product designers, developers, and organizations create user experiences that truly stand out and make a lasting impression on users? In this interview series, we are talking to UX professionals, product designers, developers, and thought leaders to explore “The 5 Best Ways to Elevate Your Product’s User Experience.” As part of this series, we had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Joe Kleinwaechter.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before diving in, our readers would love to learn more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Asa software developer and later leader, I always seemed to be assigned with projects that were meant to take a company in a different direction or change its trajectory. These were typically small teams that were a bit isolated from what everyone else was doing. With a fairly healthful passion for the cognitive sciences, I was typically the one on the team that was most interested in solving the right problem rather than creating the coolest technology, so I was the one in the field asking all the questions and trying to see what they needed rather than what they wanted. After years of getting kicked in the shins by salespeople for the questions I would ask, I soon realized that I needed to add rigor to my passion and became a student of the practice that is now known as UX. And here we are.
Do you have any mentors or experiences that have particularly influenced your approach to product development and user experience?
I am not one that really has any heroes. I find that everyone has something important to teach me and I’m just trying to make sure I find out what it is. It’s kind of a game. I do have two great thinkers that have greatly affected the way I operate today. Marcus Buckingham dramatically affected my leadership style from the very first moment I read “First Break All the Rules.” I was so excited when I joined ADP to learn that Marcus was on staff here. The other person I totally geek out on is Daniel Kahneman, the father of behavioral economics. Things really clicked for me in explaining a lot of the paradoxes I had seen in my early research with users of our products.
It has been said that our mistakes can sometimes be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting?
Wow, you are really taxing my memory to recall when I first started. Before the days of cell phones, I worked on a product that was much like the old Push-to-Talk walkie-talkies, except our cell radio would allow you to connect to anyone else in the US. These were exclusively designed for emergency first responders to aid in disaster situations. One of the challenges back then was how to hand off a call between two cell towers at high rates of speed. Our spec said we had to properly hand off a call at 95MPH. I think you know what my testing plan looked like. I got in the car and headed for a rural road with a radio in hand. You would have thought that the officer that pulled me over would have been more lenient knowing I was testing a device that would benefit him. I learned a lot about taking test plans literally and that simulators, while less fun, can save you from a ticket.
What do you feel has been your ‘career-defining’ moment?
I once applied for a job heading up a fairly new team that was trying to design a really cool device management system for ATMs across the globe. The problem is that this project had languished for many years. As I was told the first day I started, “If we had a compiler that could turn Powerpoint into code, we’d be in great shape”. I knew this project was three years late when I started and that many others had failed, but that’s what got me excited. I was going to be the guy that turned the ship around. My ego was writing checks that I couldn’t cash. There were very good reasons why the others had failed. These weren’t slouches before me — they were smart people. I guess I thought I was smarter. In a year and a half, my shortest job stint came to an end. While we made some progress, it was not nearly enough. The system itself was set up to fail and my ego fell for the trap.
To this day, before I enter a project that has a sordid history, I look much deeper into the context. I do my own research on why it truly failed and whether those conditions are still at play or not. I’ve learned which projects to stay away from unless the context is malleable. I’ve learned the most dangerous time in a leader’s mind is when they just came off of a great success.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
It wasn’t when I first started, but rather midway. As an engineering leader, I had the fortune of having some incredibly talented teams, particularly at a startup that became successful. One day my boss, who was also a close friend asked me to parlay that by leading a product that we had acquired and was having a very difficult time making successful. Many others had tried and lost the battle. After a year of leading unsuccessfully, just like the others before me, my boss called me into his office and told me I was being put on a “special project.” We all know what that means. It put me into a two-week identity crisis until one day I decided that I wasn’t going to look for another job. Instead, I was going to treat this assignment as if it were the most important job at the company. One year later, I surprised everyone that thought I was supposed to leave the company and was asked to create the very first UX team for the company.
Shortly after that I recall having my first conversation with our new COO and had asked him what is the first thing he looked for when hiring talent. He said, “Body blows.” If a leader hasn’t faced an existential work crisis and shown they can respond to that in a powerful way, they are not ready to work for him. I never forgot those two words.
How do you prioritize user experience when developing a new product, and what steps do you take to ensure that the final product meets the needs and expectations of your target users?
Well, that’s easy. Since I head up UX for our company I always prioritize user experience above everything else. At ADP, our tagline is Always Designing for People. When you have a company that is so focused on design that they are willing to put it out there for all to see, the job of prioritizing is much easier.
When developing a new product we really focus on the Triad model of Viable, Feasible, and Desirable. That means that product, UX, and dev leaders are tied at the hip from the very beginning. This wasn’t always true. We came from being a service-led organization and are well on our journey to becoming a design-led technology company. It is a pretty big mind shift and I am very proud of how fast that has happened.
Ensuring the product meets the needs of our target users is all about iterative evaluation. Develop the hypothesis, and test the hypothesis with the target audience as soon as possible—and frequently. Pivot as needed. It’s really not that hard. Gone are the days of big surprises where you weren’t sure if your product was going to work as the customer expected as they were brought in early to test prototypes.
Can you share any strategies you have for effectively gathering and analyzing user feedback?
There are so many, but it really revolves around one fundamental idea—get the science right. The one challenge in UX is that everyone rightfully has an opinion on what is good or bad. They also have those opinions backed by over 300 different cognitive biases. We often have to face those opinions with “we don’t need research, it’s obvious.” I hate the word obvious. Yes, sometimes you can make a bet on something that is less risky than others, but nothing is obvious when it comes to truly understanding what a consumer needs until you collect the data. Therefore, whatever research we do, it has to meet the rigors of being challenged. If we don’t do the science right, our results are no better than another’s opinion. Do the science. The insights will follow.
