by Chauncey Wilson on March 18, 2009
I’m part of the AEC User Experience Team at Autodesk. Our goal is to design a great user experience for our customers, but just what does that mean? Our definition of user experience focuses on all the touchpoints that current or new users have with our product. For example, the downloading of software trials is often the beginning of one’s user experience with a product. If you have to fill out forms that ask for too much information, (should “cell phone number” be a required field on a trial download form?) or present you with too many obstacles, the likelihood of a positive user experience will be low. Your interactions with technical support, documentation, the product, and even other products that you use, are all aspects of the user experience. So, our general definition of user experience includes the following goals:
- Provide our customers with products that meet observed and future needs
- Design products and services so they are easy to learn, and once learned, efficient to use
- Design from a holistic perspective; ensure that there are smooth flows between different products, people, and locations
- Reduce the chance for errors and make error recovery simple and straightforward
- Design products and services that delight our users and go beyond meeting basic needs.
- Provide a seamless and integrated system from the first contact to repeated and long-term use of products and services
These goals can be translated into the user experience pyramid shown in Figure 1. At the bottom of the pyramid we have usefulness. Is the product useful in the context of your work? Does it meet your basic needs. Next up the pyramid is usability. Usability is often spoken as though it was a single attribute of a product, but in fact, usability has many dimensions including ease of learning, efficiency, satisfaction, consistency, responsiveness, and error rates. Some of those dimensions can even conflict – like ease of learning and efficiency – you can make something really easy to learn, but what makes it easy to learn might reduce its efficiency for experts. Usability is the substrate for the attributes that make a great user experience like joy, delight, pleasure, elegance, integration, and attractiveness. You can have a useful and usable product that allows you get your work done, but to have a great user experience you need to transcend usability.
Figure 1: The user experience pyramid
Designing a great user experience is a challenge so I thought that I would share some of the methods that we employ.
Methods for Designing a Great User Experience
User-centered design involves repeated contact with users, continuous evaluation of design concepts and prototypes, and constant testing of assumptions about users, tasks, workflow, and context. Here are some short descriptions of methods that we use to help us create a positive user experience.
First Experience Studies. What is the experience of a person who downloads an Autodesk product from the Web and tries it out for the first time? First impressions are powerful and observing users during their very first attempt to a use a new product or feature can reveal obstacles that are not at all obvious to more experienced users.
Customer Satisfaction Surveys. We have Customer Councils comprised of users from all over the world. Once a year, we ask members to give us feedback on many aspects of products to assess overall satisfaction. This feedback is used internally as input for product requirements and to look at areas where we need improve. Between the yearly satisfaction surveys we solicit survey input on areas where we intend to focus on in future releases.
Site Visits. Site visits, where we spend one or more days observing how groups use our products, are incredibly valuable for understanding how our products support collaboration within and between offices. Site visits helps us answer questions like: What are the issues faced by companies that are working with multiple contractors, in different locations, using different versions of software? What can we do to make high-frequency tasks more efficient? What errors are most common when groups are spread out geographically?
Remote and Local Usability Testing. A key theme of user-centered design is to start testing early in design and continue testing through the design and development process. We often start our testing with paper prototypes to get early feedback on different conceptual designs and then move to medium-fidelity prototypes, and finally to working prototypes. At each stage of testing, we look at different issues. Paper prototyping focuses on general concepts, terminology, and high-level understanding; later, higher-fidelity prototypes examine detailed interactions, feedback, and performance. A method we are employing more often is remote testing where we use collaboration software like GoToMeeting to present users with early prototypes and get feedback without anyone leaving their offices.
Vision Workshops. Our design team needs to look ahead and one way to do this is to hold vision workshops where we:
- Identify the common problems or issues with a particular (current) product or situation.
- Generate visions about a concept of the future.
- Discuss and analyze the viability of the ideas and solutions about the vision of the future.
To meet our goal of delighting users, we need to think several versions ahead and consider what we will need to design to bring joy to our customers. We also need to consider that delighters, over time, come to be expected features. In the early days of the graphical user interface (GUI), the pop-up menu was a delighter because it cut down the time required to access a function from the menu bar. Now, pop-up menus are standard features and not the delighters they were 20 years ago.
The Spotlight Shines Brightly on the User Experience
When I started my career in the early 1980s, product reviews were found in IT journals, ComputerWorld, and Byte. There are still reviews in technical magazines and journals that highlight poor and great user experiences, but social networking tools and viral reporting about user experience with a product can quickly lead to user outrage and corporate panic. Blogging and twittering about a product or YouTube satire of a product can influence product design and induce ulcers. We fought for years to make usability and then user experience as important as any other product attribute and are now in the spotlight. The design of a good user experience requires political savvy, solid design skills, constant interaction with users, and continuous study of emerging technologies and disciplines like persuasive technology, ambient computing, emotional computing, mobile computing, and ubiquitous computing. This is a great field, but not one for the faint of heart.