Local Maxima in UX

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What are Local Maxima in UX?

Local maxima of UX are points where designs seem to have optimal user experience but truly have room for improvement. Design teams can get stuck on them when they blindly react to data to improve design features. A user-centered design approach can overcome local maxima and help produce better, more innovative designs.

“You can achieve a shallow local maximum with A/B testing – but you’ll never win hearts and minds.”

— Jeff Atwood, Software developer, author & entrepreneur

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Learn how to spot local maxima of UX and get off the “hill” so you can reach the “mountaintop”.

Local Maxima are Warning Signs

Local maxima are the highest points organizations reach in their designs when they’re data-driven rather than data-informed. This means they let data from (e.g.) user testing guide the decision-making process, as opposed to leveraging that data more carefully. It’s easy to take data at face value and draw assumptions about what to fix in a design. It’s harder to view that data as part of a wider context. Consequently, brands fall into the trap of assuming they can optimize their products from what appears to be a reliable baseline.

Local maxima typically occur in user experience (UX) design as symptoms that design teams have failed to start with a good-enough design. A local maximum appears as—initially—the highest point on the graph where Results and Strategy are axes. In a UX context, a brand will have found that users appreciate its product and worked with the data from (e.g.) A/B testing to validate its strategy. It fine-tunes and pushes to improve its design until it reaches what appears to be maximum payoff. The brand continues laboring under the illusion that more of the same effort and style/size of changes will bring more success. If it keeps to its original strategy of improving the design based on the data it receives from testing, it may view the local maximum as a point from which to ideate successful design tweaks. However, the danger is the brand will continue reacting to the data and back itself into a design dead-end, therefore disconnecting itself even more from its users. Without taking the initiative to re-examine its strategy and discover how to approach improving the UX effectively, it risks end up stagnating with a failing product.

How to Get Past Local Maxima and Climb Real Summits

Brands should strive to push beyond local maxima of UX and reach the true maximum of successful UX design. So, instead of tweaking each troublesome element to help users, their focus should be the users themselves and their real-world, human contexts. This is the mindset for breaking away from the tendency to focus on low-hanging fruit and take incremental steps in ultimately not-so-good directions. Larger organizations such as Amazon and Google can afford to follow a cycle of smaller improvements. They have the userbase to support frequent and ultra-fast usability testing. Smaller organizations lack this luxury – tests must run for longer, thereby delaying iteration. The challenge for designers is to find the right balance between working reactively from hard facts from tests and proactively adopting innovative measures where appropriate.

To realize the full potential of your existing design’s UX, you should:

  1. Find your local maximum’s exact position by optimizing your design until changes no longer yield desired results.

  2. Start using a user-centered design process such as design thinking, thereby:

    1. Empathizing with your users via, e.g., customer journey maps

    2. Defining their needs and problems via, e.g., personas

    3. Ideating to think outside the box using, e.g., brainstorming

    4. Prototyping

    5. Testing

  3. Continue iteratively until dramatic improvements stop occurring.

Overall, remember – you’re working in a complex, interconnected user-centric design space. This means finding out, for example, users’ higher-level goals and what obstacles they face on their user journeys. In your design sprints, think about the users and their real-world activities instead of your design’s elements and the low-hanging fruit. Once you shift your approach to consider the data rather than rely on it, you’ll find yourself moving beyond your local maxima of UX. You’ll then have the “big maxima” in sight: those massive wins where your team has applied the right measure of innovation and optimization to your design’s UX – insightfully, ingeniously and successfully.

Learn More about Local Maxima of UX

Take our course on Design Thinking for a solid foundation to overcome local maxima of UX.

This article provides valuable insights through an example about how to notice and overcome local maxima of UX.

Here’s another, highly incisive and example-rich piece exploring possibilities for tackling local maxima of UX.

See how Facebook handled local maxima.

Read this in-depth example of how one brand aimed past its local maximum to achieve a global one.

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Literature on Local Maxima in UX

Here’s the entire UX literature on Local Maxima in UX by the Interaction Design Foundation, collated in one place:

Learn more about Local Maxima in UX

Take a deep dive into Local Maxima in UX with our course Design Thinking: The Ultimate Guide .

Some of the world’s leading brands, such as Apple, Google, Samsung, and General Electric, have rapidly adopted the design thinking approach, and design thinking is being taught at leading universities around the world, including Stanford d.school, Harvard, and MIT. What is design thinking, and why is it so popular and effective?

Design Thinking is not exclusive to designers—all great innovators in literature, art, music, science, engineering and business have practiced it. So, why call it Design Thinking? Well, that’s because design work processes help us systematically extract, teach, learn and apply human-centered techniques to solve problems in a creative and innovative way—in our designs, businesses, countries and lives. And that’s what makes it so special.

The overall goal of this design thinking course is to help you design better products, services, processes, strategies, spaces, architecture, and experiences. Design thinking helps you and your team develop practical and innovative solutions for your problems. It is a human-focused, prototype-driven, innovative design process. Through this course, you will develop a solid understanding of the fundamental phases and methods in design thinking, and you will learn how to implement your newfound knowledge in your professional work life. We will give you lots of examples; we will go into case studies, videos, and other useful material, all of which will help you dive further into design thinking. In fact, this course also includes exclusive video content that we've produced in partnership with design leaders like Alan Dix, William Hudson and Frank Spillers!

This course contains a series of practical exercises that build on one another to create a complete design thinking project. The exercises are optional, but you’ll get invaluable hands-on experience with the methods you encounter in this course if you complete them, because they will teach you to take your first steps as a design thinking practitioner. What’s equally important is you can use your work as a case study for your portfolio to showcase your abilities to future employers! A portfolio is essential if you want to step into or move ahead in a career in the world of human-centered design.

Design thinking methods and strategies belong at every level of the design process. However, design thinking is not an exclusive property of designers—all great innovators in literature, art, music, science, engineering, and business have practiced it. What’s special about design thinking is that designers and designers’ work processes can help us systematically extract, teach, learn, and apply these human-centered techniques in solving problems in a creative and innovative way—in our designs, in our businesses, in our countries, and in our lives.

That means that design thinking is not only for designers but also for creative employees, freelancers, and business leaders. It’s for anyone who seeks to infuse an approach to innovation that is powerful, effective and broadly accessible, one that can be integrated into every level of an organization, product, or service so as to drive new alternatives for businesses and society.

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