When Jon Hadden built his first website, he couldn’t wait to show it to his family. “My mom was finding it hard to use. My brother started asking a lot of questions I couldn’t answer. I thought, ‘Maybe there’s more to this.’”

A couple of jobs later, his employer sent him to the User Interface Summit. At the conference, Hadden realized “I’m not designing for myself. I’d better know who the customers are. I began researching user needs, understanding people, getting to know them.” He calls this approach “empathetic design.”

Customers often come to Hadden to solve a specific business problem: The call center is getting too many calls, there aren’t enough online sales, or online shoppers have items in their shopping cart but abandon the sale. “Those things can be avoided if, when we design a product, we take time to know the customer and meet their needs,” Hadden said.

A turning point for Hadden came when he was working on an internal product used by the client company’s employees every day. “They were doing tasks over and over. It was a very cumbersome process. But their salary depended on how many of the tasks they got done.” Hadden suggested a very simple change. “It didn’t cost much in development, but it increased sales by $11 million in three years,” Hadden said. Better still, he recalled, “When I was sitting next to this lady, describing the change, you could see the joy on her face. She asked, ‘Can you really do that?’

“I left that day feeling like, ‘This is why I am doing this: To make sure these people’s lives are much easier.” Hadden is now Vice-President and Director of User Experience Design and Development for Martin Williams in Minneapolis.

“It seemed like a wonderful opportunity to instill empathetic design in a company whose theme is ‘activating brands.’ The whole brand experience is integrated — that’s what Martin Williams has done since 1947,” Hadden said. “On the digital side, we want to make sure it’s the best product possible to fit in the design experience.”

What kind of background does it take to do user experience design?

You can come from any walk of life as long as you understand the focus. You can have strengths in different areas. The first information architects were librarians — when the Web was invented, they knew how information was organized in a meaningful manner. There are designers that focus most on graphic design but everything they do has an impact on information architecture. One of my acquaintances works at Twitter — he’s 21 years old. He’s a phenomenal coder, but he understands human factors.

What’s your biggest pet peeve when you’re the user?

When I can’t log in and the site locks me out, and I call the help desk and it’s not an actual person but a series of computerized prompts: “Say yes or no. I’m sorry. I didn’t understand you.”

Where do you go from here?

This is someplace I’m looking to set roots in. I can talk to the owner and say, “This is very important,” and he actually listens. [Martin Williams] and other smart companies are saying, “this is an integral part of the digital design process”. When you get people who aren’t familiar with it and you get them into a session — developers and designers who aren’t usually invited — they immediately see the value. □