skype redesign launched in June 2017
PHOTO: Microsoft

Skype has once again been making the news, following Microsoft’s Aug. 31 announcement that a redesign was coming, roughly a year after the last one. A look at the decisions and events that led Microsoft to change course with Skype offers a product design object lesson.

Skype’s 2017 redesign was met with a lot of backlash, as Sarah Perez recently reported in TechCrunch. Hoping to appeal to a younger demographic, Perez explained, Microsoft had given Skype “a colorful, Snapchat-inspired makeover which included its own version of ‘stories,’” but the changes just “cluttered the user experience with features no one had asked for or needed.” Now, according to Perez, Microsoft says that it’s going to “refocus on simplicity — and it’s ditching stories.”

The 2017 redesign had shown early signs of failure. “Ratings of the Skype app on Apple’s App Store have plummeted worldwide since the new Skype launched,” Tom Warren wrote in The Verge in July 2017. In the UK App Store, Warren reported, “Skype is now rated at just 1 star,” and in the US ratings had fallen from 3.5 stars to just 1.5 stars.

Product Designers Know: The User Comes First

The predicament Microsoft got itself into with Skype should serve a warning to any business engaged in product design. Coming up with a poor design or skipping most of the user-centered steps in the design process can hurt a company’s ability to meet DevOps goals, such as satisfying customer needs by building the right product. All of the beautifully-planned sprints and IT triumphs are for naught when a product fails in the eyes of the user.

If a large company like Microsoft can get something so wrong, it could happen to companies of all sizes. It’s important to understand what happened and learn from this unfortunate public disaster.

The first thing to understand is that the following three principles are essential to product design success:

  • The company must value the user over the business.
  • The company must respect its product designers, normally a user experience (UX) practitioner or team, and it must give UX professionals all of the time, money, personnel, tools and other resources they require.
  • The company must hire expert, experienced UX specialists, and it should avoid giving UX tasks to non-experts or people in non-UX roles.

Related Article: How to Ensure Your Product Roadmap Embraces Facts, Not Fallacy

Product Design Requires More Than Good Intentions

When it undertook the 2017 Skype redesign, Microsoft’s intention was to value the user over the business. It was prepared to spend time and money on the redesign. It believed that Snapchat-style features would bring them more customers and spur an increase in usage. But despite those good intentions, it looks as though its redesign process may have been broken.

A proper UX process might have ended the 2017 redesign before it started.

Companies need to get UX practitioners involved in the product design process from the very beginning. And it is important for UX specialists to begin working with the product as soon as there are feature concepts or ideas.

Companies sometimes don’t include UX professionals in their early product design discussions out of fear that they will try to kill or modify the project. Rather than seeing UX’s input as a negative, businesses of all sizes should recognize the benefits their UX teams bring to every step of the process. A proper and thorough user-oriented product design process undertaken by UX specialists can save companies time and money and help them avoid backlash, outrage, social media cleanup and rolling heads.

Killing or modifying a project before it gets too far along can be a good move. It certainly seems as though killing the 2017 Skype redesign would have been a great internal decision on Microsoft’s part.

One of the reasons it is important to get the user experience team involved early on is because the UX process normally includes checks and balances to get the product right. Among other things, UX professionals want to see data that reveals customer pain points, needs and frustrations.

For example, even if there was data that showed that a certain percentage of Skype users love Snapchat, that wouldn’t mean that those users want Skype to become Snapchat. In a situation like that, UX researchers would have undertaken a research project to collect the data that would best inform all relevant teams. It’s possible that Microsoft bypassed that step, because research may have indicated that turning Skype into Snapchat was not what current or potential customers wanted.

With eyes on younger users, Skype’s product managers might have requested that the UX team just wireframe a Snapchat clone. But even then, it’s also possible Microsoft excluded or circumvented the UX team, assuming that product managers or graphic designers creating wireframes was enough of a UX approach.

Related Article: How Product Life Cycle Design Impacts Customer Experience

User Testing Can Reveal Mistakes

Even if internal decision-makers tell UX what to create, or even if a company leaves UX out of the product design process altogether, companies can still engage in user testing of the designs. Even when companies don’t budget time or money for UX research, user testing can validate or invalidate hypotheses and ideas. UX can mock up or prototype the features and test them on real or archetypal customers.

User testing should happen before developers write a line of code. That way, engineering can do its job productively and efficiently by not developing and deploying something that was not vetted in user testing.

User testing will also shine a spotlight on the software methodologies that may not have included UX specialists, perhaps out of concern that UX professionals can be too siloed or that they are poor collaborators with engineering and difficult to schedule. Skype’s situation reminds us that the better path is to break down silos, improve collaboration, and involve the UX team early so they can get the time they need. Additionally, trying to “save” money by circumventing or shortening the UX process can cost a company much more in other areas.

The Skype example highlights what happens when UX practitioners are not brought into the product and software development process at all points where they are necessary. More and more companies are learning that UX is a piece of the puzzle that can’t be left out, skimped on or handed to non-experts.