How business rules affect user experience

Discussions around user experience design are often limited to the visible characteristics of an isolated product or service, and mostly to those products or services delivered through an interface. Rightly so, core components like usefulness, usability, and aesthetics are top-of-mind, or at least they’re starting to be. Generally speaking, we can see these things and account for them in design.

But what about what’s left to operate in the background? What about the things we’re often required to accommodate for and ‘design around’?

Enter the business rules of any organization.

Understanding business rules

According to Wikipedia, a business rule is a rule that defines or constrains some aspect of business and always resolves to either true or false. Business rules are intended to assert business structure or to control or influence the behavior of the business.

In order for a statement to be a business rule it needs to tell you whether you may or may not do something, or give you the situation and steps for making a decision.

Understanding UX

The first step in exploring how business rules can affect user experience is to understand that UX is a feeling, or outcome. The experience is really the way someone feels after using your product or service or interacting with the business in a more general sense.

I like to think of it this way:

UX belongs to the user. It’s how they feel. It’s their experience and how what you’ve designed makes them feel. We can influence UX but we can’t control it.

Sample rules and implications

Speaking in a digital product or service context, let’s look at the following business rules and how they might change the way people feel:

  • Shipping. Determining how (or if) shipping costs are passed on to customers is a business rule set on a retailer-by-retailer basis. From completely free to free after a certain threshold to flat and variable rates, shipping charges vary greatly. Paying for shipping, especially when the associated charges aren’t clear until the end of the purchase process, can result in a diminished experience.

  • Pricing. Similar to the first example, pricing is a business constraint that has the potential to frustrate and confuse customers. Tiered pricing (‘MSRP’, ‘our price’, ‘sale’, and ‘clearance’) isn’t consistent but is often critical to the decision-making process and always accounted for in design.

  • Account creation. How many times have you started an account creation form, or any form for that matter, and wondered why the business needed your middle name? Or that you enter your first and last name in separate fields? While it’s not always the case, there’s likely a constraint or business rule dictating that this data be submitted.

Put the above examples together and imagine an online shopping experience where you had to pay an uncertain amount for shipping, were unclear about pricing, and had to go through an arduous account creation process. Fair to say you wouldn’t feel too positive and are likely to move on quickly.

Business rules go well beyond what I’ve mentioned in this post. What’s common is that they have the potential to change a user’s experience for better or worse and go much deeper than what we often consider part of UX. As UX practitioners and stewards of ‘what it feels like’ to use a digital product or service we have a certain degree of responsibility to identify and address the impact of business rules.


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