“We want new concepts”

How often you hear these words from the bean counters? No need to dwell on the count. Just get the work done :).

The example I am presenting here is an enterprise dashboard application of a telecom operator. Dashboard gives a summary view of its enterprise customers – what contracts are expiring, no. of sales opportunities, escalations, ticketing reports, etc. It also gives the ability to dive down and see the granular details of enterprise customer data.

This was a legacy application created by mashups – typical scenario of multiple heads managing volumes of data with disparate technology platforms talking to each other. End result was a ‘patch-work’ application that suffered experience issues of the data (incomplete data, irrelevant data) and performance.

Imagine I am the user, a sales executive. If I log in to the dashboard application I see partial data on the CSAT, sluggish data on the contracts that are expiring and incomplete data on the new opportunities.

If I am a program manager and want to see escalations of a particular customer, selection of 1 year ticketing records would generate 11 million table rows. This would slow down the performance and hamper the user experience. Now imagine this scenario both in the web browser on your computer and on an iPad native application.

You might be thinking now, where are the user experience issues? Hang on to that thought.

This is what you are told –

1) You cannot contact users.

2) You can play around with the existing application. But remember, don’t break it.

3) We know user experience is not the problem. The real issues are data binding and performance.

4) “We want new concepts”.

Here is the concept #1 – Zoomable Interface

Zoomable Interface - 1

Zoomable Interface – 1

Zoomable Interface - 2

Zoomable Interface – 2

Zoomable Interface - 3

Zoomable Interface – 3

Zoomable Interface - 4

Zoomable Interface – 4

Zoomable Interface - 5

Zoomable Interface – 5

Zoomable Interface - 6

Zoomable Interface – 6

Zoomable Interface - 7

Zoomable Interface – 7

Here is the concept #2 – Spider Chart Interface

Spider Chart Interface - 1

Spider Chart Interface – 1

Spider Chart Interface - 2

Spider Chart Interface – 2

Spider Chart Interface - 3

Spider Chart Interface – 3

Spider Chart Interface - 4

Spider Chart Interface – 4

Here is the concept #3 – Data Visualization Interface (not a fully designed user journey).

Data Visualization Interface - 1

Data Visualization Interface – 1

Data Visualization Interface - 2

Data Visualization Interface – 2

Data Visualization Interface - 3

Data Visualization Interface – 3

So what concept was finally chosen? None. The development team cited issues related to time and tweaked the existing UI. Even the low hanging fruits in the UI turned out be sore.

Infographics : Day 1 @ TechMahindra

Pune is a city in Western India, often referred to as Oxford of the East. In lies Pune, the growth roots of many software organizations that have survived all the booms and busts of western markets. One of them is TechMahindra, which has offices in as many as 3 locations in Pune. The office that I am talking about is in the heart of the city, on the bustling Karve Road.

TechMahindra has always been inspiring designers like me to express their “solution mindset” to the problems no one cares about.

I took in my stride the necessity to design my own solutions that will help me on the job – two examples have already been shared through the blog posts – the Elevators infographics and the RUS infographic.

To a new employee, the first day in Karve Road office is memorable in many ways. The credit goes to the architecture of the connected TechMahindra buildings – the Sharda Center and Annex. The day starts with “no parking” in the designated office parking to accidentally landing up in parking by stairs, losing the way from Sharda Center to Annex and vice versa during lunch time, the orientation program on first day, etc are all too much too imbibe on the joining day.

I created an infographic – 4 column fold-out that explains the various activities that happen on 1st day in TechMahindra. There is a visual path that directs the reader / user to understand what they are supposed to do.

I submitted this design to the HR in 2013.

First Page of the Infographic Brochure

First Page of the Infographic Brochure

First Fold of the Infographic Brochure

First Fold of the Infographic Brochure

Second Fold of the Infographic Brochure

Second Fold of the Infographic Brochure

Third Fold of the Infographic Brochure

Third Fold of the Infographic Brochure

Closure of the Infographic Brochure

Closure of the Infographic Brochure

Infographics – Resource Utilization Summary

When you are part of a corporate ladder, you are bound to do things you do NOT want to. If you are a designer acting like a design manager in a software services organization, then brace yourself for challenges ahead.

One of the duties that you assume in this role happens to be team management. Imagine there are 5-6 designers report to you and you need to ensure that they are 100% billable. Services organization needs granular data of employees like utilization of employees, what business any employee is accountable for, how much back-dated billing has happened for an employee, etc.

Team management was one of my duties in my earlier job. The tool used to track my team members was not helpful at all. It did not give me any idea about RUS (Resource Utilization Summary). Confused navigation and inappropriate content of the RUS tool drove me to maintain my own spreadsheets of data. But something was still missing.

