Development Teams Benefit Greatly from Watching End Users

It can be quite eye opening for an engineer to observe a customer using the product they designed. Development teams don’t always have an understanding of how their customers use their products. By watching them in test labs or even in the actual environment, engineers can immediately see where the end-user struggles to use their product.

However, introducing a design-thinking approach (user-needs vs feature focus) in the engineering process can be challenging because it means a fundamental shift not only in process but also to an organizations culture. Expanding from metrics of time-to-market of feature sets to metrics inclusive of getting great results from observations, iterative user testing and early market trials requires a new set of considerations. Balancing time to market against ensuring you are meeting end-user needs can feel uncomfortable at first. The process will be slowed down initially by the activities required to gain an in-depth understanding of end-user needs, but once the team has gained this knowledge, the impact can be significant. Teams need to consider what it will take to win and sometimes being there first is a significant consideration, however winning in the long run means delivering a quality experience. Think of the saturated MP3 Player market before Apple got there.

The biggest benefits a team will see from taking a user-centered approach is a reduction in the time it takes to learn how to use the product (fewer service calls), improvements in the experience of using the product (improved net promoter scores) and not least of all being able to anticipate your customer’s needs (launching innovation ahead of your competition). The result of a design-thinking approach is moving from being reactive and constantly trying to keep up to one where the team can anticipate the users needs.

Critical Success Factor
A shift of this sort is not an easy undertaking at a company level. It requires leadership that makes design a strategic priority putting new metrics in place that drive people in the right direction. It also requires hiring new capabilities at the senior levels of the organization and ideally having an organizational structure where the design leaders report to the CEO like the designers at Apple. Apple might be the best example of an user-centered organization but companies like P&G get it.

Getting Started
In my experience what typically occurs in most engineering organizations is team members familiar with the domain write out the requirements based on what they think users need and design the solution based on how they would use it, rarely ever validating with end users. They may get requirements of the target group from interviews, focus groups, surveys and competitor’s feature sets but they scan this information in order to extract the functional requirements. They often discard non-functional requirements including context (environment & regulatory) and needs of the users (what they need to accomplish, how they want to accomplish it and when they want to do it) which are critically important in designing the entire customer experience and in ensuring the product is useful and useable.

Development teams need to embrace design thinking or user-centered design which is a philosophy and process in which the needs, wants and limitations of the end users are given extensive attention at each stage of the development process. The goal is to go beyond user interface design to the design of the entire experience.

The fastest way to make this shift is to add experts to the team that know how to capture the user needs (user researchers, designers, information architects) and can translate them for the team. Get them working along side the engineers so that a more holistic view is taken. The team should consider the problems they are trying to solve for the target audience not just the requirements of the feature set. Apple thought about how people acquire, manage and listen to music – not just a tool to enable them to listen to music.

Upfront usability testing should be done to baseline existing products, understanding what needs to change and to be able to track improvements over time. Once in use in the environment the team should gain an understanding of the current experience using techniques like contextual inquiry and tracking users feedback so that the entire experience is understood.

I encourage a grass-roots efforts where success can be demonstrated and models can be developed that can then be expanded to the larger organization.