We are looking for possibilities through the lens of the user.
Editor’s Note: This relationship started when I queried on Twitter for some help planning a usability study. Leslie Shearer led me to Patrick Quattlebaum, Chief Experience Officer at Macquarium. Patrick graciously suggested a few books. It turned out that Patrick was speaking about BA/UX roles at a Charlotte IIBA Chapter meeting and I thought that would also be a great topic to address here at Bridging the Gap. I was surprised to learn about how much UX and BA roles have in common and have officially found a new profession from which I’ll seek to unapologetically steal as many tools for my professional tool belt as possible, especially when it comes to enterprise analysis.
Patrick: As a User Experience (UX) consultancy, we provide strategy, research, and design services primarily to Fortune 1000 companies across a wide range of industries. Our portfolio is equally divided between IT and business customers, such as marketing and product management. This focus on both business and IT customers is somewhat unique in our space, as most user experience firms tend to gravitate towards one side or other, or on a specific genre of work like ecommerce, or a specific technology like SharePoint. This means we tend to compete with web development shops, system integrators, and interactive agencies of all shapes and sizes.
At Macquarium, we believe user experience is an enabler of business strategy and not merely the front-end work of a technology deployment because we view UX as a holistic approach to designing the interactions between people and products/services. With some clients, we help them shape strategic roadmaps at an initiative or feature level. For others we’re helping nail down the detailed requirements and designing the user interface. It really depends on when and why we’re brought in by the specific client. The earlier UX firms or teams like ours are involved in the process, the better.
Laura: I feel a bit uneducated about the UX profession. Can you share a bit more about it?
Patrick: User experience is a very broad field with many disciplines – information architecture, interaction design, graphic design, content strategy, research, and even front-end development. In terms of digital work, like web applications and web sites, we are still very early in maturation of many of these fields, and “user experience” as unifying field for these professions is relatively nascent.
A decade ago, much of the focus was on information architecture, graphic design, and usability. We were inventing best practices for structuring information spaces and giving the web a user interface. We stole methods and lessons learned from software design, user-centered design, library science, and architecture. As the web has evolved to afford more responsive interfaces, interaction design has become a recognized field for applying an understanding of psychology and human behavior to user experience design. To put it simply, the growth and specialization of different user experience roles has mirrored the increased use of digital technologies in our culture.
My view of user experience is representative of many of us who see incredible value in applying design to business strategy. A lot of us have moved into leadership positions and have done a lot of thinking about our field and where it is going. Like many professions, we have focused on how to add value earlier and earlier in the solution lifecycle. Today, we see it as a best practice, not a nice to have, to use methods such as user interviews, contextual inquiry, card sorting and usability testing to understand human behavior and apply it to product and service strategy and design. We advocate user experience should have a seat at the table from Day 1 to spur innovation and create human-centered solutions. Essentially, user experience professionals recognize that while there is a lot of discussion about business requirements and technology, eventually a person needs to do something with what we build in order for the business to achieve its goals. Baking into strategy an understanding of the user as well as clear design principles for the solution can make a huge difference.
A greater focus on design and human behavior is not unique to UX. In business schools today, they are teaching design thinking, for example. It’s about understanding people and empathy. It’s about how to create business value holistically by staging experiences instead of an atomistic approach that focuses on individual features and functions only. This is where the UX profession lives.
Laura: This is really interesting. I must admit, my idea of the UX profession was definitely in the user interface “design” box.
Patrick: That’s not uncommon. But truly, design is an entire process. It’s not something that happens at one part of the product or software development lifecycle.
Laura: Let’s talk about that a bit more. Given that BAs and UX professionals are tackling business problems, what examples have you seen of how they can best work together?
Patrick: I coach my team and clients on first embracing a teamwork approach, not a partnership approach. (Pardon the semantics; I’m an information architect by training.) Organizations sometimes place our two disciplines in the same department, such as IT, but I’ve seen UX on the business side or, in Macquarium’s case, as consultants coming in from the outside. Good teams have trust and understanding of one another’s skills at their base, and org structures don’t create or prevent teamwork.
While the nature of most projects necessitates a “divide and conquer” approach, it is important that BAs and UX professionals understand the inputs they are both collecting to define and design the solution. Early in my career, I was working as a user experience architect with a BA on an intranet project. The BA was primarily responsible for eliciting business requirements. I was responsible for understanding the user segments in the hospital and creating personas to represent their goals, tasks and needs. We helped one another by being notetakers in each other’s sessions. I even taught the BA card sorting. She got to see what information I was collecting and its value, and I was able to witness her help a collection of business stakeholders collapse a set of ideas into clear business requirements and gain buy-in. That’s an art too! Our empathy for one another’s role was vital and came through in the work.
Laura: That makes good sense. So you both developed a shared view including each other’s perspective but your work was not competing. Tell me a bit more about what a UX professional does in the upfront part of the project process.
Patrick: UX professionals provide key input into the product or software development process. They are concerned with aligning the strategy with end users. In most solution definition processes, the end user is often overlooked, but for the UX professional, the end users’ collective voice in the process is a must have.
