What is design?

XVII.5 September + October 2010
Page: 63
Digital Citation

Building a user observatory

Valérie Bauwens

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It has been nine years since I last heard a statement like this: "Users' opinions don't matter. They don't know what they want, anyway. Let's just throw the technology on the market and check the reaction." The tone at Swisscom now is radically different, and our User Observatory method is considered a competitive tool. We have grown and evolved significantly during this time. This article will retrace part of the User Observatory journey and share some of the tricks we have learned along the way about how to set up and manage an observatory within a large corporation.

back to top  Sowing the Seeds—Get Attention

With a degree in business administration, I worked for 10 years in finance, eventually writing business plans in Swisscom's R&D department. The revenue curves always tended to look the same: They had to rocket upward. Our market analysis always fit nicely into value chains, and user needs were always aligned into tables. A user segment would get a full moon when their needs were fulfilled. If the segment couldn't be satisfied, they would just get a crescent. When three half-moons aligned, our analysis was on the mark. Although it was a stylish, organized, rational flow of argumentation on how to tackle a market, doubts started to emerge. At that time Swisscom did not conduct systematic user research, apart from conventional market research, some usability testing, and interviews. Field observations were almost non-existent. And personally, I didn't know much about them.

I began my "conversion" by interviewing users. Based on these positive experiences, and after reading some literature on the subject, I convinced three managers in my department to tackle this subject more professionally and systematically. We decided to hire an expert to give us the impetus needed to explore and benefit from this new field. In hindsight I now realize that my naivety and lack of knowledge were actually assets: I was able to be pragmatic, cut corners, and talk about user research with business words (my "native language") to managers.

The takeaway: Mix backgrounds in your team. People without a social science background can add considerable value to a user research group (e.g., business specialists or engineers), but only if they are truly interested in, ready to delve into, and eager to invest in learning about users and user research approaches.

back to top  Setting the Scene—Surprise

Starting in 2004, we acquired as many user research projects as we possibly could and left the lab for the field to conduct interviews and observations, creating a "wow effect." Swisscom realized it was receiving reliable information that reflected real user behavior and explained our customers' actions. Moreover, the information was useful. In other words, we could translate the findings we made into concrete innovation suggestions with immediate impact on products and services. As the former head of strategy put it, "No more garbage! Let's get rid of these generalities about users that reassure our industry. Finally, relevant and actionable answers for our business. Good sense!"

As a direct consequence of these positive experiences, we managed to get approval from management to start a longitudinal study on the communication and entertainment habits of residential customers. This breakthrough became the beginning of what we now call the User Observatory. The scene was set. We had a top producer and many enthusiastic and dedicated actors. The rehearsals were over. The real performance could begin.

The takeaway: Hiring a top researcher with an established reputation can help establish a new field and achieve recognition faster. Don't be afraid of hiring people who are more experienced than you. The strategy of investing in a field, not just in personal careers, pays off: One automatically develops with the field.

back to top  Impact. Differentiate. Feed the Buzz

Expectations were high. We had to keep proving we were making a difference to the company. Our longitudinal study was unique and became the flagship of our research activities. It was a very ambitious project, as it was designed to understand the adoption processes of all telecom services (from communication to entertainment) by tracking real user behavior over a period of time within 60 households across Switzerland. The amount of data collected was massive, ranging from timelines, flat plans, and diaries of communication to social maps, interviews, and observations.

To create a buzz, we spent a lot of time advertising the results of our studies. It was also necessary to advertise results inside the company in order to influence decision-making processes. As both the User Observatory and our approach were still very new at the time, it was important to do several presentations in person and at different hierarchical levels. What helped us most was to publish an article in The Economist [1], write stories in various Swiss newspapers and specialized magazines [2], and conduct interviews on the radio.

By this time, our group had not only been able to develop a good reputation inside and outside the company, but had also created an increased awareness and acceptance of the ethnographic approach as a key method for understanding user needs.

The takeaway: External publicity creates internal recognition. When you publish or are present in the media, people inside your company not only become aware of your existence, they also realize your expertise is respected externally.

back to top  Managing the User Observatory—Maintaining Competitive Advantage

In today's increasingly challenging economic environment, especially in the telecommunications sector, the role of our User Observatory is more important than ever. But we cannot rest on the laurels of previous achievements and are therefore constantly adapting our goals and methods to heightened management demands such as "monetize," "industrialize," "create impact," "differentiate," "be a competitive advantage."

If we want to go on satisfying management, we must demonstrate we have a remarkable impact that no one else in the company can contribute. We must deliver unique user insights that enable the company to answer current strategic questions and support the launch of strategic products and initiatives. This implies not only do we need a unique, profound, and holistic understanding of user behavior today, but we should also provide a compelling vision for tomorrow.

