Are you a humancomputer interaction (HCI) professional thinking about offering your services to an e-business consultancy? Or do you already work for such a consultancy and want to make the services it provides more attentive to the desires and needs of the ultimate users? (Some of the larger consultancies are trying to dive into this area quickly through fast-paced hiring and acquisition of research or design firms and then trying to figure out how to make it work.) Or do you work for an e-business or a company trying to transform itself because of e-business? If your answer is "yes" to any of these questions, what do you need to do in order to make the organization's focus and efforts more user-centered? What do you need to watch out for?
Several people have written about ways to make design and development processes more user-centered; some of those writings have appeared in this column in previous issues of interactions. But the world is changing quickly. The Web is bringing companies much closer to their customerscustomers who now can and will go elsewhere quickly if a website does not meet their needs and desires. Who and where customers are and their patterns of technology use are changing rapidly , and Internet development cycles tend to be much shorter than past software development cycles, and they continue to shorten. Companies are therefore clamoring for expertise, organizational structures, and fast e-business design processes that will result in happy users.
This article highlights some of the keys to effectively add "user" research to e-business conceptualization and design. (I've placed the word "user" in quotes here and in the title, since non-use and non-users need to be investigated and understood as much as use and users.) These recommendations are derived from my experience in leading the development of user research within multidisciplinary, e-business development processes at Studio Archetype, a digital brand and information design firm that itself became an acquisition of a larger consultancy seeking to transform itself.
Despite the high speed at which companies believe they must become more user-centered, do not expect dramatic change overnight . There are obstacles galore to these kinds of organizational change.
I've recorded and tracked obstacles encountered in a wide mix of organizations for years, partly from reports of the many dozens of diverse working professionals who have participated in the user-centered design workshop I offer through the University of California at Berkeley Extension. Although the obstacles people are encountering are themselves changing, old groupings and grouping labels for the obstacles still work well. Among them are
- Ignorance, Misunderstanding, or a Different Understanding
- "I Can Do It Myself"
- Powerful Personal Preferences and Biases
- Competing "Religions"
- Inadequate Rewards for Meeting User Needs
- Frequent and Significant Organizational and Personnel Changes
- "Marketing Personnel Already Take Care of Understanding Customer Needs"
- Lack of Resources
Don Norman and Janice Rohn offer excellent advice on how to address these kinds of obstacles in my interview of them that appears in the MayJune 2000 issue of interactions . Here are words about what worked for us at Studio Archetype, but I refer to the advice of Norman and Rohn to extend the reach of this short piece.
At Studio Archetype, we introduced new or variations of activities as we worked with and came to know and understand the multidisciplinary teams charged with developing clients' e-business strategies or designing clients' Web offerings. What we were able to do was not always ideal, but we made improvements in such a way that other disciplines participated in, benefited from, and brought into the process. And on the next project with each team we were usually able to take things even further.
Our efforts were not without bumps. A couple of graphic designers were initially resistant to our involvement, fearing the loss of their ability to be creative and in control. A small group of cocky business consultants was particularly resistant, preferring to do things on their own and as they had done them in the past. A user research specialist was resistant to alternative interpretations of user data from team members, arguing that only she could interpret things properly. Obstacles can be formidable.
Janice Rohn emphasizes the importance of understanding your organization and what it values. Successfully "evolving" processes necessitates ongoing learning of participants' perspectives, ongoing tailoring of activities in view of those perspectives, and ongoing education of all involved. The alternative is to risk being misunderstood by or insulting those you work with or for, which is not conducive to effective process change.
User research isn't needed solely for "usability engineering," but many writers appear to constrain their recommendations to this goal. It's not just about usability, and it's not necessarily or only about engineering. It's about usefulness and desirability as much as usability. It's about designeven research through design . And it's about strategyproviding essential input to what an e-business should do or be (indeed, Don Norman argues that determining strategy is the most important role one can play in an organization and the role more HCI people need to play).
Be prepared to follow throughthe Web is rife with false claims.