As always, necessity is the mother of invention. Getting lost and landing up on wrong floors of the TechMahindra building through elevators had made me design infographics for elevators. This time, I took the same approach for team management and created an infographic.

This is how it looks:

Infographics : Resource Utilization Summary

Infographics : Resource Utilization Summary

The header section shows summary of the team member. The 5 columns show the overall utilization of the team member across 5 months. “RUS” means Resource Utilization Summary generated by team management tool (a customized tool in TechMahindra). PMTs are project codes assigned to the team member.

As always, sketching on paper helps :).


“Sell this pen to me…” says Jordan Belfort in the movie “Wolf of Wall Street”. Let’s put aside the personality profile of Jordan for the moment, and concentrate on the “selling” aspect.

“Designing a solution is 30% of your job. Communicating and selling your design is 70%” were the wise words of my mentor.

You can be a great designer, doodling in isolation and toying the product with great tools. Your design will never make it to the market if you are not able to showcase your designs with a story.

That’s right. You have to orchestrate your story about the design to your audience – who are willing to guide it, nurture it with their money and resources.

Let’s say that you have quickly sketched out user journeys for key user tasks. You might be working in a agile model of software development. You want to validate the designs created – e.g. iPhone app for banking consumers. There are 3 key tasks in your sketches – view balance, bill payment, add a new credit card.

This is how I would present the paper prototypes to the audience and get their feedback:

1) I will invite all key decision makers & influencers (product manager, development lead, business analysts, system engineers, etc) in a conference room with a 30 minutes time slot.

2) On the soft board, I will pin up paper sketches in a sequence.

3) I will have another design team member, preferably UX researcher – to take the notes of the discussion. It is important that one talks (me) and the other (UX researcher) jots down the points as design inputs.

4) I will summarize what the session is all about to the audience. I will set a context first, when and how the user is going to use the app – what time of day, what place, and what is the trigger point of launching the app.

Since we are talking about a mobile app, I will use specific usage behaviors to weave the story and the sketches – e.g. how users people are motivated to finish a goal, how users prefer shortcuts, how the content takes precedence over navigation in mobile apps, how users’ mind wander 30% of the time, how users make mistakes, etc.

When you cite these examples, it is good to have a workable solution in your sketch. The audience is there to hear you narrate different scenarios they have NOT visualized. As a designer, it’s your job to make them VISUALIZE and give their inputs.

Do not just restrict your presentation to pinned up sketches. Take out the phone from your pocket and show your audience some noteworthy examples. If needed have another photo-essay running that connects the sketches with the user context. You may also compile and get some user research data and quote. Get anything in terms of products / examples / packaging designs / tools / applications that connects with your sketches and triggers the audience’s reaction.

So what do you once you have gathered inputs from your audience?

Tweak. Tinker. Iterate.

Build a story, and sell.

Once you have a feeling that design on paper is great, step into Axure, Adobe Fireworks, Sketch and iRise to create digital wireframes.

That concludes all the segments of how to create paper prototypes. In the following posts, I will share the actual sketches I have designed for some projects.

Step 4) Understanding the target devices /platforms – PART 3 of 4

“Is this your best design solution?” my mentor asked me, staring in my eyes.

“Yes” was my confident answer :).

He said, “I bet that!”

This was eight years ago. I went back to the blank canvas and created 4 different design solutions for a portal solution. The notion of creating multiple design explorations has stayed with me for many years; it has helped me to design better.

I remember when I was at National Institute of Design (NID); I took a two-week coursework in photography. We were handed manual SLR cameras and told to shoot 6 rolls of pictures. My faculty member, Dr. Deepak John Matthew, shared a story about he understood the basics of photography (composition, balance, symmetry, framing, etc). When Deepak himself was a student he was told by his instructor to go to Gateway of India and shoot pictures. He came back and showed the 1st camera roll. The instructor asked Deepak to redo this exercise, 2nd time with a specific instruction ‘get the pictures from the spots & angles that you have not taken in your previous exercise’. Deepak showed the round 2 photos to the instructor. History repeated – he was told to do the same thing 3rd time. Frustrated, he went back to Gateway of India and took photos that he had not thought of in the first and the second attempt. On the third presentation of his photos, the instructor told Deepak that he was happy with the result. Curious, Deepak asked the instructor what was the need for all those 3 trips. The instructor said, “ Only when you are working with constraints, you will think differently and come up with different solutions. With every trip, your constraints multiplied and it forced you to chose spots & angles which could capture a better picture”.

There is no better story to drive home the point that design explorations is all about understanding your constraints, having multiple point of views (spots / angles) and having a different approach towards design solution.

