Local Maxima in UX
What is 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
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:
- Find your local maximum’s exact position by optimizing your design until changes no longer yield desired results.
- Start using a user-centered design process such as design thinking, thereby:
- 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: https://www.interaction-design.org/courses/design-thinking-the-beginner-s-guide
This article provides valuable insights through an example about how to notice and overcome local maxima of UX: https://uxdesign.cc/how-to-overcome-product-local-maximum-d9bf9b31b8ab
Here’s another, highly incisive and example-rich piece exploring possibilities for tackling local maxima of UX: https://conversionxl.com/blog/local-maximum/
See how Facebook handled local maxima: https://www.90percentofeverything.com/2011/01/06/local-maxima-and-the-perils-of-data-driven-design/Read this in-depth example of how one brand aimed past its local maximum to achieve a global one: https://blog.fullstory.com/local-to-global-maxima/
Literature on Local Maxima in UX
The 7 Factors that Influence User Experience
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Design Thinking: A Quick Overview
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