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Early Research Catches Worms

9 May

A few months ago, my project team launched into fast-paced design and development work for a new mobile product we are creating with a client. The goal of this product is to establish a strong connection between the company’s brand and a new audience. To proceed, we needed insights to guide the early designs and conceptual models. So I teamed up with Hot’s newest content strategist, Anna Bloom, to determine the best research method.

Participants review the paper prototype, circling buttons they would press.

As designers, we study what people want so we can deliver the most useful and beautiful products. We previously conducted interviews during the discovery phase of this project to learn more about our target audience. But, at this point, in order to kick off this new phase, we needed more information about the audience’s mental model—how this group would naturally prefer to use an app. We wanted to know if our initial ideas would meet audience expectations and, most importantly, if the tasks were completable and fun. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the gift of time to build a fully functioning prototype to gather the data.

Anna and I proposed an accelerated solution. We leveraged existing wireframes to create paper prototypes that mapped the product’s task flow—the steps within the app. It wasn’t a full prototype by any means, but it could give us enough of a direction to confidently move the product forward.


These paper prototypes consisted of rough wireframes with written directions to simulate the digital experience. Each page walked people through the proposed steps—directing them to circle the actions in place of pressing a button, and write in the information rather than typing. On a Friday afternoon, we gathered a dozen participants who represented the core audience for our paper prototype test. It took them about 30 minutes to finish our test.

To augment this data, Anna and I video recorded follow-up interviews with each of the participants. We captured initial responses and emotions, and even ran through sections of the paper prototype aloud to see how they would respond to the prompts in a conversation. This took another 30 minutes. From about an hour’s worth of testing and gathering feedback, we ended up with plenty of data to make informed changes.

So what did all this tell our Hot team? In addition to helping us define a specific use case for the product, the research helped us course-correct early on, before development. We shuffled the order of some screens to match our intended audience’s mental model. Our team also identified design changes to improve the consistency and hierarchy across the product. Finally, we fine-tuned the language. The voice and tone was critical to audience engagement with the product. Rather than taking a directional or instructional tone, the research indicated a conversational tone was most effective.

In the end, the research provided critical proof points for our team to refer to. It was quick, dirty, and—as it turns out—worked surprisingly well.

While this paper prototype and other super-lightweight research methods can never replace more comprehensive research, they do provide a good starting point. And if you want to avoid pitfalls and extra work later in a project, then this research isn’t just a good idea, it’s a necessity.

Originally posted May 09, 2012 at Hot Studio

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Applied Research at Steelcase

13 Jul

Ask, Observe, Experience and Realize is Steelcase’s approach to learning and innovating for workplace environments. At a recent knowledge share between members of Steelcase’s Applied Research team and Hot Studio’s User Experience team, we were pleasantly surprised by all of the commonalities in our practices.

The Applied Research team at Steelcase consults with corporate clients to help them align the relationship between people, culture, and the work environment while keeping pace with workplace trends like multidisciplinary collaboration. They use their findings to recommend design principles and work settings.

Similar to Hot Studio’s User Experience practice, Steelcase also has to manage client expectations, navigate stakeholders, and learn about a client’s culture and brand prior to design. But more unique to workplace improvements is the significant amount of change management Steelcase takes responsibility for. Their clients can’t just begin to implement recommendations before socializing the change into a workforce through a series of feedback and information sessions and careful planning. I couldn’t imagine doing that level of change integration when deploying a new online experience, but one could argue that it does affect a company’s culture and should be considered.

The Steelcase team often asks, “What does your space say about your culture?”—A question I’m sure we’re asking here at Hot as we expand to another floor, almost doubling the size of our San Francisco office.

Steelcase has identified various work modes: individually-focused, collaborative (in teams), socializing, and learning. We were most impressed by the unique furniture that enhances collaboration.

One of our team’s favorites was the Node. It’s a mobile chair and adjustable work surface. Designed for the classroom, it was apparent that the Node would be useful at work too. The Node allows for easy relocation next to your team, creating a conference-like setting when facing each other. With your laptop bag stowed beneath, a static workstation hardly seems necessary.