Legendary designer Charles Eames quoted, “I have never been forced to accept compromises but I have willingly accepted constraints.”

Working with constraints is one of the ways to think & conceptualize. It forces you to perceive things differently. There are several other techniques that will help you to conceptualize.

Luke Wroblewski presents a different viewpoint in his book ‘Mobile First’ about how should one design for a mobile device. The principles presented here are applicable for non-mobile platforms too.

There are other methods like lateral thinking, which might suit someone.

A concept is made when you bring together all your methods of thinking, ideation, points of reference, your design inputs, context information and create a design solution that resonates with the real-world needs.

A concept can be an abstract idea. As a designer, you have to sketch out your ‘mental representation’ of what could be a design solution. It may not be a great design solution in the first attempt. Conceptualization is a process of creating multiple design solutions, improvising the same, and arriving towards a mature design solution.

Conceptualization is about having different points of reference and deriving the different meanings, accordingly.

As you may recall in our older blog post – the design explorations / sketches that you create, will depend upon various data points. Now you have all the information you need from the stakeholders and users, you got the tools and the blank paper is staring at you :). How do you start? Just take a paper and pencil and start sketching :). Capture all the concepts that come to your mind.

Let me present an example here – I was working with TechMahindra till Apr’13. Here is the ariel view of it’s offices in Pune (courtesy – Google Maps).

TechMahindra Office in Pune City

TechMahindra Office in Pune City

Marker A represents the building I was located in – Annex, 2nd floor.  I was told to relocate to the adjacent building named Sharda Center 5th floor, indicated in the picture by marker B. The highlighted box in the photo shows walking bridges that connects two buildings.

The architecture of these two building presented food for thought – what was supposed to become a routine activity (moving around from one building to another) suddenly became a need to ‘learn’ 🙂 – the way the buildings are connected, where the elevators are located and how the elevators operate :).

This is how the buildings were connected to each other, via the walking bridges:

  • 1st and 2nd floor of Annex were jointly connected to 2nd floor of Sharda Center
  • 4th and 5th floor of Annex to 4th and 5th floor of Sharda Center

The Annex had three elevators – a parking elevator that stopped on every floor. Two capsule lifts/elevators that stopped at alternate floors only (i.e Capsule lift#1 will stop at floors 0, 2, 4, 6 and 8. Lift#2 will stop on floors 1, 3, 5 and 7).

Sharda Centre had 3 elevators and none of the elevators stopped on 1st floor – the 1st floor was not rented by TechMahindra. In contrast to the Annex, these elevators stopped on every floor.

So here I was looking at a design problem – how to ensure that there is a ‘smooth passage’ from one building to another?

I took this opportunity of chaotic architecture and elevators to come up with information graphics. I experienced the confusion first-hand to move from one building to another. My peers (15 designers) were also in the same boat :), who had been told to relocate from the Annex to Sharda Center.

I made an assumption that visually I will show only one of the floors (between 1st and 2nd floor of Annex) to be connected to 2nd floor of Sharda Center – to avoid further complications. The concepts that I created can be termed as ‘explorations’ – I experimented on different orientations, visual forms to present the ‘chaos’ in a lucid manner. For some concepts, I succeeded and for some, I did not :).

I created the following six concepts / sketches addressing this unique design problem:



















Of course, there could be more visual representations of the same problem. May be #1and #6 and be combined and something new can emerge. It’s all about putting down your mental representations on the paper and trying to achieve different points of view :).

Going back to the first story, I came back to present my 4 new design explorations and presented it my mentor. He was glad to see the variations in thinking. Talking about the design constraints, he concluded, “Do what you can…..where you are & with what you have”. I responded to his advice and I hope I have responded well :).

We have almost reached to the end of 4-step journey of paper prototyping. In our next and last post (Step 4 of 4), let’s look at paper prototypes’ validation techniques and activities conducted after paper prototyping.

Step 4) Understanding the target devices /platforms – PART 2 of 4

“Do not get trapped in tools! Focus on the design problem & apply the best design practice”- was one of my mentor’s guiding principles on user experience design.

I believed in him. That was 2004 then. Web 2.0 had not yet hit Indian shores. The designers had very limited digital tools for wireframing. Microsoft Excel & Visio were the de-facto tools for digital wireframing. I never visualized that the mighty Excel could churn out interactive prototypes. I found a new respect for Microsoft Office applications.

Couple of years down the line, Web 2.0 was in everyone’s slidepacks, the social networking phenomenon caught attention of users (Orkut was the cool place to be), and mobile apps ecosystem made a grand debut. The digital product design required new set of tools, new hands & minds of the designers. New interaction patterns were designed & published every day.  Some designers of 2004 had to take a ‘T-shaped’ approach towards design. I am one of them.

