Monday, February 13, 2012

Designing User Experiences for Complex Systems

Note: The following is an excerpt from my Master’s thesis entitled “User Experience Design of Complex Systems”. This is the final section of the research which provides a framework for designing user experiences for complex systems. I hope that references to earlier sections in the thesis do not cause confusion in any way. Please contact me if you would like to see the entire thesis.

The previous chapter of this research presented a range of findings regarding the deployment of design strategies within organizations with particular focus on the design of complex systems. This chapter will attempt to translate those findings into a set of actionable principles for designing and developing complex systems that optimize user experience. This “system experience design” methodology will span the product lifecycle from initial research through final implementation. The intent of this methodology is to help practitioners conduct effective research, conceive creative “system” ideas, and effectively translate those ideas into a cohesive vision.  Ultimately, systems created through this method should provide high quality and innovative user experiences and be highly desirable by customers.

However, this effort may also require specific methods for managing the complexities that are associated with systems design. This approach borrows specific methods from the disciplines of Systems Thinking, Design Thinking, User Experience Design, and User-Centered Design. The intent of the approach is to provide a practitioner with tools and techniques to balance the broad nature system design with detailed aspects of product interface design. Adherence to these principles will also help practitioners balance the strategic, technical, and design-oriented aspect of a systems project from foundational research through final implementation. As learned in this research, the individual steps of a design process are not as critical as the nature in which that process comes together as whole, so it is essential to keep a broad view.

Finally, an ideal system experience design process will meet the following objectives:
1.      Be focused on the intent of the customer
2.      Translate customer insights into technical requirements
3.      Promote holistic “systems thinking”
4.      Promote exploratory thinking and resulting innovations
5.      Balance customer desirability, technical feasibility, and financial viability
6.      Produce understandable design artifacts to serve as common points-of-reference
  1. Enable the explicit communication of intent, assumptions and expectations
  2. Identify and resolve gaps, redundancies, and inconsistencies across the system experience
  3. Identify paths to opportunities for innovative solutions

Process Walkthrough
The following is a useful set of principles to guide you through the experience design of complex systems.

Stage 1: Situate
A compelling design for a future system experience must be built upon a rich understanding of existing situation. This includes the current conditions of the market, capabilities of relevant technologies, and expectations of prospective users. As noted throughout this research, a balanced foundation of insights from these perspectives is critical to market success.

Unlike technology and market research, the process of understanding prospective users is much less a science than an art. From personal experience, I believe this aspect of research is most effective when researchers demonstrate the following behaviors:

  1. Empathetic Observation: The capturing of user insights can be a challenging and misleading process. One way to avoid this common trap is through ethnographic research, which is the practice of immersing oneself in the environment of a target user for an extended period of time. This allows the researcher to gather interesting insights that may not have been articulated by anyone in a user survey or interview. Just as important is the ability for a researcher to establish a level of empathy for the observed. By experiencing a prospective user’s frustrations and intentions, the researcher establishes an emotion tie to solving the problem. This can be an incredibly motivational force during the process of designing and realizing solutions.

  1. Principle Development: Research of design-oriented organizations such as Apple and Frog Design revealed the reliance on enduring design principles. This type of principle development is made possible through the sustained observation of the preferences and behavioral patterns of prospective users. When a new project arises, the organization is able to draw from existing principles that have endured over time and overlay them with new insights that are particular to the specific opportunity.

  1. Pattern Recognition: One of the challenges of the Situate process is the attempt to understand which observations are meaningful and which are random. Researchers must look beyond current actions and comments to extract behavioral patterns and expectations that may carry through to future conditions. For this reason, the ability to quickly and accurately recognize meaningful patterns of behavior and thinking in a user environment is critical for success.

The desired output of the Situate stage is a foundation of principles and insights on which the creative process will be begin. Examples of user-related insights may include the expected priorities of users, the likely “mental model” of which they will be basing decisions, and the behavioral patterns that they will likely exhibit in future conditions. This process of extracting enduring patterns is a challenging one as it will be easy to fall into the trap of simply taking direction from prospective users. Instead, the system designer must “read between the lines” of user feedback and behaviors to extract latent needs and unarticulated expectations. One method for gathering such insights is to conduct extensive ethnographic research, which is the process of unobtrusively immersing oneself in the environment of the user to “live in their shoes” for a period of time. This type of empathetic observation allows the researcher to fully understand the conditions of the prospective user. This process reveals significantly more insights than those that are lost in strictly verbal interactions. Ethnographic methods should not be relegated simply to the responsibility of designers. As noted in the interviews with Sean Carney, those of other disciplines should be involved in the process as well. Engineers, for example, significantly benefit from first-hand observations of the people that will be interacting with the technologies they develop.