In order to achieve this objective, we have four main challenges to confront:

  • How to maintain a line of research over a timeline of several years, even though the budgetary focus and the objectives of our whole department (R&D) continue to evolve;
  • How to involve Swisscom staff outside our group to gain other insights (e.g., technical, design) so we can move beyond pure user research (e.g., creating new product ideas) and address specific questions within the product lifecycle;
  • How to keep the link with the operational units and their management to stay tuned about what matters strategically to the company and, consequently, to identify where our research should be heading; and
  • How to keep differentiating from other user research units within our company, given the growing pressure on costs.

back to top  How to Achieve These Objectives?

Here are 10 basic management rules of the User Observatory. Note it is not a static rule set, as we are always fine-tuning our approach and seeking inspiration from the experiences of others [3]. Input is welcome anytime.

1. Stick to your core belief in order to differentiate. Ethnography is our core belief and differentiator. Over the years, we have developed a methodology that enables us to bring unique insights to our management in a more efficient and systematic way.

The takeaway: The heart of any User Observatory should be field research: observe and interview people in their daily contexts. This creates realistic insights to which managers can immediately relate.

2. Find ways to create recurring discussion areas with management in order to focus on what is strategically relevant. We try to find lasting or recurring topics of discussion with the management of the operational units for example about results of our longitudinal study, or "products portfolio roadmaps." We are also experimenting with a new format of interaction: the position paper. This short report provides an opinion on a strategically relevant topic and is distributed all over the company.

The takeaway: A longitudinal study is a differentiator for a user research unit. It is a great way to remain continuously connected with the rest of the company. It reveals trends. It is, however, a large investment that needs to be managed carefully in order to keep stakeholders interested. Therefore, pamper and maintain your sample, but do not hesitate to stop tracking some behaviors for a while if you find developments are too slow. If this is the case, focus instead on the tracking of other new, exciting phenomena.

3. Involve others in your research, and share methods to increase the potential of your impact. We are increasingly trying to involve people outside the User Observatory in our research. This widens the breadth of our research insights, as these are no longer based on just the opinions of user researchers. It also allows non–user specialists to truly dive into and integrate user insights. We learn about market perspectives and about our company's products from them. Finally, it enables us to establish longer-lasting relationships outside the Observatory.

This is achievable by requiring each internal customer to commit some of his own workforce to participate in the field research. (We offer an introduction course to ethnography to allow that to happen.) We also discuss our findings more frequently with our internal customers. Instead of simply handing out a report at the end, we send the customer short observation extracts at regular intervals throughout the research project.

The takeaway: Share your user research methods with others. By empowering others to do field research, you convey the message that field research is normal, or even a must. You position yourself as the specialist to consult, while at the same time helping others to increase the quality of their decisions. Finally, it removes pressure from you in terms of work volume, as you delegate some fieldwork. However, there is a drawback: One loses some control over the quality of the field research.

4. Keep your outputs simple. At the end of a project, we sit on a mountain of ethnographic insights, excited about sharing them with the rest of the company. Yet internal customers are not interested in the details of our findings. They want only short reports that provide overviews, actionable answers, and tools. We have learned over time to really have two types of outputs from our research: a detailed report just for ourselves and more simplified deliveries for our internal customers. These deliveries contain brief, pointed messages and actionable measures, and use business language and artifacts like value chains, adoption curves, etc. They are always backed up by rich, vivid ethnographic insights.

The takeaway: To convince managers, dare cutting corners; don't look for perfect deep user insights, which don't interest managers anyway; and use business language and artifacts.

5. Spread insights inside the company to increase your visibility and influence opinions. We are constantly trying to find new ways to advertise our insights. While we are still spending a lot of time preparing nice PowerPoints and presenting our results in person, we are also developing other, more efficient methods to increase our visibility within the company, including one-pagers sent to a customer-insights distribution list. Our findings are also available on shared project drives and in a wiki. But people barely consult them. To change that, we are now experimenting with video podcasts and social-media websites with tools such as alerts and comments.

6. Spread insights outside the company to gain competitive advantage. As previously mentioned, publishing outside our company creates publicity. Not to mention that media presence doesn't help only the Observatory, but the company as a whole. It enables us to differentiate ourselves from other operators. Customers have reported to our top management, "Wow, we never expected that from Swisscom. They don't just sell us technology!"

7. Balance the project portfolio to provide immediate answers, but also anticipate demand. Creating the right balance in a project portfolio means finding equilibrium between extremes. Should we work on projects that tackle current issues or instead on projects more future-oriented or transformational? Should we work on product-related projects, on segments, or on more general topics (e.g., situation-related, like mobility)? Should these projects support our own research department or the operational units, and to what degree? Such balancing doesn't take place in a vacuum. After all, we have to get approval from management on every single project we start; we have to make sure the project is focusing on something nobody else does in the company and that it has enough strategic relevance to achieve meaningful impact now and in the future.

8. Consolidate knowledge across projects in order to build continuity. We have to be careful as a research unit not to spend all our time rushing from project to project. It is crucial to aggregate knowledge and link findings from various studies in order to identify trends.