Tools – old or new, the way to reach a digital prototype has not changed. Paper prototype is never omitted :). Digital prototypes are created after the paper prototypes mature.

What has changed is the way the tools / stencils / templates are used, in creating paper prototypes. Earlier, I used a blank canvas for sketching user journeys. Now, I use the following templates –

1)   Designing a web based application / portal / enterprise dashboard

Browser Template

Browser Template

The result of using this template is –

Usage: Browser Template

Usage: Browser Template



2)   Designing an iPhone application

iPhone Template

iPhone Template

The result of using this template is –

Usage: iPhone Template

Usage: iPhone Template

3)   Designing an iPad application

iPad Template

iPad Template

The result of using this template is –

Usage: iPad Template

Usage: iPad Template

4)   Designing an Android application

Android Template

Android Template

The result of using this template is –

Usage: Android Template

Usage: Android Template

Of course, there are multiple templates that you can choose from. Sample this: http://www.geekchix.org/blog/2010/01/03/a-collection-of-printable-sketch-templates-and-sketch-books-for-wireframing/

Remember, as the saying goes, “let’s not get trapped into tools” :). Achieve a fine balance between the UX design tools and the design philosophies. Get the job done :).

In our next post, let’s see how to sketch on the paper – how to conceptualize the user journeys.

Step 4) Understanding the target devices /platforms – PART 1 of 4

It’s time.
It’s time to design.
You know the users.
You know the market.
You know the people very well, whose money is riding on your idea :).
You know the timelines.
You know the constraints.

It is important to know the devices/platforms that you are designing for. The software and hardware are intertwined. Know the devices / platforms well enough so that your design solution utilizes the device’s capabilities to a great extent.

Get yourself familiarized with the device. If you are designing an interface for television, spend hours playing with the TV remote and watching TV. TV remote may open up possibilities in your interface design.

TV Guide

TV Guide

If you are designing a control panel for a washing machine, get the brains of the industrial design and engineering team. Understand the machine capabilities, the happy paths (e.g. musical tone to indicate that washing is done – scenarios in which user will not encounter any problem) and exceptions that come with the machine (e.g. the washtub is overloaded). Understand what the machine CAN DO and CANNOT DO. People will tell you what the machine is SUPPOSED to do :).

Washing machine control panel

Washing machine control panel

Test the device to the limits – both in terms of software and hardware. Imagine the worst-case scenarios of usage.

When iPad was launched in 2010, Amazon came up with a funny ad for Kindle. Clearly, it knew the device positives, the users and the context. Here is the ad:

We have embraced touch-screen interactivity in majority of the devices. Mobiles, tablets, ATMs, point of sale terminals, medical devices, field-force devices all have touch-screen capabilities.

Devices also come with their own interaction & visual design language.  Apple’s iOS applications have to be designed keeping in mind the ‘Apple-ness’ – the way interfaces look and behave.

Apple has published its Human Interface Guidelines to help designers and developers create new iOs apps.

iOS Human Interface Guidelines

iOS Human Interface Guidelines

Google also has published its Android mobile UI guidelines. Slowly and steadily, it is bridging the gap with iOS in terms of the ‘experience’ of using Android applications, vis-à-vis iOS applications.

Android Design Guidelines

Android Design Guidelines

E-commerce websites have evolved over time. Take example of Amazon that started selling books and now sells everything on earth. Another candidate is eBay, which has maintained its DNA of being the flea market on the web, right from its inception. eBay has undergone changes to its website.

eBay has published its ‘pattern library’ online to familiarize the interaction designers & visual designers with its unique templates that define the eBay experience.

eBay UI pattern library

eBay UI pattern library

Understanding the devices brings in our discussion on the ‘T-approach” in older post: know the devices and target platforms as much as the user needs. A little more knowledge will surely help you. Less knowledge about the device / platform may create a loosely coupled design solution.

Gene Kranz, the flight director of Apollo13 quoted the famous lines while discussing the options of bringing the astronauts back to earth. His team members debated on the limitations of the lunar module – designed only for landing on the moon, not to fire the engine & come back. Kranz replied, “I don’t care what anything was designed to do. I care about what it can do.”

Great designers see the product in one shot – fusion of hardware, software, interactions and experiences. That’s what makes a great product great :).

In our next post, lets look at the tools that you will need to create the sketches / paper prototypes.

Step 3) Create the user task matrix – PART 4

“I can do this all day” says Captain America, while getting beaten up by the villain, Johann Schmidt / Red Skull. Comes in a curt reply of the villain, “Yes, but I am tight on schedule!” :).

