Review: User-centred Design – Value and Process

Jenny and I attended a talk given by Dr Rachel Jones of Instrata, and organised by Mark Dalgarno from Software Acumen / Software East.

Rachel’s talk, entitled “User-centred Design – Value and Process” covered both business cases for carrying out user-centred design (UCD) and the activities (the “why” and “how”) of it.

Business cases (value)

Using examples of work that Instrata have done, from web sites to observing product usage to designing a robotic cell incubator, Rachel suggested the following business cases:

  • need to improve appeal and ‘sticking power’ (ex: travel website)
  • differentiation (why people prefer one product over another) (ex: electric shavers)
  • reducing support and helpdesk calls (ex: robotic incubator)
  • promoting innovation (ex: working on gesture-based interaction with surfaces and tablets)
  • where user-focus is critical (ex: labelling and packaging of emergency medical items)
  • alignment with brand (ex: visual consitency; branding and message)
  • simplifying embedded devices (ex: LCD control displays on factory production line equipment)

A few people in the audience made other suggestions for the business case for taking a UCD approach. Jenny and I talked about the EBI, and the fact that one of our mission statements is to make data publicly accessible, and furthermore, to make those access interfaces usable.

Activities (process)

Rachel then went on to talk about some of the activities that her company might perform in this approach to design. Here, we were on the familiar territory of moving from Strategy into Requirements, User Research, and finally into Design. Obviously, in each phase, there are a number of methods and techniques one can employ, and only some will be appropriate for a particular project.

Many of these are the things that we do here, and include:

  • design workshops (nurturing innovations and start-ups)
  • user research (particularly ethnographic studies)
  • persona or user profile development (this is a key thing that Jenny and I are working on)
  • participatory design (including real people (users!) early on and throughout design)
  • detailed design (multifaceted approaches to design, particularly of physical items)

User journeys, not just user scenarios

Perhaps the most interesting thing for me to come out of Rachel’s talk was her description of “user journeys”. The example project she used was one of working with the BBC and the Olympic Committee to look at peoples’ use of technology in relation to Olympic events (i.e. demands on mobile and wi-fi networks).

Before and after

Often, when we develop user profiles (sometimes called personas, in the trade), we also want to create user scenarios to describe their typical goals and activities that we can refer to throughout the design and development process.

So this might be something like, “Brian, a lab-based biochemist, comes to Service X to search for data on Compound Y. He carries out this that and the other action, and then achieves his goal of downloading some data.” (OK, that is a simplified example, but hopefully you get the idea).

But the user journeys that Rachel described weren’t limited to a beginning and an end. They also encompassed a “before” and “after” phase. Reading around how other people employ user journeys, it can also be useful to include a concept of time in the journey, so that you can add more detail to the user activity.

Context, context, context

Jenny and I have been talking a lot about how important it will be to consider the context in which EBI tools and services are being used, to that we can better design the user experience, and the before and after phases are critical for that. It allows us to place our user profiles and scenarios in a context or frame.

What was the user doing before they decided to use this EBI service? What problem are they trying to solve? How does this service fit in with what else they are doing, and other services they might use?

What happens after using the service? If they have downloaded data, how can they use that? Is it in a format that is compatible with other data or critical software?

This sort of information can only really be gathered by going out into “the field”, and observing scientists and bioinformaticians at work, and that is a big part of Jenny’s work.

Lots of good stuff to think about there.


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