This can be done in several ways. First, we use the same methods across projects, and there are certain sets of data we try to systematically collect. Second, some projects focus specifically on consolidating knowledge. For instance, our longitudinal study serves as the glue between all the various themes we have to master and provides us with an overview and a profound understanding of the whole ecosystem of communication and entertainment behavior. Other more general and future-oriented projects (e.g., on the future of the workplace) also force us to gain an overview on a wide range of topics.

9. Aggregate knowledge within the team to ensure strong results. Our team is our capital. We have taken care to gather a mix of disciplines in social sciences (sociology, psychology, ethnography), and have been lucky enough over the past years to have little staff turnover. Team management has used various methods to foster knowledge building. People began to specialize by themes (e.g., television usage, instant messaging usage) and market segment (the residential observatory and the business observatory). We have also organized our project work in three levels: the field researcher, the project leader, and someone with the overview of all different projects. Finally, we strongly believe it is essential to conduct most of our field research ourselves, and not to outsource it. By delegating and outsourcing field research, we would have risked losing access to the depth of data, as well as the real feeling for the user.

10. Aggregate knowledge from outside the team to gain fresh insights. As mentioned earlier, it is crucial to learn from others within the company who have different views about users and customers (account managers, field agents, etc.). We are experimenting with a new internal exchange platform to meet such stakeholders (e.g., customer-insights lunch). We also believe it is fundamental to work with external partners. We have therefore signed a first partnership with a research unit in a local university [4] with expertise in anthropo-technology. This enables us both to have a foot in the academic and industrial worlds, while working on joint projects.

The takeaway: Developing external partnerships takes time. You need to identify the right partner, to know them and to identify recurring topics around which one can cooperate. It really pays off when joint activities are started so that knowledge can truly be exchanged.

back to top  Conclusion

Building a User Observatory has been a long journey. Ethnography has revolutionized our way of thinking about our customers. We now have the impression to have "the right cards in our hands to play a winning game."

If you have a vision for your department and/or your company, try to turn it into reality, even if you don't think you already have all the knowledge or financial means to achieve it on your own. You may think bigger than just improving a process here or repairing another there. Sow the seeds in the right heads, in the right places, and at the right time. Learn and grow with your vision, as it can become a reality you can only imagine today.

back to top  Acknowledgments

Closing this article can be done only by thanking everyone who has made this adventure possible. First of all, I would like to pay tribute to Kilian Kämpfen, my manager who provided me with continuous and unconditional support, when I had only faint ideas of what I wanted to build. I would also like to thank two "protecting hands," Daniel Ledermann, former research-program manager, who early on understood the importance of the user, and Walter Steinlin, former head of Swisscom R&D. A very special mention to Stefana Broadbent, my user research mentor. Finally, I want to pay tribute to our team, the Residential and Business User Observatories, starting with Petra Hutter, a.k.a. Mrs. LOTUS (LOngiTudinal Study head), head of the Residential User Observatory who is supported by Caroline Hirt, Veronica Pagnamenta, Géraldine Bröker, Cora Pauli, Silvia Büchi, and Ursula Ulrich; and continuing with all the members of the Business User Observatory: Daniel Boos, Myriam Fournier, Laure Kloetzer, Sandra Moscatelli-Steiner, Thomas Robinson, Susanne Schlegel, and Samuel Tikou.

back to top  References

1. Giussani, B. "Home Truths About Telecom." The Economist Technology Quarterly, June 7, 2007.

2. Broadbent, S. and Bauwens, V. "Understanding Convergence." interactions 15, 1 (2008).

3. Jordan, B., Dalal, B. "Persuasive Encounters: Ethnography in the Corporation," Field Methods 18, 4, (2006): 1–24.

4. EDANA, anthropo-technology laboratory. University of Applied Sciences, Neuchâtel, Switzerland; www.philippegeslin.com/

back to top  Author

Valérie Bauwens is head of the Business User Observatory of Swisscom's Research and Development (R&D) department. The Swisscom User Observatory is a group of about 15 social scientists working in R&D at Swisscom, the leading telecom operator in Switzerland. Its main goal is to understand the adoption processes and usage of TIME (telecom, information technology, media, entertainment) in order to identify future user behavior and anticipate potential new services. The main approach is ethnographic, interviewing and observing users in their homes, on the move, and at their workplaces. For the past nine years, Bauwens has focused on building and establishing user research as a core center of competence within her department, which has led to the creation of what is known today as the Residential User Observatory. In 2008 she founded the Business User Observatory, leading and doing field research in large and small companies. She has 17 years of varied telecom experience, ranging from finance and business development to user research. Her original academic background is business administration, and she will be finishing a university degree in psychology later this year.

back to top  Footnotes

DOI: http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/1836216.1836233

back to top  Figures

UF1Figure. The Swisscom high-rise tower in Zurich. With 3,500 employees in 35 locations, Swisscom is Switzerland's leading telecommunications provider.

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