In a field where technology and computer science are the disciplines of focus – it’s easy to imagine that user experience is an afterthought or at least tends to be less important. While it’s true that we spend much of our time looking at recent advancements in video compression, encryption, or analytics – most of our product development time is spent trying to get the user experience that wraps all of this wonderful technology together correctly.
This is never more true than when I’m on the road talking with customers. Often the dialog turns from “wouldn’t it be cool if…” to “how would user’s make use of…”. This comes as no surprise when you’re developing technology that seeks to augment human-centered behaviors – collaboration and team building with your colleagues, for instance. The design of the technology needs to be human-centered as well and if you get this wrong it can be devastating to your product. By way of example, take a look at some of the bad UX that’s been built into wireless collaboration products here.
I was on a call with an AV magazine editor recently and the conversation centered primarily on user experience. They asked me, probably for the first time, “What is the Mersive’s approach to user experience design, and why has it been successful?” It led me to think about our design process and what might be learned from it. I always hesitate to talk about design with authority. I am a technologist that cares about design-led thinking, but I’m certainly not an expert. So please don’t think of this as a Manifesto (Bruce Mau has done a much better job here) or a replacement for the incredible resources out there in academics. As a great example – take a read through Ben Shneiderman’s “Leonardo’s Laptop: Human Needs and the new Computing Technologies”. Having shared all of this, I thought it’d be interesting to share a few of the steps in our design process as a lens into how an aggressive, disruptive technology startup stays connected to human-centered needs throughout our development cycle, from the innovative spark to the final test cycle.
Design Dialog – Continuous Investigation
I’ve talked about how important a company’s relationship with its customers can be when it comes to understanding their needs and how you, as a company, can address them. This isn’t a design stage we pass through, but more of a precondition for everything else. If you can engage with your customers in a way that creates an honest dialog, you’ll be able to directly discover opportunities for your product to amaze people. The key here is to continuously discuss, share, and speculate about your own road map ideas with key customers. Each of these dialogues become miniature market research studies that are incredible contextual and informed. If you’ve read my past blog posts on data-driven decision making, you’ll know that I prefer continuous investigation over slower-paced, crafted, statistical research programs that tend to generalize needs from something acute and exciting (when described by a real user) into something mundane.
If you maintain the right dialogue with your customers, you’ll create a fertile ground for designing features and products that by definition will be based in the reality of a real customer community. While it’s sometimes time consuming (our approach to annotation emerged from a dialogue with over 100 customers, requiring at least 10 on-site meetings, and over a period of several years) – this work yields a pipeline of innovative ideas that can move to the next stage of design whenever they emerge.
The Design Workshop
Once a feature comes into focus from a series of design dialogues – it’s time to turn concepts into a real artifact. Mersive does this through what we call the “Design Workshop.” You enter the workshop phase with the “big” ideas already locked in, based on what you and your customer conversations have already decided. This big picture is outlined as a series of storyboards, details about the “must haves,” and a general sketch of the workflow. This provides a framework for an intense deep-dive design workshop that will result, in a short amount of time, in a full prototype. Workshops involve all the folks from Mersive to build a complete product – this includes our design team (of course), at least one developer, a product manager, a test engineer (It has to work!), and sometimes myself (to represent the design dialogue).
The ground rules are simple:
- Everyone contributes. It’s a collaboration among peers to finalize details.
- Expertise and roles are clearly defined. This one is important and can act as a valid balance to the first point. Each member of the team is an expert in a specific area (that’s why they are there), so when our chief architect comments of software architecture – it probably won’t be questioned by a designer. This is how teams go from a group of individuals to highly functioning, trusting groups who can make fast work of a new design. When you get the right balance of active contributions from everyone – and the trust of your experts – real magic can happen.
- Focus is important. A space should be dedicated to the workshop where sticky notes, drawings, inspirational music, half-eaten Chinese food, or whatever the team needs can be untouched until the workshop ends. The workshop team should only be focused on the workshop, no time slicing.
- No open ends. Everything is discussed and a decision is made. These discussions include everything from the proper software architecture to the final details around UX iconography, emotive themes in the experience, or functional workflows.
- Don’t settle for a partly built prototype. The goal is a working prototype that represents the final product.
Workshops can range from four hours to two weeks and they can be intense – often running 10-13 hours a day. The outcome enables the next and potentially most important step of the process – the Demo.
Live and Interactive Demos
Demoing products is not about ego (Look at what we can do!), or even about sales. While your sales teams may want to demonstrate features as part of the sales process – interactive, live demos of your product are one of the best ways to collect even more feedback about your design. If you’ve attended one of our InfoComm events, you’ve seen me demonstrating different prototypes. If you meet with us at this stage, often I’ll bring a prototype and ask you to use it. Each time I demonstrate the prototype, my goal is to gauge responses and reactions from the audience. What are people reacting to? What are they less excited about?
Now that you have a prototype – your design inquiry can get very real. No more abstract questions. Instead, you can observe users making use of the product. What you want to see are those ah ha!moments. When a user grabs their own phone and can use it to mark up a slide live in front of their colleagues, you can ask yourself, “Is there real joy? Excitement? What was missed? What was overbuilt? What leads to confusion?”
The answers to these questions will take you to the final stage, in what is really a never-ending loop.
Rapid Iteration with Real Users in the Loop
This is the step where you must be willing to interrogate your own design. In light of what you’re learning from interactive demonstrations and real-world use of either the prototype or your released product, it’s time to reassess and modify. I don’t think Mersive has ever released an important feature and simply left it alone. Instead, you must fail fast and iterate with your customers.
Iteration often occurs with traditional product development, but many times it’s simply not fast enough. It’s important that the dialog between you and your users includes the product itself. This means your pacing has to be reasonable (notice I use the word dialogue and not release cycle). This can be difficult. For example, we found that users of our product wanted to sort their displays in a different way than we had anticipated, so we iterated the Solstice discovery panel to add a sort/search field that rapidly went from concept to the interactive demo stage within weeks.
These four stages of design development served us well. There are obviously other activities that need to take place, but we’ve found these stages anchor design in a way that brings about real innovation to customers who have may have struggled with some compelling problems for years. I’d like to think we’re still improving our process as we grow, but these principles will always remain the same.