Several of our clients expected our user research to be conventional market research. Some, even within Studio Archetype for awhile, thought of user research as a process of user polling. E-business development needs for user research to go deeper. Observation and storytellingqualitative research and experience modelingmust lie at the core.
And, as already mentioned, needed research is not only about investigating users and technology use. It's also about investigating non-users and non-use, about understanding the contexts of potential use, and about figuring out what roles the Internet (or wireless or ...) could playand how it would need to play those rolesso that use will be inviting and maintained.
Unlike some who have argued to the contrary, attending to user needs and desires must be the responsibility of all team members, not just a subset. Ownership of all components of the process should not be equally shared, since not all share the necessary expertise. But all need to play roles in user research, participate in analysis and modeling activities, and apply what is learned. Approaches that prevent such collaboration and require handoffs of findings between disciplines or combining independently generated deliverables at the end do not work well.
Models of user-centered processes often separate the research activities from other components, such as in models of iterative design that distinguish between the cycling steps of design, prototyping, and evaluation. At Studio Archetype, I found myself seeking ways for research to "disappear" into the subsuming processes of e-business strategy development and website design. Both need to be intimately wed to user research. User research needs to not be viewed as a process that can be easily separated out, which in some cases provides opportunities for it to be axed or altered inadvisedly. Nor should user research need be viewed as a process of validation, which can spawn resistance and excessively constrain the role it can play.
And for user research to be appropriately integrated, user research professionals must be made core members of project teams from the start of things through the end. When treated instead as a summonable and dismissable resource (see Don Norman's contrast between resources and peers), they are likely to not be involved when needed or in the ways needed.
Studio Archetype used its website and other media to publicly emphasize that it used a process that was highly user-centered, even before the discipline of user research was substantively added to the organization. This unusual publicity and the executive commitment underlying it greatly facilitated the incorporation of user research into e-business conceptualization and design processes.
The nature of public claims can set an organization apart from its competitors. (Studio Archetype was clearly aware of thisdigital branding was a core part of its business.) Give this special attention if you are struggling to garner buy-in to your efforts. However, a brand is about the full customer experience, so be prepared to follow throughthe Web is rife with false claims.
Many companies are rushing into e-business development, believing they are or will soon be behind. Because of this push for speed, because Web offerings can be changed quickly, and because Web offerings are accessible by so many different types of people, some advocate the quick development and launch of prototypes rather than the use of traditional user-centered methods, which are often slow.
Ongoing involvement of consultancies and appropriate in-house staff can increase the time and opportunity to do good work. Janice Rohn advocates decoupling user research and the Web development cycle in order to buy time for research; findings, when they become available, can then affect decisions.
At Studio Archetype, we targeted long-term relationships with clients. But we also used fast methods. Rapid ethnography, cultural probes, rapid prototyping, role playing, scenario development, and "ideal types" user profiles (see Aldersey et al.  for descriptions of these methods) are among the high-quality and effective methods we adapted in order to be fast.
And we iterated. We iterated as much as we could (without an arbitrarily prespecified number of iterations, which is common when user research is less integrated with design). As Don Norman says, the use of fast methods means you will be wrong sometimes, but that is OK. Iteration is, in part, a process of correction.
Applying the keys to user-centered design in combination will not succeed unless they are enabled by an environment of respect, trust, and creativity. Each participant must respect and welcome other participants' perspectives and expertise. Participants must be able to count on each other. And all must value and be open to creativity. Bumps we experienced could often be traced to a temporary absence of one of these three essential values.
Different contexts of e-business conceptualization and design necessitate adaptability and flexibility of approach, and the mix of facilitated process evolution, collaboration, and integration give rise to excellent, new ideas about user-centered e-business conceptualization and design. Organizations and individuals stuck in the hierarchies and rigidity of the past will not foster what it takes to be successful in the age of creativity , the user, and the Internet economy.
1. Aldersey-Williams, H., Bound, J., and Coleman, R. (eds.). The Methods Lab. In Hofmeester, K. and de Charon de Saint Germain, E. (edss.), Presence: New Media for Older People, Netherlands Design Institute, 1999, pp. 121165.
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