Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Developing user-centered tools for strategic business planning

User experience professionals continue to attempt to move their work and impact "upstream" -- to play an earlier and more strategic role in their workplaces' business. But exactly what does that mean? What is it that user experience practitioners or groups thereof should be doing differently or working towards doing (more)?

I've addressed aspects of this in previous blog entries, as have other bloggers. Among the others are Jess McMullin, whose design maturity continuum describes design activity as evolving in companies from the role of styling to making things work better, to problem solving, and ultimately to problem framing to shape strategy. Another is Luke Wroblewski, who recommends that designers use their design skills "for business visualization":
"The same communication skills that help designers create effective visual and interaction designs for products can also play a significant role elsewhere in the product development process especially during early strategic work. ...

... Especially early on in the product development process, design artifacts are able to create buy-in for a product vision, provide market context, or illuminate data, processes, goals, and the impact of decisions."
Some of what I did as Director of User Research at Studio Archetype during the late 90s was work with Jeff Bauhs and others to design and develop models of user behavior, thinking, and experience that reflected research findings. And we did this to provide user-centered tools to guide decision making about what clients should offer to consumers via the web.

We continued work of this nature following the absorption of Studio Archetype by Sapient, where it was extended further via the acquisition of E-Lab, a consultancy which had specialized in developing models of user experience from ethnographic research findings in order to help clients identify strategic business and design opportunities.

During 2001, Arnie Lund co-authored an article describing the experience modeling process at Sapient back then, work which he more recently -- November 2006 -- referred to as an example of the type of work practitioners must move towards to "take the user experience to a new and better place" and "deliver the impact we believe we should have."

Similar modeling is done in some form in various places. For example, see Jay Joichi's DUX 2005 case study entitled, "Improving Color Exploration and Visualization on the ColorSmart by BEHR application" in which he describes the creation and use of a behavioral model of the experience of conducting painting projects -- a model used repeatedly to help identify areas of unmet need.

One business that has gone and is going even further with such work is Wells Fargo, as partly described by Robin Beers and Pamela Whitney in a September 2006 EPIC conference paper entitled, "From Ethnographic Insight to User-centered Design Tools." At Wells Fargo, ethnographic and related research findings are summarized in experience models, mental models, and user task models, with the latter representing the details and complexities of everyday financial life. User profiles, also developed from research findings, are then connected to the task model via "scenario starter" worksheets that enable all sorts of Wells Fargo personnel, including business strategists, to walk through the experience of different users in different situations in order to develop an extensive understanding of where, when, how, and why the user experience breaks down.

The result:
"...a transition from a product- to a more customer-centric culture. This shift was becoming crucial as disconnects in customer experience increasingly arose not within the boundaries of the product and service platforms but in the transition and integration points between different areas..."
By extending the task model with metrics derived from surveys and other sources, Wells Fargo has developed an impressive user-centered strategic toolkit that guides project identification, project prioritization, business case definition, and much more.

I'll say more about the work at Wells Fargo in an upcoming blog entry.

Note that I'm not sure that Sapient does experience modeling anymore, since much has changed at Sapient in recent years.

Note also that you might still be able to download the EPIC 2006 Proceedings, in which you will find the Beers and Whitney paper referenced above. Rumor has it that this download capability will be short-lived, so...