Can you share an example of a time when you received user feedback that prompted you to make significant changes to a product’s user experience, and how did you approach incorporating that feedback into the development process?
When credit card merchants were making the big switch to chip-based cards, most of the terminals had to be bootstrapped with a new software core. This could only be done by inserting a USB device into the bottom of the payment terminal, and then a subsequent lengthy download of new software. Our UX team had written elaborate instructions on how to carry out this multi-step process that was then piloted with a number of our clients. This would normally be a fairly straightforward process. Not paying attention close enough attention to the demographics, we failed to recognize that a large part of our population were mom-and-pop store owners that were much older than Genpop. We soon learned that inserting the small USB device was fairly difficult, especially for those with impaired motor skills. We also recognized that many of our customers lived in very remote places where they were using satellite or extremely slow and unreliable connections. The probability of the download failing became way too likely at this slow rate and found that these folks couldn’t get the software to download.
Both of these were physical/technical situations but were a core part of the experience. We had to switch to a larger USB device and restructure the download process with the expectation that things would get dropped and have to pick up where we left off.
How do you balance the need for simplicity and ease of use with more complex or advanced features in a product, and what strategies do you use to make sure that users can navigate those features without getting overwhelmed?
Ah, this is one of my favorite topics as it is one challenge that is especially prevalent at ADP, where we are trying to solve similar problems for companies with 5 employees as well as those with 60,000 or more. We’ve developed this internal operational model we call “progressive complexity.” It would take a while to go through what is involved, but at its heart is a strict understanding and focus on the true Jobs-To-Be-Done.
JTBD, in the Ulwick definition and if defined properly, stay static for a very long period of time. What changes is the technology that serves them and the UX to serve them up. So there are indeed jobs that are the same for the 5-person company as there are for the 60,000-person company. Yes, a lot of things are very different in how they get accomplished due to things like specialization of roles, compliance regulations, etc. but by and large we are just trying to transfer money from a company to an individual in response to work being done. Progressive complexity is the mapping of these common JTBD with each new complexity that is encountered as the company gets larger. It’s not digital steps, but rather continual adaptation.
What are some of the strategies you’ve used to make your product ‘stickier’ and increase user retention?
I hate the word “sticky.” Spider-webs are sticky. Cotton candy is sticky. Unless you work at 3M, very few adults like sticky. I once worked for a company that made bill-paying software for banks. This was a loss-leader for banks that they were willing to take on because once the user got caught up in putting in all their bills they soon discovered that they were stuck with the bank because the work to unwind it was painful. When I left, I managed to get people to stop talking about sticky by instead substituting the word “hostage” with sticky. It worked.
The best way to increase user retention is to simply help the users crush their jobs better than your competition. That’s part of our team’s vision: “Deliver trusted experiences that help people crush their jobs.” We live that every single day. Then, and only then, can you get to the part of the hierarchy of needs where the software is personal and meaningful to them.
In your experience, what are some of the most effective ways to measure the success of a product’s user experience, and how can this data be used to continuously improve the product over time?
The only way you can measure the success of the product’s user experience is through job outcomes. Anything else is just potential success. We, like many others, have chosen to adopt the Google HEART framework as it allows for the measurement of what we truly believe are the critical few outcomes. It also gives us the flexibility to define what we should measure to come up with HEART scoring as our products all have different critical points.
Based on your experience, what are your “5 Best Ways to Elevate Your Product’s User Experience”?
- Hire insatiably curious people. Curiosity solves a lot of ills in product development. People are never satisfied, they listen far more than others, and their drive to learn more is very contagious.
- Don’t restrict design to just UX. Yes, we are the ones responsible for the final design quality and typically are the ones with the final artwork, research data, and content. Let your product managers or developers draw prototypes of what they are thinking. Let them tell you about some “research” they did on their own. They are just ideating, and even if the idea or data is untenable, it is very likely that there is something you will discover in the interaction. It is often in these interactions and struggles that they will also grow to see what makes a UXer special in their craft.
- Fight with all that you have to ensure there is no blockage between you and the consumer of your product. I have been a big fan of Teresa Torres since the day she first started writing. Her models on Continuous Discovery are spot on. Her goal of talking to at least one customer every week is in the heart of every UXer but is often blocked through bureaucracy or the complexity of a company, especially as it gets bigger. Find a model that gets you there. It is imperative.
- While there is great art in innovation and design, stay true to the scientific method of building a hypothesis, testing, learning, and adapting over and again. Keep in mind that we really have to know how to properly measure and how important disproving a hypothesis is in the path to getting it right.
- Fall in love with the problem, not the solution. Once you create a design, it is no longer yours. Seek criticism, accept challenges, and don’t stop until you truly solve the problem at the level that it needs to be solved. If you see your solution as you, you will have a miserable experience in this field.
Is there a person in the world with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why?
It would definitely have to be with the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra and author of my favorite book, “The Art of Possibility,” Ben Zander. Ben radically changed my worldview of converting from a scarcity mindset to one of abundance. I stopped thinking about zero-sum games. I now often play the piano with one butt-cheek off of the seat. I talk to my teams and have invited them to the exercise of giving an A at the start of the year. I look for shiny eyes. Truly an amazing thinker.
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