Defining the Design Problem

You’ve heard it before: design is about solving problems.

Whether it’s building a new playground or developing a mobile app for pet groomers, there are multiple ways to satisfy a project brief. However, in order to design a product that successfully delivers business value, it is critical to first clearly define the design problem.

Ask your clients these three key questions at the start of every project:

  • What is the business objective?
  • What is the context of product use?
  • What are user goals?

What is the business goal?

This is the most critical question that some design teams still don’t ask stakeholders.

Understanding business objectives helps your design because it allows you to drill for more specific information. Follow-up questions can unlock a wealth of insights that influence the design approach:

  • How do you know this is an issue?
  • Who is affected by the issue?
  • When and how often does this occur?
  • What benchmarks do you have and what change do you expect?

Imagine that your client aims to reduce tech support calls for an e-commerce site.

If customers struggle to complete purchases, drilling into root causes might reveal that logging into an account is a major hindrance, or that the website refuses to validate shipping addresses. Interviews with tech support teams can also reveal pain points that customers are experiencing.

Understanding business goals also helps the design team focus and refine work through iterative user testing before full product launch.

For instance, if time on task is expected to decrease by 15% following an interface-lift, that’s a clear target to test against with prototypes.

What is the context of use for this product?

Answers to questions using where, why, when, how often, and so on, describe the context of product use and elucidate multiple design decisions.

At a macro level, context informs what technology should convey the design. At a micro level, context places restraints on interactions and the visual treatment of the interface.

Imagine a food manufacturer who wants his quality control technicians to enter production data (such as oil temperature) on a kiosk-based laptop on the factory floor. On the surface, this is a simple problem. But would this be a wise technology choice if the technicians have to enter multiple production values every five to ten minutes? A tablet that the user can carry would be a better choice given the context of use, but if the client doesn’t volunteer such information, how could the design team know to make this recommendation?

Technology platforms have their own sets of best practices and capabilities. However, designers still have to consider interactions and visual treatment of the interfaces.

For instance, an athlete might count out loud a number of burpees to her smartwatch, yet ambient noise could obscure her voice commands. Similarly, luxurious colors and fancy button animations are suitable for a gaming app but not for a paramedics’ emergency response devices when used at night.

Drill deep to understand the intended context of use by interviewing and observing users in their environment. Do not assume that your client has done the necessary research to uncover the needs of her users, or that she understands the implications of context requirements on the design.

What do users expect?

Business and user goals can be very different. Successful design finds common ground to satisfy them both.

Business stakeholders are often biased or completely naive about their users, making it all the more important to conduct research directly with the intended audience. Understand not only what users need to do, but also what motivates them and what attitudes they have toward their tasks.

When business and user objectives are mapped out, designers should create user flows that support desirable user behavior while satisfying user needs and aligning with their attitudes.

For instance, Amazon prompts shoppers with additional products while at the same time offering hassle-free one-click ordering. Similarly, TurboTax has helped its success by using a clean and playful design that supports users during a task they likely find tedious, unpleasant, or even anxiety-inducing.

That said, a fine line exists between supporting users and driving the client’s business. Calls to action that appear too frequently or lack of information to drive user decisions will fail to satisfy either the users or the business.


Design briefs present a problem that can be solved in different ways.

By investigating business objectives, context of product use, and user goals, you’ll gather necessary data that helps narrow down and refine a single design approach.

Data—rather than assumption-informed design—is the secret sauce of successful business products. You just need to ask the right questions.

This post was originally published here.

Human Factors: The Secret Weapon of Successful Enterprise UX

The business benefits of intuitive, user-friendly and pleasant technologies have been highlighted in various sources, including prominent media outlets like Harvard Business Journal and Forbes. Delivering positive user experiences (UX) is a task for a multidisciplinary team. First, researchers investigate and document the current state of user experience. Then, designers craft solutions to address the pain-points and challenges in the present user experience. And finally, engineers translate designed tools into tangible technology products that yield much improved user experience.

Standard Research Methods Do Not Always Work

The first step in the process of delivering positive user experience is user research. In short, it is a multi-faceted approach to understanding users, business and technology they deal with. Contextual inquiries, surveys, interviews are among the most common user research methods and yield great insights. However, multi-tool, multi-user role, multi-location, multi-step and process situations present much more complex user experience problems. Here, the standard research methods fall short.

When investigating user experience in complex environments, human factors expertise is an absolute must. Human factors is a scientific discipline of understanding how users interact with their environment from psychological as well as physical perspectives. Psychological facets focus on problems like “how does the user remember and execute the exact sequence of buttons to press to initiate a rocket launch?” Physical considerations deal with tangible objects and address questions like “does the size of the buttons on a keyboard allow easy and error-free data entry when user is wearing gloves?” Answering such questions requires training in human factors methods and theories, something that most user experience practitioners do not possess.