Since more teams are distributed across multiple locations around the globe, Steelcase is also thinking about meeting room set-ups that take advantage of multiple screens. The first screen can display team members on video and the second could show presentations.

There are many configurations of meeting pods that cater to both private meetings and group participation. The ability to stop in and grab a stool behind the core group meeting lends itself to adding and subtracting group members as necessary.

Steelcase makes it clear that productivity is directly linked to the work environment. Understanding how employees prefer to work is key.

Read more about the Applied Research Group at Steelcase.

Originally posted Jul 13, 2011 at Hot Studio

Designing E-commerce Experiences for Women

26 May

The client’s business is primarily athletic products and apparel for men and women. Our team was brought on to discover opportunities to increase conversion rates by improving the overall customer experience of their e-commerce website. We quickly discovered that the client’s brand target was predominantly male, even though women accounted for more than half of their sales.

After speaking with multiple customers, we found that women were unsatisfied with the shopping experience because it felt too male and wasn’t speaking to them. Men recognized that the brand experience was designed for them, but they had usability issues that needed to be addressed. This feedback, shared with the client in the form of direct quotes, provided the support we needed to make recommendations that considered all types of shoppers. Approaching the project from the customer’s perspective, we faced the challenge of figuring out how to design for the male customer while providing tools for women that would enable them to enjoy the shopping experience too.

Highlighted exerts from Paco Underhill’s books Why We Buy and What Women Want began to circulate around Hot. These books serve as reminders to recognize the different types of customers and the different contexts in which people prefer to shop. Underhill calls out the differences between men and women shoppers and the need to design for their preferred shopping experiences.

An article recently posted on Fast Company caught our attention:
Women Dominate The Global Market Place; Here Are 5 Keys To Reaching Them

The highlights:

  • Women control 65% of global spending and more than 80 percent of U.S. spending.
  • By 2014, the global income of women is predicted to grow by more than $5 trillion.
  • In both emerging markets and developed nations, women’s power of influence extends well beyond the traditional roles of family and education to government, business, and the environment.

“For the most part, though, the average female consumer still feels under-represented and misunderstood, and her power and influence is woefully under acknowledged—or just plain ignored—by most service and product companies. She may be buying, but for the most part, she’s not getting the experiences she wants.”

“The businesses that spend the time and resources to engage and understand this female consumer will claim those dollars and create a win-win situation with a long-term and loyal consumer.”

Key ways to design a more meaningful experience for “Her”:

  1. Acknowledge Her Influence
  2. Join Her Circle
  3. Understand Her Similarities
  4. Respect Her Differences
  5. Grow With Her

Originally published May 26, 2011 at Hot Studio

Feed the Habit: Digital Multitasking

25 Aug

During a recent research and strategy project at Adaptive Path, our team uncovered a fascinating pattern around media multitasking—most participants between 20 and 30 years of age watched TV or movies while engaging with laptops, iPads, and smart phones. Our team was able to categorize this behavior into levels of multitasking ranging from backgrounding, which was more common, to full on media multitasking.

I am guilty of this behavior too with multiple applications running, responding to email and reading SMS—all while watching TV. But the fundamental question our team debated was why we needed to attend to all of these tasks at once? Our best response was that we feel more efficient or productive, as we maximize our time across multiple activities.

This raises an important issue: should we design for multitasking behavior, or are we feeding a habit that is a gateway to distraction and overall work inefficiency? Are we becoming a society of unfocused, half-attentive people who are constantly mid-way through six different conversations by catering to media multitasking? It’s bad enough during meetings or even at restaurants when someone pulls out their phone, causing a chain reaction of phone checking.

Digital multitasking features arguably enhance productivity. I believe that multitasking adds a level of complexity our brains enjoy. We like the challenge, or illusion of challenge, that multitasking creates. When completing a variety of simple tasks the brain can react to the foremost stimuli rather than the lull of autopilot. Simply put, it’s just more stimulating than the same dull routine.