An effective method for communicating user-related insights and design principles is the development of user personas. This is the process of developing notional profiles for the distinct user types that may interact with a system. In the marketing domain, this method is particularly focused on market segmentation and demographics. However, this level of specificity is not necessary for user experience design. Instead, user experience personas focus on behavioral patterns, preferences, and principles. The benefit of these personas is that they allow the designer to organize and communicate design principles in the most tangible way: by linking them to an actual individual human’s experience. In the face of system complexity, user personas provide a simple and understandable point-of-reference of which all disciplines can center around. In this sense, user personas are a powerful means of cross-disciplinary communication and coordination. 

Stage 2: Conceive
The second recommended stage of System Experience Design is to conceive the system. It is during this stage that system designers will utilize the principles and insights from the previous stage to envision a solution that will provide a more desirable experience that is both technically feasible and economically advantageous. This stage should be divided into the following three steps:

·         Step 1: Determine Intent
The first step of the Conceive stage is to determine the intent of the system. What this requires is a determination of the ideal system from the perspective of expected users. Specifically, the system designer must determine what the system will do for the user, how it will address their environment, and what their conditions will be like as a result. By taking a user-driven approach, the system designer is forced to think holistically about the user’s entire interaction with the system. This is in contrast to a technology-driven system design approach, which may lead individual components being designed in isolation.

The resulting output of this step is a set of “intent statements” that convey the most desirable system from the perspective of the user. These statements are best communicated with the grammatical structure of “To [verb]”, such as “To improve the sharing of contextually-relevant photographs with friends” (which is your intention) or “To share contextually-relevant photographs with friends” (which is the user’s intention). Either one of this approaches is acceptable. It is only recommended that the system designer be consistent in which approach is utilized. These short statements will be extended in the steps that follow with technical solutions. However, this initial statement is critical because it establishes the intention of the system and ensures that all technical decisions are ground in user-centered rationale. In addition to the specific “To” statements, it is recommended that system experience designers develop a single “To” statement that summarizes the whole intent of the system as well. This structure for articulating intent was adapted from the System Architecture framework of Professor Edward Crawley, Ford Professor of Engineering at MIT.

One may find it peculiar that an innovation-centered process such as this does not contain a stage dedicated to ideation. The reason for this is that it is expected that a wide range of creative ideas be evoked and explored throughout the entire process. For example, in this particular step, the system designer should develop and consider an extensive range of user intentions to address. The designer should then carefully select the sub-set of intentions that are yet to be effectively addressed by market. The rationale behind integrating ideation into every step of the process is that a high quality product experience requires an entire range of great ideas disseminated throughout. These “smaller” ideas may be the targeting of hidden customer needs, novel methods of product interaction, or the development of original supporting services. 

·         Step 2: Identify Satisfying Conditions
It is during this second step of the Conceive stage that the system designer must begin to explore possible system conditions that would address the intentions identified in the first step. Ideation during this process requires a great deal of cross-disciplinary exploration, as new “system ideas” will likely rely upon a combination of insights from a range of domains. One could think of this step as a form of “targeted brainstorming” where those of all disciplines explore the various ways in which desired intentions could be met. For example, meeting the intention to “share contextually-relevant photographs” might be addressed with strategies that involve sending, projecting, or printing images. It is important that specific technical or financial constraints do not interfere during this stage. Development of innovative systems requires that seemingly ideal and potentially disruptive ideas be explored during, despite the fact that they may seam technically infeasible or financially improbable at first. This process must embrace the reality that great ideas result from the exploration and advancement of existing, lesser, or failing, ideas.

The output of this state is an articulated set of conditions that serve as the strategy for the technical solution that will be determined the steps that follow. The format for this articulation is a “By” statement, which will be associated with each “To” statement from the preceding step. In effect, this “By” statement will bridge the gap between user insights and technical solutions. To continue with the photography innovation example, a “To-By” statement may read, “To share contextually-relevant photographs with friends by direct and immediate transfer based upon proximity and authorization”. The challenge presented by this intent may open up opportunities for innovations in wireless communication, hardware design, or business strategy.