Got the point? How many times, you are going to do the same things all over again? How many days in a week? How many days a year – doing same things, keeping your anxiety in check, pardoning mistakes and delivering the expected results.

Imagine the massive amount of data that goes into an airplane pilot’s memory when he/she sees the plane cockpit.



Through training, through books/manual support and with the help of telecommunication crew, the pilots learn to fly the plane and ensure the safety of everyone on-board. Imagine the number of tasks the pilots do in a 14-hour flight – e.g. to put the plane in ‘auto-pilot’ mode is also a task :).

With great interfaces, systems and controls, comes a great responsibility for the pilots :).

It is an interesting subject to read how pilots use the controls and how do they communicate to the ground control systems in case of emergency situations. More curious readers can pick up  ‘Outliers: The Story of Success’ by Malcolm Gladwell to understand the erroneous situation that lands the pilots into crashes. It’s a digression, but a worthy one.

Okay, let’s do a recap.

In the first post of the user task matrix we saw how important it is to ‘know’ someone. Not on the surface, but real deep.

In post #2, we saw different examples that lead to gathering user insights – real life case studies that made some products a success, and some a failure.

The last post summarized all the points in how to go about gathering your user data – what to look for, how to probe, defining goals and tasks and understanding the user aspirations.

What’s next?

Walk to the whiteboard with your design team and arrive towards creating the user task matrix.

Take a look at a sample user task matrix:

User Goal: Booking an airline ticket
How many times the user performs this task (Frequency): Never, Rare, Multiple

Task Matrix for "Booking a Ticket"

Task Matrix for “Booking a Ticket”

Supplement this task matrix with numbers – e.g. assume that there are 10000 casual tourists, 500 travel agents and 100 frequent fliers.

A different design direction will emerge if the numbers are like these: 10000 casual tourists, 10000 travel agents and 5000 frequent fliers.

The task matrix will help you to find what is the critical part of the user experience – things that should not be compromised. If you look at the above task matrix (booking a ticket) the most important task that emerges is ‘searching travel routes’. From all the user journeys this part of the solution has to be crafted very carefully.

Your task matrix also determines the emphasis your design solution would be – e.g. if the travel guide will not be used by 2 out of 3 users, would the travel guide be ‘discoverable’ or will it be shown as an explicit link (secondary menu) or will be included as a part of ‘self-help’.

Imagine another user goal – troubleshoot a ticket booking problem on the website.  Lets break up this goal into tasks. Your user study may produce the following task matrix:

Task Matrix - Troubleshooting

Task Matrix – Troubleshooting

When you encounter situations like these, apply the numbers. Sit with the business analysis team, portal development team and CxOs of the organization to share your task matrix – your data might change the course of customer experience.

Let’s say that the airline company wants to keep the cost of Helpdesk calls to the minimum or reduce Helpdesk calls’ cost to 25%.

You have done your math (number of users, their task frequencies and all). As a designer you have to achieve the balance – how to justify the users immediate and latent needs vis-à-vis the organizational goal.

The task matrix will tell you half the picture – what users do. Get the other story too – what business wants.

In this situation, your design solution could be to have an intelligent search and directory-wise listing of help topics. If the users do not find solution with search and listing, expose the customer help channels in the following order: 1) Email your problem to the Helpdesk 2) Online chat with the customer agent 3) Toll-free number with wait times.

I visit travel websites often. Two websites that recently caught my attention are Superfly and Joobili.



Superfly simplifies the travel experience – archiving your past travel data, consolidating travel miles and giving great travel options and rewards.



Joobili steers away from the conventional travel approach – booking flights and hotels. It presents the places you can visit in a given timeframe, e.g. if you are in London it will tell you great places to visit – related to arts, music, sports, shopping, etc. For any tourist, this site offers plenty of places to explore.

Examples like these make you think about the overall business goal, the user aspirations and chosen design strategy. I assume that the task matrix for these websites must have opened a new directions for the stakeholders – i.e.. aggregate the travel experience of different airlines (Superfly) and leave aside the booking aspect and concentrate on the places & events in cities (Joobili).

There are some variations to the task matrix, in terms of representation. Consider this version of a task matrix, for a causal tourist user:

Task Matrix - different representation for a Casual Tourist user

Task Matrix – different representation for a Casual Tourist user

The severity ratings of the task-matrix can be further explained as:

Severity Ratings

Severity Ratings

As said earlier, the task matrix brings in the clarity and puts you on the path to design. Keep this task matrix as a yardstick if the design solution is deviating from the requirements.