Say we want to build a product. A typical process would elicit requirements from business stakeholders, looking at the competitive landscape, and marketing research. The IT team or technology partner might also provide a list of the features that can be built given the project constraints, such as budget or available technology. The BA is left with quite a long list and the project team is facing the realities of time and budget. What features do you build? How do you sequence these features in releases?
The value of UX early in the process is to introduce the user lens to this upfront work. At a minimum, user research has also brought some feature ideas to the table, and feature prioritization involves finding the sweet spot of features that align business with user value and can be built and maintained within the technology constraints. Ideally, UX has helped frame the design problem around business goals and user goals, not technology. We bring our understanding of human behavior to the process because we see users as the key integration point.
Laura: How do you learn what users want?
Patrick: Much of the focus is on user goals and needs, both functional and emotional. If I’m working on a product for a user internal to a company, I’ll go in and watch people work. We always find gaps between what stakeholders believe people do and what employees actually do and need. Through this process, we often find critical features or design requirements to include that help user adoption rates go up. A lot of times we also find things that stakeholders ask for that users simply don’t need. In this way we’re able to cut scope and increase the value of the project.
Laura: As a BA, I’ve often tried to blend these two perspectives and found that the perspective of the project sponsor and the actual users or subject matter experts can be quite separate. For some projects, I’ve used what in business analysis we call “observation” to find this out. Is that similar?
Yes! In UX, the method you were using is also called observation or sometimes contextual inquiry – essentially you watch someone use an application and look for things in their environment, like sticky notes and work-arounds, that provided insight into their context of use. Context is a critical input to design because your goal is to have the product or service fit into a person’s life or to make it easy and desirable for a person to change their behavior.
Personally, I’m intellectually drawn to formative research like observation. Exploring how people use technology is one of my favorite branches of UX, and makes a huge difference in serving our customers. For example, Macquarium once worked on a project where the goal was to find more efficiencies in the call center without degrading the customer service experience. The company’s brand was very white glove, and the customer service center was handling claims calls for insurance holders whose homes had burned down or who had lost valuables in a burglary. There is a lot of emotion in those calls. In observing several customer service representatives doing their work, the team realized that inexperienced reps were following a very linear process dictated by the system, while the experienced reps had learned to write notes on paper and then to do data entry after the call. This workaround meant they could focus on the customer and have a more fluid, compassionate conversation. Redesigning the data entry forms to be non-linear seems like an obvious solution, but the insights from the observations was the information that showed our clients the value of investing in that design approach.
Laura: Interesting. I could see myself doing something similar as a BA. But I might be more “linear” about it, so focusing on the business objectives within achieving the desired customer experience and then working with the customer experience rep to try to uncover the root causes of those problems. It seems that UX approaches the same problem space in a different way. It’s more fluid and is bringing in all kinds of information to look for possibilities.
Patrick: Yes, that’s a good way to put it. We are looking for possibilities through the lens of the user.
Laura: Interesting. Well, I’m convinced that I should be looking to UX for a few new tools to add to my BA tool belt.
Patrick: The UX profession keeps expanding the toolbox, especially tools used early in the project lifecycle. There are some great tools for BAs to steal there.
On a side note, I’m all about building a tool belt as part of your career strategy. I am always looking to expand the tool kit of my firm and myself. There are some basic core process building blocks of the profession that you need to learn early on. But as you go to different companies throughout your career, you will see different processes or flavors of processes, so it’s important to be flexible and creative. Every project has a different set of challenges and opportunities and therefore the tools you pull out of your kit, or invent, are very contextual.
Laura: 100% agree. Anything you’d like to share with Bridging the Gap readers?
Patrick: If you asked a group of UX professionals what they do and built a word cloud from their answers (I’ve done this), always at the heart of it is design. The nuance is that this is not just technical or user interface design. It is experience design. Experience design is what we all do in one way or another. I believe that BAs are also designers; it’s just a different role in the process. For some reason, design has become synonymous with aesthetics and “look and feel”. This is starting to change where we are repositioning design to mean big-D design. At this level we’re talking about applying design methodology to business strategy.
Laura: What are some resources you’d recommend for learning about user experience and big-D design?
Patrick: I’m a big book guy, so here are a few of my favorites:
- The Elements of User Experience – great overview of the breadth and depth of the concerns of user experience and our process.
- Subject to Change – great summary of our field’s view of the value of design-driven product and service development
- Sketching User Experiences – the importance of visualizing our ideas throughout the software development lifecycle
- Observing the User Experience: A Practitioner’s Guide to User Research – great methods for your toolkit, like user interviews, contextual inquiry, usability testing, and card sorting.
- Design Is How It Works: How the Smartest Companies Turn Products into Icons – case studies in applying design holistically to companies, products and services
- Design of Business – highlights how organizations can use design thinking for a competitive advantage;
- The Experience Economy – this book is over 10 years old but still very current. It’s about staging experiences that are focused on people.
Laura: Thanks for your time today Patrick. I’m really glad I had this opportunity to learn more about the UX profession and I’m excited to share these insights with my readers.
Patrick: I appreciate the opportunity to talk about UX to your readership. We work side by side every day, and it is important for our communities to actively discuss our fields’ views, goals, trends, and how we can better collaborate to design the best user experiences that we can.