·         Step 3: Envision Solution
It is during this step that the form of the system begins to develop. Using the intentions and strategies formulated during the previous steps, the designer must conceive the components, services, and additional elements that will converge to create a desirable system. In order achieve this goal the designer should utilize the previously developed “To-By” statements as structure. This structure should provide the necessary creative tension to instigate ideas that draw from the insights developed during the Situate phase. This is actually the critical aspect of this process that enables innovative ideas. By determining intent, but not specific solutions, the earlier steps have simultaneously provided direction and flexibility. This is a powerful combination when utilized properly. 

Note that during this step, the designer should be utilizing the “To-By” statements as a composite and not as isolated requirements. This will allow for better system design and improved opportunities for achieving the competitive advantages that well-designed systems provide. A holistic approach will also increase the likelihood that the user’s experience with the system is cohesive and consistent. Another advantage of a systems-based approach at this stage is the likelihood for maximizing and controlling the positive emergent properties of the system.

The format of this step is the “Using” statement to be appended to the previously developed “To-By” statements. This allows the designer to determine the solution that will provide the conditions that will address the intent of the user. Completing this statement will create a direct relationship between proposed user intentions and specific technical solutions. To continue with the photography example, the “To-By-Using” statement may read: “To share contextually-relevant photographs with friends by direct and immediate transfer based upon proximity and authorization using a multi-touch camera interface, wireless technologies, and authentication based upon social networking services”. This singular statement demonstrates an example of a technology solution can be tightly bonded to a user-centered purpose. 

Stage 4: Graphical Depiction
As noted throughout this research, a good process should produce understandable design artifacts to serve as a common ground between disciplines. The value of design artifacts is their ability to reduce ambiguity and confusion by providing a common visual language. This value is particularly important in the design of a system user experience where system ambiguity and domain-specific jargon can lead to frustrating or non-existent interactions. In a systems context, the goal of these visualizations is to help facilitate coordination across those involved in developing the system and to help maintain a singular holistic viewpoint.

These visualizations are also critical in establishing and maintaining a vision for the final end-state for the system. In this sense, they serve as prototypes to be constantly evolved during the system design process. This is particularly critical in long-term, complex systems projects where simple visualizations can provide much-needed clarity and focus. Beyond internal consensus, they can also be used to communicate ideas with intended users or demonstrate a vision to a client or customer.
For this method, it is recommended that the system designer draw from the “To-By-Using” statements developed into the previous stage to create the following two design artifacts:
1.      System Experience Visualization: This visualization is an attempt to capture the entire system experience in a single diagram. It should cover the full scope of the system experience, including all people, places, objects, and interfaces. Unlike a purely technical system diagram, such as software architecture diagram, this visualization should primarily focus on the user’s activities and interactions within the system. For that reason, it is not necessary to delve into the specifics of technologies at the high-level visualization. An example where System Experience Visualizations would be highly valuable would be the development of a system of convergent hardware and software products within an organization. In this case, a system-level visualization will help the various product owners to understand the context of their solution within the “big picture” of the user’s environment. This approach reveals gaps, inconsistencies, or redundancies in the user’s experience across the various products. More importantly, it facilitates critical holistic thinking by keeping the focus on the singular viewpoint of the user. The purpose of System Experience Visualizations is vastly different than a technical system visualization that is primarily concerned with the functional or formal interfaces between components.

2.      System Experience Storyboards: While the high-level visualization maintains the holistic viewpoint, System Experience Storyboards are focused on the specific interactions of the user.  The idea is that the viewer gains a rich understanding of the system experience by observing a broad system view in conjunction with visualizations of the specific activities that weave through it. The expected output is a series of annotated graphical depictions of the specific activities of a prospective within the system environment, including interactions within component interfaces. Storyboards should be developed for all essential user types and activities and address all of the intentions outlined in the “To-By-Using” statements. The purpose of the storyboard is to ensure that a user’s singular experience across the components of a system is seamless and consistent. In other words, it should not feel like a collection of components instead like single cohesive system. It is during the development of storyboards that the system experience designer will begin explore the specific interactions that each user will have with each interface. It is necessarily to continuing refer to and evolve the System Experience Visualization as the storyboards are developed. This ensures a consistency between the broad and detailed views.

The recommendation of the previously described visualizations is not intended to restrict the system experience designer from developing additional visualizations. Instead, the designer should explore any opportunities to graphically depict the experience that an individual will have while interacting with the system. For example, I have developed interactive animations in the past for a system that featured highly dynamic, non-linear interactions. In addition, the system experience designer may want to include the detailed design of specific user interfaces. It is highly beneficial, but not required, to have the same individual “owning” the system experience as well as the specific component interface designs.