  • Design for the lowest common denominator – the most frequent user with the most basic needs, who has the least sophisticated level of taste, sensibility, or opinion among a group of people. Keep in mind that these users are bound to fail in performing the tasks; they will need support and training.
  • Design for an intermediate skilled user – users that learn to adjust with the system by learning but fall short of performing complex tasks without aid.
  • Design for the expert user too – who uses shortcuts and jumps over the lines to finish the task in a fast track.

Look at the ‘ribbon’ options offered by Microsoft Word. Is it helping the users or is it overwhelming? Think about the task matrix for a tool like Microsoft Word.

Microsoft Word

Microsoft Word

Imagine some one in real-life saying “I do this all day” and does a specific task, e.g. creating Chapati / Roti (Indian bread) in a street-side restaurant.

Watch this video: Making Chapati very fast – India. Thanks Florian Bachmann for this video.

That sums up the STEP 3 of creating user task matrix.

In coming posts, we will see how to start sketching on the paper, conceptualizing your digital products, keeping in mind the target devices.

Step 3) Create the user task matrix – PART 3

“This appears to be a great plan. Unfortunately, we do not have time & budget to do this. You know, we are running against the time. Moreover, what you intend to find, we already know it, right?” are the sentiments echoed by majority of the stakeholders who are in no mood to green-light the user research.

“What’s wrong with a phone call with users?” the designers fight back. This draws a blank response :). Working with constraints opens up new possibilities.

Forrester Research too understood the constraints of user experience designers in conducting user research and they have published a whitepaper based on this – “Low-Cost User Research And Usability Testing Techniques”by Vidya L. Drego, Andrew McInnes, Harley Manning, and Rachel Zinser.

It starts with an interesting premise – ‘User research and testing don’t need to break the bank’ – it goes on to elaborate on low-cost user research techniques like desk research, connecting with online users, talking to subject matter experts, conducting user experience reviews, creating quick paper prototypes and testing with ‘surrogate users’, etc.

There are many techniques (time saving, deep probing, activities driven, etc) which will get you to the roots of user needs. Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences has come up with a toolkit – created by Bas Leurs, Peter Conradie, Joel Laumans, Rosalieke Verboom.

Here is the URL: http://project.cmd.hro.nl/cmi/hci/toolkit/index2.php.

Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences UX Toolkit

Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences UX Toolkit

Do not get overwhelmed by this list – the ‘Research & analysis’ step. You have to always be in ‘improvisation’ mode :).

I go through the predicament of ‘no-budget’ many a times in my projects. I use combination of different techniques – conducting user experience review, analyzing the web traffic, creating the competitive benchmarking matrix, quick paper prototyping and creating a case to quantify business benefits.

Whatever your technique is or combination of techniques used, you have to discover the following things:

1. How many users are currently using the product? Understand the volumetric data – how many users will be impacted with design changes.

2. What are the different types of users using the product? E.g. The HR executive might be accessing the corporate portal to get CVs of prospective employees. The potential employees might be interested in ‘careers’ section of the website. An investor might directly go to ‘news’ section of the portal. Understand the width and depth of users.

3. When do they use this product? E.g. Luke Wroblewski presents a great insight in his book ‘Mobile First’ on three scenarios in which users access their mobiles –

  1. Micro tasking: e.g. scenarios like the latest football /basketball match score that I want to know, which is updated every minute.
  2. I need to find something urgent local info – e.g. where is the nearest ATM? Where can I find drive-in restaurants?
  3. I am bored – I have to kill time and not sure what to do, may be play a game, or watch a video or look at the photos on my phone, or listen to a song while I am standing in a queue.

4. How do they use the product? Why do they use the product? – Is it being used the way it should be or the users have ‘re-engineered’ the product / tailor made the product to their daily usage? E.g. the immensely popular story in product design was washing machine being used to churn ‘lassi’ – the buttermilk in Punjab. Perhaps, it is stretching your imagination about the product’s intended usage. Great insights can open up a new product design idea altogether. LinkedIn, which started off as business networking site is now being used by recruitment site by many companies.

5. The previous point actually brings us to a very important question – What do the users really want to do? What are their goals? – e .g. if you are designing a bike, the overall user goal could be safety while driving. Another goal could be easy troubleshooting of the bike. If you are designing a restaurant app for mobile, one of the user goals could get the table booked. For airline booking, the user goal could be booking a seat. If we break this goal into smaller steps i.e. user tasks the tasks could be booking a seat of user preference, checking in online, download the flight boarding pass, etc.

