What do you do when your product is used by an animator for a small game studio, a marketing manager for an aviation/engineering company, and a visualization specialist for a massive infrastructure corporation? How do you identify and prioritize requirements for such a diverse set of users? That is the challenge we face with 3ds Max, and to help solve it we invited twelve of our most vocal customers to come to our office in Montreal. We bribed them with the promise of good food, city life, and the chance to contribute to the design of a key application in their workflow.
We wanted to give 3ds Max users from a diverse set of industries the chance to tell us what they need in the product. We were also curious to see if they could all agree on what Autodesk should focus on for the next few years. Would each camp stand their ground for their team? Would some kind of consensus be attained? Let’s see what happened...
At first, we gave users some time to “vent” in an unscripted fashion. Then we got down to business and asked them to write down requests for 3ds Max on post-its - as many as they could fill for 15 minutes. This produced a LOT of requirements and feature requests. After unifying the duplicates, we conducted an open-sort affinity grouping exercise with everyone chiming in. This went surprisingly well, with people quickly settling on a common set of categories into which all of the post-it ideas could fit.
This wall of ideas was great, but far too big for us to tackle as a group in the brief time we had together. We needed a way to reduce the number; but how could we identify the most important ones? By asking our users to vote! We gave stickers to each participant to put on the ideas/issues they wanted us to work on the most. Knowing human nature, we devised a simple mechanism to avoid people voting only for their ideas: only three stickers out of twelve could be used to vote for their own ideas (they were color-coded and initialed…). Seven stickers could be used to vote on other people’s requests, and two red stickers to veto requests that made no sense to them. The voting was a success except for one thing: no one used their red stickers. It was probably because their initials were on them and they did not want to offend others, or that they could not bring themselves to remove a feature that may be vital to someone else. Was this the sign of a group dynamic emerging?
The post-its with the most votes were singled out, combined, and grouped again to identify four themes to be tackled in the next step. Interestingly, two themes were more industry specific, while the other two were related to UI, usability, and features that could be beneficial to all. Together, the group identified a series of requirements to create a Design Brief for each theme.
Then the main group was divided into four breakout teams, which also included developers and QA. Simulating a design charrette, each group took their design brief and worked to further refine the requirements. High-level design solutions were sketched. One representative from each group then presented the work to the whole group, where everyone worked to refine the concept and clarify the goals and requirements. In a second breakout, the design was developed with more detail, incorporating the feedback from the group.
In the end, this participatory design activity helped the design team identify the most important areas to address in future releases. But, it also served to make these vocal users aware of the process we have to go through when choosing what to work on. We may not have achieved complete consensus amongst everyone in the room, but we did discover a great way for the many voices of 3ds Max to be heard.