I think multitasking is a behavior that designers should take into consideration when planning for their product or service. If we can orient features and functions to assist in accomplishing more than one task at a time, rather than to distract or hinder, we’ll emerge a more seamless and productive experience. It’s rare that we stop and ask, “This interface is intuitive, but does it help the user focus to accomplish the task? Will the user become distracted and not bother to complete it?”

Ideally, the user will be filled with a sense of accomplishment as a result of our ability to consider other tasks going on simultaneously.

Originally published August 25, 2010 at Adaptive Path.

Project: Critique

13 Jan

This is very NOT Good

A tall, thin, blond woman in her mid-50s, with a thick Swiss-German accent condescends: “Class, come here, everyone, take a look. See this example on the wall? Does everyone see? This is very NOT good.” This was the voice of the typography and design studio teacher who I was both cursed and blessed to have for three years during design school. This voice has echoed in my head for almost 10 years.

Critiquing happens like this – your work is posted on the wall for your entire class to judge, poke and prod at like a science specimen in a lab. They deconstruct the piece and, if you are lucky, help you put the pieces back together by offering some encouraging ideas. It is in school where your skin thickens enough to get you into the real world and strengthen your ability to accept critiques from your future design director and coworkers, who typically have no problem ripping your work to shreds.

What if you never had this typical design school experience? Imagine, working on something for days, pouring your passion into it, and trying to impress your team. Then you pin it up on the wall for your first critique. How would you react to having your team point out all of the areas that need attention?

My background is in graphic and product design. I interpret and solve problems by means of a design process. Studying to become a design strategist, I am learning how to analyze the bigger picture, utilizing the appropriate tools from both the design and business process. As a designer transitioning into design thinking and strategy, what role does the critique play? How do you get critiqued in the business world? Do you pin up your proposal on the wall, invite the major stakeholders over to take turns commenting on what they see? I believe the critique is an imperative tool that should be utilized in strategy to observe the bigger picture through an unbiased lens.

Outside In
The importance of a critique is to take a step back, analyze what you have created and try to understand the areas that aren’t working. By inviting the rest of your team in to comment and understand your thought process, they will be sure to notice something you alone couldn’t see. They will contribute an outside perceptive. If the critique process were removed, a whole series of issues could unravel, such as the inability to properly meet most of the user’s needs, failure to communicate the message, or the inclusion of careless mistakes. It is then too late and costly to fix once the concept is accelerated to the next phase in the process.

Comparing subjective vs. objective information is a major difference between design and business work. If I post an interface design concept for the software of a camera on the wall, I may hear, “I don’t like the shape of those buttons. Try a shape more like this, so it communicates high-tech.” The designer will sketch a thumbnail-sized button on the corner of your printed piece and the proper etiquette is to thank them or ask a question and engage them in a conversation about it. You can choose to accept or deny the suggestion because the information provided is subjective.

If the same concept was presented to the team in order to make a decision on whether to move forward with the release of the camera project, they choose to look at numbers. “How much can we improve our bottom line by releasing this product now?” The information becomes a more objective decision-making process. Thus, posting on a wall and standing around it to comment would be unnecessary, and providing a subjective statement at this point wouldn’t fly with the people in the room.

But what if there was a major critique of the concept at that point from a business perspective? Would that not help the team stop and think, is this really the direction we want to go? Push the concept through a rigorous critique to ensure its stability in the market.

My innovation team in the Design Strategy program at CCA spent two months developing a system to solve environmental issues for a major automaker. Two weeks remaining until the deadline, we halted the project abruptly. Our intuition told us something wasn’t right. Now I realize that the critique was built into our design strategy process. As a team we reevaluated the research findings and honed in on each aspect of the system, evaluating its importance and opportunities in the future. Upon arriving at the area that most fulfilled the project’s goals, we made a decision to move forward with the team’s suggested improvements.

Originally published January 13th, 2010 at Triple Pundit