6. What are the users’ immediate needs? – In some cases, users use the product in spite of the pain points – the product might cause them discomfort, it might irritate them a bit, perhaps leading them to anger management issues :). These users may have found a way to ‘deal with it’ – compromising the product shortcoming and using it in different way that impacts the efficiency. E.g. Android phone users missed the screen capture functionality on the mobile, when the mobile OS was launched – they had to actually capture the screenshot by clicking a photo of the phone screen. In later releases of Android OS, Google introduced the screen capture functionality with hardware controls (power button + volume down buttons pressed together).Designers will notice these kinds of issues when they meet the users, looking at the product usage and incorporate these changes in the new product release.

Flexible Straw

Flexible Straw

Another example is of the flexible straw, which was invented by Joseph Friedman – he saw his daughter having a tough time with the straight straw while drinking. He created corrugations in the paper straw using a screw and made a prototype of it, patented it and made a career out of it. The flexible straw is one of the distinguished products that finds itself in the list of ‘Design for All’ products list – a product that is used by many people, as possible without the need for adaptation.

7.  What are users’ specific needs? E.g. Most ecommerce websites in India have adopted the model of ‘cash-on-delivery’, which was made popular by Flipkart. Unlike US, you do not have to pay upfront on the website to buy.  Specific needs always go hand in hand with the culture of the target users, the ‘context’ in which users interact with the product – e.g. What’s the use if the user is not able to print a photo from the photo-blogging application on iPad? Users will abandon the product immediately.

8.  The user aspirations: “read between the lines” i.e. users’ hidden needs– There are some things that the users won’t disclose in your conversations. You need to be probed deeper. Buying a car or bike might elevate the ‘status’ of the user. Perhaps the product can enhance the ‘socio-economic’ image of the user.  Some people will buy a certain brand that sets them apart from the mass. There are always mass products and class products. Some products always exude desirability – think of all Apple products. The reason Apple products are popular is not only because of their finesse in industrial design & user experience – there is a factor of “I want to get it because it’s the best thing to have” which is attached to all its products.

Cadbury Bournville

Cadbury Bournville

Marketing professionals rely on this aspect to position their product. In India, Cadbury’s Bournville is positioned very intelligently – their tag line says “You don’t buy a Bournville you earn it

LML Vespa

LML Vespa

In 1980s, LML Vespa (now Vespa India) introduced one significant feature to its scooter, which its archrival company, Bajaj Auto could not. Guess what that product feature could be :)? It was single-key operation. Yes, one key for all the users tasks – starting the scooter, unlocking the front and side compartments, removing the spare tire from the back, etc – all with just one key. The Bajaj scooters had at least 3 keys to do all those operations. That’s a great insight that was captured in user research, which was ‘discovered’ as aspiration and perhaps as the pain point of users too.

9.  Do users’ say what they mean and do they mean what they say? – Re-iterating one of the quotes in earlier post “A wise car hears one word and understands two” 🙂 – a designer has to carefully observe the circumstances / contexts in which users give inputs. Users may say something which they do not necessarily mean to use / buy / aspire to buy.

Xerox Star

Xerox Star

Bill Moggridge, in his book ‘Designing Interactions’ summarizes the user research done by Xerox before it launched Star: User interviews were conducted on Star’s predecessor machine Alto and Smalltalk to sense if people will buy a machine which had superior experience as compared to cheap and inferior hardware. Star was launched and IBM PC was launched after Star – IBM was cheap and had inferior experience. But, the users opted for IBM PC. Time, context and needs of the users change over time.

10. Of course, there will be people like Agent J in ‘Men In Black‘, who puts on the dark glasses and says “I make this thing look good”, adding value to the product than its original use :). That line comes at 0:55 in the movie.

Men In Black trailer

Step 3) Create the user task matrix – PART 2

Couple of days back, I read that Flipkart’s online music service Flyte is shutting down. Flipkart is the biggest e-commerce website in India. Flyte was supposed to cash in on Flipkart’s brand equity and sell music. So what went wrong?


Flipkart Flyte


Google Wave

Google Wave

Remember this logo? It’s Google Wave – The revolutionary internet tool that was supposed to replace email, the de-facto communication tool of every person. Google thought that users would ride the wave and make it their first choice tool for messaging. It had a great start, but soon Google had to rework their strategy and discontinue the product.

It was little bit of email, little bit of chat and little bit of everything else. The curiosity value it had, made the users adoption easy. When Google announced that they were discontinuing the tool, thousands of users’ protested for discontinuing the tool. Was Google wrong in gauging users’ needs? Were the users not ready for this tool – was the product way ahead of its time? Can this be a case of Google making assumptions about user behavior and extrapolating the test results? Perhaps, there were business reasons too to discontinue the service.