What is so special about Human Factors?

Both psychological and physical aspects of technology use matter, and especially so in the enterprise domain. If technology is not optimally designed to prevent errors, speed up data entry, be convenient to carry around and so on, it negatively impacts business operations and can even lead to severe accidents and disasters. Of course, standard user research methods can unveil the need for a streamlined process or improved design of an interface. However, the methods for documenting and quantifying many of the relevant components of user experience, such as critical and non-critical decision points, key-strokes, click-paths, and cognitive fatigue, come from the human factors domain. For instance, human factors experts can quantify exactly and in several different ways how distracted drivers are who text on their phones. Such insights make significant impact on design of enterprise software, especially tools used in industrial environments.

User research in any technology design process is critical. Methods for user research should be selected by experts as they know best what pros and cons of each are, and which ones will help meet the business goal. Human factors expertise may not always be required as part of the user research process, but it sure is a secret weapon when handling complex enterprise operations and technology problems. Make sure your research team has appropriate expertise for your business and technology projects.


This post was originally published here.

User Research is NOT Market Research

The term “research” is not new to the business world, yet its meaning varies along a wide scale. In some companies, research is identified with genius engineers pushing technology capabilities in Research & Development departments. In other realms, interns proudly present their team leaders with research findings gathered from the numerous corners of the internet (thank you Google!).

The masses reside between these two extremes and that is where things get muddy. Many stakeholders identify “research” with market research activities and results. However, in the technology space where identifying user needs, product requirements and design strategy are critical, user (not market) research provides the best insights. To business stakeholders, the lines between the two may not be clear; hence, we clarify the differences below.

Market Research

The focus of market research is on the consumer in the market economy; specifically, his or her demographics and purchasing behavior. Here, research uncovers which buckets customers fall into as it pertains to their gender, ethnicity, income and education levels, areas of residence and work, shopping preferences, social media engagement, and so on.

The outcome of such an inquiry results in Target or Buyer Personas which are used to inform business decisions about what might make this Persona receptive to a product or service, what return on investment might be expected, and how to best market to this customer.

However, because market research is focused on current patterns of consumer behavior and does not delve deep into reasons behind them, these Personas lack detail for defining design requirements, product functionality, and prioritizing features.

User Research

Unlike marketing research, user research places the focus on the user as a whole entity in the context of his or her environment. Researchers answer questions like “what does a day in her life look like?”, “what activities does he engage in?”, “what motivates and frustrates her?” (which is also in buyer personas) by utilizing ethnographic research, interviews, surveys, usability tests, A/B tests, analytics of daily behavior, diary studies, and other methods.

This multi-faceted approach to understanding the user uncovers various pain points and needs, even those that users cannot verbalize themselves. Such insights are key to driving innovation in business. User needs communicated in User Profiles present direct design requirements, product or service functionality, or convey novel problems to solve.

Side by Side

Market research reveals what has happened up to now, especially as it relates to buying behaviors and patterns, but does not indicate where a business should go next. User research, on the other hand, reveals not only what but also why users are currently experiencing something. When frustration or pain points are discovered, they open doors for business opportunities to address those user needs.

For example, if the business objective is to engage with mothers of middle-school athletes, market research will reveal the best avenues for advertising to these Personas and for connecting with them. User research, additionally, might reveal that these mothers struggle juggling multiple athletic event schedules and constantly transporting their kids to various activities. Addressing this user pain point through a service or a product could become a profitable line of business.

Clearly, both market and user research have their purpose. For ground-breaking innovation in the business space, market research only scratches the surface of users’ lives. For greater insights, user research is a must.


This post was originally published here

Leave User Research to the Experts

User research and user-driven data strategy are the buzzwords of 2015 market trend predictions issued by giants like Forrester Research and the Harvard Business Review. Data about users, their environment, needs, attitudes can inform business decisions and drive product strategy. But what exactly does user research entail? To many in the business realm, research is a vague concept and covers activities from searching for information online and interviewing people to administering surveys and maybe even performing usability tests. It is understandable that business professionals rarely have a scope of knowledge and appreciation for the methods and tools at the disposal of a trained user researcher. Yet, precisely for this reason stakeholders should leave the research strategy in the hands of an expert rather than lock the research team into a specific method of data collection.

Research methods employed to shed light on how to target business goals come from a range of disciplines such as human factors, psychology, sociology, business management, marketing, and so on. While a list of these methods and their descriptions can span pages, technique flavors and intricacies are likely to be of little interest to a stakeholder (and, hence, are not included in this post). What is important, however, is that each method has its own pros and cons, and affords different kinds of insights. Thus, a data collection strategy should be chosen by the researcher only after evaluating business objectives, project scope, budget, resources and time available to carry out the research (such as access to users and technology needed for testing), and weighing the pros and cons of each method in light of these considerations. A good strategy combines various techniques in order to offset the cons of each by their pros, gather converging evidence and maximize insights to drive future decisions. Let’s consider how this plays out in a couple of scenarios.

