Thursday, March 09, 2006

Working "middle out"

As asked by the editors of interactions magazine in the March+April 2006 issue, "Is your company guilty of employing a multitude of [user experience] professionals, using them too late in the process, and growing them into tomorrow's janitorial caretakers of the interface?"

Do you happen to be one of those many user experience professionals often (or usually) brought into the process later than would be advisable -- sorta in the middle of things after alot of work has already been done in which you, or other user experience professionals, should have been significantly involved?

If so, try working "middle out."

On my first day as Director of User Research & Experience Strategy at Studio Archetype, I was asked to help a design team test three concepts they had generated for a major new website for Xerox. Yes, designers had generated the concepts -- a very good thing. But, no user research of any value had been done to guide concept design.

I suppose I could have told them, "Sorry, let's start over, do some decent user research, and then design the concepts." Indeed, a part of my role in the company was to introduce and integrate user research in the right way into the process. But neither the team nor the client would have been happy with that kind of response.

So instead, I designed a concept test that included some of the research that should have been done earlier. I called this approach, "starting in the middle and working backward and forward simultaneously." The concept test moved the process forward from where it was, while also working backward to do work that should have been done previously. And by involving the designers in the research in significant ways, the team came to realize that the user research could have been done earlier, a realization which helped move the quality of the concept design process forward for future projects.

In previous blog entries, I've referred to similar stories of working "middle out" in other workplaces. In some of those cases, the product concepts were not generated by designers, and I refered to whomever owned those important decisions about product concepts (or strategies or designs or...) -- decisions that user experience personnel should own or should influence more substantially -- as the people "in power" with whom it was essential to partner:
"involving those with power in an intensive process of rapid ethnographic research and its analysis/synthesis in certain cases, and in an intensive process of rapid iterative design and evaluation in others, was key. And they were involved in such a way as to enable ... them to directly experience how important user experience should be to shaping those decisions. The ultimate result was an elevation of user experience personnel into a relationship of strategic partnership."
At DUX 2005, Audrey Crane of Dubberly Design Office (DDO) told a very different -- yet very similar -- story entitled, "Middle-Out Design" in which those in power were physicians, engineers, and a product manager who were developing a complex product that enables physicians to enter orders on a handheld device.
"The client came to us in the middle of the project having already invested a year in design, content development, and engineering. The client was understandably looking to move forward -- they were not interested in starting over or even in a lengthy reassessment. The client (a self funded start-up) wanted to move forward as quickly as possible. ... [They] did not feel that they had time for extensive research and product concepting... [though they] had only began to consider how to organize screens and content.

...What we needed was a kind of 'middle-out' approach that would both address details quickly and address larger conceptual questions—so that the detailed work sprang from a logical foundation and resulted in a cohesive product. And the approach had to be something that our client was comfortable with, not a heavyweight or complicated process that would take time to explain and get accepted.

We decided to borrow from our experience in the quality assurance (QA) cycle of software development. Specifically, we introduced the bug tracking process, re-cast to address design issues or 'design bugs'."
Audrey's case study describes how careful assignment of priorities to design issues enabled them "to visibly focus [their] limited time on the most important problems" while "setting aside tangential issues gracefully."
"In the beginning of the project, we were concerned about jumping into the middle of a work-in-progress without taking the time to work out a product concept with the client. In the end, DDO found that some issues simply couldn’t be resolved without modeling the product concept. We reached that conclusion with the client, from the perspective of trying to resolve a specific issue. As a result, we never had to 'sell' modeling the product concept. The [client] team saw the need for themselves."
One final paragraph from Audrey's case study:
"In the final analysis, nearly all of the projects we work on are 'Middle-out' design problems -- it is unfortunately very rare to have an opportunity to start design during the product concepting stage. [This project] was so clearly starting in the middle of the software development process that we had the perspective to tackle it in a unique way. It never occurred to us to try to wrestle a 'perfect' process into an imperfect situation."
However, for future projects with the same client, or in those companies that employ a multitude of user experience professionals, it is hopeful that working "middle out" -- however it is accomplished -- will only need to be used as an approach to help transition an imperfect situation into one in which user experience personnel get involved much earlier than the middle.

More on "starting in the middle and working backward and forward simultaneously" appears in a chapter I co-authored entitled, "Strategies to Make E-Business More Customer-Centred." (Appears in "The Usability Business: Making the Web Work," Springer-Verlag London Ltd, November 2001.)

And according to the DUX 2005 blog, Audrey Crane's DUX 2005 case study will soon be appearing, along with all of the other DUX 2005 case studies, on the AIGA website.