Kelloggs Corn Flakes

Kelloggs Corn Flakes

Consider the case of Battle Creek (MI) based company, the brand we all are familiar with – Kelloggs. The cereal giant’s focus on Indian breakfast table has not generated enthusiastic response. It is a difficult proposition to enter into Indian food market for any American brand, that too in the breakfast category. It’s not just the ‘Indian-ness’ that is crucial to the brand adoption, the consumer / user needs to be probed deeper. India is a complex geography for business; anyone entering this market new or anew often takes cautious steps. Curious minds can refer to these books – ‘We are like that only‘ by Rama Bijapurkar & ‘It happened in India‘ by Kishore Biyani.


Hero Honda Street

Hero Honda Street

The Indo-Japanese automotive venture, Hero Honda (now Hero Motors) slowly gained traction in India with its 4-stroke bikes. Thirteen years after it started (in 1984) and gaining great insights, it launched a rotary-gear 4-stroke motorcycle named Street. It was truly a revolutionary technology for urban commuters, the ease of riding, low maintenance and the Hero Honda trust factor – all these points stacked up to make it a success. I was one of the enthusiastic buyers :). I still drive one to this day. But the bike did not excite larger audience. Positioning of the product was not that great. The company discontinued the production in few years.

Aren’t consumers ready to experiment? Do they really know what they want?  Equations like these are difficult to comprehend – there could be insights gathered from market research. But this research (user research) can also be done before the product is designed, right?

So what makes users buy any product? Their association of the brand is important. The ‘status’ the product imparts, may be important – having an iPhone or any cutting edge smart-phone may matter to some users. Some users may be looking only for the utilitarian value of the product. For many years, Hero Honda’s slogan for the bikes was “Fill it. Shut it. Forget it”. That was indeed sensing the pulse of Indian urban commuters.

Buying cars & bikes is different from shopping online. Buying apps is different from renting movies. Netflix, Facebook, Amazon, eBay care about your online presence and try to construct what you want based on your browsing history – looking at the activities, products you bought, things you recommended to your friends. There are massive data engines that slice and dice your online data to produce a unique persona – your persona that is marketable to other brands. Your persona defines what you buy, when you buy, for whom you buy, what do you do at the day time, what apps do you download, do you listen to the music in transit, etc.

This book might be a good reference to understand the psyche of buyers-  ‘Buy.ology’ by Martin Lindstorm.

Steve Portigal of Portigal consulting has just released his new book – ‘Interviewing Users: How to Uncover Compelling Insights’. It is a great starting point for anyone who wants to understand the nuances and benefits of conducting user interviews.

Does gathering user insights really help? Yes.

Can you base line your decisions based on the gathered insights. May be.

Yes, may be. A decision maker may be of two types – one who wants to take a decision with a hint of data and one who go by the data. Gut-feel is always complemented with varying levels of data.

India’s mobile telephony market began its journey in 1994/95. Many operators were planning to enter the market and resorted to user and market research. One of the leading telecom operators did an exhaustive study covering many metros and arrived at one greatest insight that give them sleepless nights – ‘India is not ready for mobile service’.

Users did not feel the need to carry a phone everywhere they went. It was more of a distraction in their personal lives. Pagers were popular and sufficed the need for urgent communications. Carphones never made it to the Indian market. So what would a mobile make a difference?

The telecom operator decided to put aside the research report and launched the service. BPL Mobile (now branded as Loop Mobile) launched its mobile service in 1995 and became the first mobile service provider in India.

In 2004, I was undergoing certification from IDC IIT Mumbai in Human Computer Interaction (HCI). One of the subjects was contextual study – going to the users’ place of work, observing them, interviewing them and gathering insights. Our instructor told us that not to underestimate the power of ‘observation’ & ‘questioning’. His mantra was simple and I admired it – if you ask garbage questions you will get garbage answers :).

My friend Ninad and I chose to interview the laundry owner. Our objective was to understand how he conducted his business and see an opportunity of designing any product / service for him. We were surprised to see that the laundry owner was using the Nokia 3310 mobile (one of the most popular mobile at that time).

A little background about mobile – in 2004, mobile phone was not ubiquitous as it is now in India. The incoming and outgoing call charges were huge and the mobile usage was limited to very few.

Nokia 3310

Nokia 3310

While talking to the laundry owner, we discovered his daily activities, how he managed the business, etc. He was a literate person but he did not understand English (being native of Pune and Marathi being the first language). He then stumped us – he actually demonstrated how he used the mobile – Nokia 3310, which had English as the only language of operation.

He opened the texting application (Messages), went to the drafts folder, selected a message “Your clothes are ready for pickup”, typed in a customer mobile number and sent the message :).

He had learnt this from his son; a teenager and he understood that technology can do wonders to his business :).