Scenario 1

Imaginary Company wants to visually freshen up their e-commerce website and increase order conversion rates; that is, while customers add many items to the shopping cart, some orders are never completed. To help Imaginary Company meet its objectives, designers can use their experience and best practices to change shadows, colors, fonts and other details on pages. However, data should inform all decisions to change page layouts or navigation through the website. After all, design first and foremost must serve a specific function. If Imaginary Company has only a week to gather user insights that would then inform website re-design, the research strategy could consist of website analytics, heuristic evaluation, content analysis, and maybe even a guerilla usability test.

In this example, website analytics will reveal the point at which website visitors stop placing an order or leave the website. For example, many users might quit on the registration page if it asks too many questions that users consider irrelevant. A click pattern analysis can also indicate what areas and buttons users do and do not interact with. A heuristic evaluation, where the website is evaluated for usability problems based on recognized principles, will reveal design flaws that contribute to the user experience that hinders customers from registering or placing orders on the website. A focused content analysis, driven by insights from website analytics, can reveal inconsistencies between instructions, descriptions, and error messages that users are exposed to. Finally, if time affords a guerilla usability test, some users can be asked to place an order on the website. Here the researcher can learn not only about how the user feels, but also gather insights about what affects the user experience in positive and negative ways. Executed in a short period of time, these combined methods will reveal particular issues with the layout of various website pages, registration procedures, and highlight areas for improvement that will then allow designers to focus their expertise and tools on addressing business objectives of the Imaginary Company.

Scenario 2

A Fictional Business sets out to implement a solution that should help warehouse forklift operators complete work orders more efficiently and thus reduce overall operating costs. When a couple of weeks are available for user research, contextual inquiry, interviews, and task analysescan be conducted to gather solution requirements. Contextual inquiry will allow researchers to observe forklift operators in the context of their work, identify specific processes and task steps, how long tasks take currently, what tools are used, who the operators interact with, how often, for what reasons and why. Insights from a contextual inquiry can help focus the interview process, allowing the researcher to further probe how user experience is affected by various components in their work environment. Finally, task analyses break tasks into subtasks and specific steps at a very fine level of detail allowing the team to discover areas for improvement. Together, these methods can reveal the overall processes in the warehouse that currently contribute to limited efficiency of forklift operators, identify bottlenecks in procedures, points of frustration for workers which can be addressed by a designed solution.

Armed with these user insights, designers can determine what kind of solutions, including technology, user interfaces, and process changes would meet the objectives of the Fictional Business. For example, if forklift operators spend an unreasonable amount of time filling out paperwork as they are completing work orders, a potential solution could entail digital document filing on a mobile tablet, where form fields are automatically populated based on the location of the forklift and various products in the warehouse, time of day, who the user of the tablet is and so on.

In conclusion

When engaged at the start of a project, user research defines and refines a list of project requirements, allowing designers to focus their expertise and tools on addressing business objectives rather than intuitively creating a solution. Would detailed insights about how to meet goals of the Imaginary Company or the Fictional Business be possible if a survey or focus group was required as the research strategy? Perhaps some, but definitely not as focused and not at the level of depth the described alternative techniques afford.

Requiring that a particular data collection method must be used is like putting the lowest quality gasoline into a Ferrari. It will get the vehicle moving, but will not take it to its full potential and afford the driver the best possible ride. The same goes for research: dictating what methods should be used to gain user intelligence can limit the scope and the amount of information researchers can gather. Hence, list your business objectives, sit back, and let the experts collect data by their chosen methods to inform and drive your business strategy.


This blog post was originally published here

ROI of UX: Mozilla Support Site Redesign

Nielsen Norman Group recently shared a great case study showing return on investment of utilizing user-centered design and usability testing for a website redesign. Take-aways are:

  • Mozilla support website redesign took 560 hours (or 14 weeks)
  • Multiple UX research methods uncovered pain points and areas for improvement
  • Designs were tested as prototypes and improved based on user feedback; 7 versions were assessed during project lifecycle
  • As a result, there was a 70% decrease in support questions submitted, and
  • 80-90% of submitted questions were answered within 24 hrs, an increase from 40-60% rate before re-design


Why Software Dev Projects Fail: a Classic Reference

About 25% of software development projects fail before launch (source). For many businesses such failures can be the straw that broke the camel’s back. In his 2005 article Why Software Fails, Robert Charette discusses common factors that contribute to such poor outcomes. While some responsibility can be laid on the doorsteps of stakeholders and managers, lack of team-wide focus on user needs and user-focused requirements are also among the culprits. Although it’s been 10 years since the article was published, little has changed in how software development projects are executed. Hence, use this reference to help evangelize user-centered design and user experience practices internally and externally!

User Research as a Business Strategy

I originally published this blog in January 2015. Instead of rewriting the same ideas in new words, I’m reposting the contents of that post and discuss why conducting user research (not market research!) is a smart business strategy.

Why user research?

Mobile app demand is at an all-time high in both the business-to-business (B2B) and business-to-enterprise (B2E) domains as companies strive for an advantage against their competition. While third-party mobile tools are emerging and might seem like a quick and good solution, they are not always the optimal mobile strategy. Such off-the-shelf solutions, even when industry or work-role specific, are developed for no particular combination of users and company. Sometimes such products meet business needs, but often times they do not. Because success of any software project critically depends on user adoption, generic mobile tools can be an unprofitable investment if they fail to support users in the context of their work. Specifically, a mobile solution must optimize operations as performed in a specific company – even a well developed software package that does not fit within the particular ecosystem of a given business will not be used.

This is particularly true of B2B and B2E domains where workers with identical job titles that are employed by two different companies operate in distinct environments using specific tools and follow disparate workflows. In fact, 60% of software development efforts produce substandard or ineffective products in large part due to lack of clear project requirements that address business and user needs. Investing in user research as part of the company’s mobile strategy, on the other hand, can greatly improve user adoption of technology, target specific business objectives, and yield returns beyond the initial investment.

Stakeholders Carry Incomplete or Incorrect Assumptions about Users

Project stakeholders often outline broad business objectives, but not the specific requirements that are truly necessary for the implementation of a mobile solution. For example, should a mobile data-entry form be in a portrait or a landscape view? Should it have an automatic save feature? Do certain fields need to be emphasized over others? Do users need to export the forms or look up old ones? While stakeholders may have answers to some questions pertaining to a particular mobile project, they often carry incomplete or wrong assumptions about the users. Lack of clear requirements for a product and relying on an opinion or an uninformed preference can jeopardize the project.

User Research Determines Specific Product Requirements

User research uncovers and formulates very specific and explicit requirements for a product. Ethnographic research or contextual inquiries yield insights into User Experience (UX) by exposing user needs, tasks and workflows, environment, tools, motivations and attitudes. For instance, UX research on a mobile data-entry form for industrial warehouse inspections might reveal that additional features beyond those originally requested by stakeholders would drive bigger business improvements than the initially defined feature set. Research may reveal that inspections would be more efficient if users could attach photos of equipment and tag them with notes and information about the visited location and pull up historical records of previous inspections. These insights allow for better formulated user personas that not only help in deciding the best solution between using an off-the-shelf package, customizing an existing product, or building a full custom application, but also focus and guide the design, and any development efforts that follow.

User research also significantly informs visual direction of a product by employing the User-Centered Design (UCD) methodology. For example, if users wear gloves and their interaction with the mobile device requires a stylus, the interactions with the interface will differ from what it would have been if the app was created for complex hand gestures. Similarly, the color palette and contrast will be greatly influenced by users’ lighting conditions. A mobile solution developed with UCD methodology improves UX by removing workflow bottlenecks, facilitating tasks, and presenting users with intuitive, user-friendly and aesthetically appealing interfaces. The likelihood of accomplishing this is greatly reduced without user research.

UX and UCD Target Business Objectives

Engaging in UX and UCD processes with industry experts like ChaiOne uncovers very particular product requirements that throw the one-size-fits-all attitude out the window and targets specific business objectives. First, expertise in an industry allows for smooth communication among all parties (e.g., stakeholders, users, researchers, designers, developers, managers, etc.) because everyone shares a common understanding of the terminology, context of the industry, its operations, business motivations, and challenges. Second, the expert possesses collective background knowledge about user needs, experiences, motivations, attitudes, workflows, user pain-points and so on. This allows a better focus in research and targeting of questions to uncover areas for improvement to the specific mobile product that is being implemented, people who will use it, and the business that the mobile app is intended to profit.

UX Yields Significant ROI

In a typical scenario, failure to conduct user research creates the risk of spending scarce time and resources to build a generic tool that fails to increase the effectiveness and efficiency of users or optimize the company’s processes, and therefore yields no sizable return on investment. In the worst case, as software failures in the enterprise illustrate, ignoring UX and UCD can significantly harm an organization by implementing a tool that negatively impacts operations, slows processes, and leaves the company behind its competition or worse.

The seriousness of such consequences is underlined by 93% of executives placing UX as one of the strategic priorities of their businesses. As mobile solutions become integral to business operations, and as the Internet of Things (IoT) and wearable technology find their ways into the B2B and B2E space, companies wishing to remain leaders in their industry must persist in developing tools that continue to optimize their business processes. Understanding the value of UX and its benefits for a business is the first sure step toward success.