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Enterprise UX: Contextual Inquiry in the Discovery Timeframe

Contextual inquiry is a User Centered Design (UCD) technique where you interview the user in context of their work while they perform real tasks.

A saying we often hear in design studios and product labs these days is to “fall in love with the problem.” In my opinion, the best way to start that relationship is to make a date with it by doing contextual research.

This ethnographic research method, which ideally should be completed before any solutions or designs are in place, is when you go “into the field” and sit with a user and interview that user while they complete specific tasks. Contextual inquiry is a powerful methodology, because when you immerse yourself in the world of the user you will uncover not only what the problem is, but you will also uncover why the current solution is a problem for a user.

The following is a list of “tips and tricks” I use when applying this research method in the enterprise setting.

Before you go onsite:

  1. Scope and prioritize your problem. Contextual research will uncover a treasure trove of data. In order to ensure that the data you collect is relevant and manageable, make sure you have scoped your research and prioritized what tasks you want to observe when you are onsite.  
  2. Conduct a short telephone interview prior to arriving onsite. This is a technique I have come to rely on. A conversation with the participant prior to going on site is critical to defining how your day of onsite research will unfold.  Your enterprise user is probably a knowledge worker and the tasks that you might be investigating might only a subset of their daily work duties, so this interview is a good time to understand how frequently they complete the tasks you want to observe. If the user doesn’t complete the tasks you want to observe on a daily basis, ask them to save those tasks for the day you visit them so you can observe them completing them in person.
    The telephone interview is the best time to confirm if you can take photos and record the session. I also find it valuable to confirm whether or not I will have access to proprietary or confidential information.

When you are onsite:

  1. Go in teams of two to observe your user. User research should be a team sport – ensure that representatives from Product, Development and any other key Stakeholders attend contextual interviews. This opportunity to see a user in the “real world” will create empathy for the user and also help you build alignment as you design a solution for problem. 
    Create a note taker template for team member to create a “baseball card” for each user that they meet with.
    Screen Shot 2018-03-29 at 8.55.01 AM
  2. Have a high-level script (or even better, a list of themes) to reference on a clipboard when you meet with the user. A contextual interview is an in-person conversation that will require acute observation and eye contact when you are engaged in conversation. Be aware that you will not be able to follow script in the same way you would with a usability study.  A technique that I use is to have a list of themes that I want to cover on a clipboard, instead of a list of interview questions. Notes can be jotted down next to conversation themes, and when a theme is complete it can be easily checked off.
    The clipboard also to not rely on your user’s space and enables you to be mobile and change your vantage at any point during the conversation with your user.

  3. Use the Master/Apprentice Model when Conducting the Inquiry. There are many different interview methods that you can employ when doing a contextual inquiry, as suggested by Beyer and Holtzblatt in their seminal book: Contextual Design. I prefer the Master/Apprentice Model. Using this method, think of the participant as the Master and yourself as the Apprentice – you are there to learn her craft. As an Apprentice you can ask intermittent questions to understand discrete steps and user rationale as the participant narrates their process to you.
  4. Watch how the person completes tasks. Contextual research will unearth core user behaviors and needs. As you sit with the user, you will be able to see what tools they use and what work-arounds they have.
    Keep a keen eye to see 
    when they are using a calendar, a checklist or a notepad to track their work.Workarounds typically indicate that the systems the users are implementing are not comprehensive in helping them complete their work. 
  5. Understand how the user interacts with others in the enterprise, and how it impacts their employee experience. Who is it in the enterprise that directs their work? Who approves their tasks? What or who can interrupt or derail their work? This information will provide some additional context to how the user’s work intersects with the work of others in the enterprise.  
  6. Collect artifacts. Simply put, you are on a field trip – bring back valuable photographs, photocopies and screenshots. These “postcards” from the trip not only help document your story, but will also be triggers to help you remember the conversations you had when you were onsite.

After the Onsite:

  1. Create an affinity diagram to analyze the data. Have each person that attended an onsite interview participate in helping to identify key learnings. Each team member can reference their “baseball card(s)” and the artifacts collected, to create post-its that encapsulate the data points they learned. Holtzblatt and Beyer suggest 100 post-its per person. As the post-its accumulate, group them together. Build consensus until, as a team, you feel you have merged together the ideas into a manageable number of insight groups.
  2. Create a UX deliverable that tells the story. The data gathered from a contextual inquiry is foundational research – it can be referenced throughout the development lifecycle. With the insight groupings you identified through affinity diagraming, you will be able to determine if a video diary, infographic, persona, user journey, empathy map, flow chart or another suitable deliverable will best tell the user story.

Contextual inquiry will be the spark that will ignite your relationship with the problem. As a design is developed, the insights gathered from the discovery phase will accurately inform you if the solution you design solves the user’s problem.

ps: Contextual inquiry can also be done between development cycles to understand how users are using the design/application. Continuing contextual research can inform the team as to which features are accepted by users, what gaps still exist in the product, and help define the next set of requirements for the product release.

Goodbye 2017: Another Year in the Enterprise UX Research Trenches

v2teena_blog_authorAnother eventful, productive, and at times tumultuous year rapidly comes to a close, and as January looms….

I reflect on another twelve months spent navigating the enterprise UX research trenches, and wonder: What advice do I have for those who might be new to these trenches?  Noted below are some key strategies that have helped me run 1:1 user research studies during the last year. I will certainly carry these user research “tips and tricks” into 2018 and beyond.

Screen Shot 2017-12-27 at 5.04.16 PM

  1. Do a pilot test. Even if you have been to the rodeo before, it’s critical to test your study with someone, prior to running your first participant. The pilot participant can be someone that works at your company, but should not be someone involved with the design or development of the product. Through my many years of completing  pilot sessions, I have always found a better way to word a question or pace my study.
    If you can get your product owner and developer stakeholders to attend the pilot session, that is definitely a BONUS! It is their opportunity to ensure that business goals are aligned with research goals. 
  2. Know details about your participant (who is often a customer) prior to your session. When designing enterprise experiences, your users are often customers. I find it valuable to look at the participant’s LinkedIn profile before the session, to see how long she has been in her current role. If your company has accessible customer data, it is great if you can see the full suite of products and services the company has purchased and implemented. This will enable you to get a sense of what other applications the user is interacting with during their workday, and how the product you are gathering insights on fits into the context of their customer experience.

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  1. Create a rapport and clearly outline the study protocol with the participant. Creating rapport can be as simple as asking the participant how their day is going. If the session is in person, ask them if they had any issues finding the office. If the session is remote, ask how the weather is in their city. Next, give the user a sense of how long you will be chatting, and how the session will unfold. It is common courtesy, but it’s also informative, and sets the stage for a relaxed and focused conversation.
  2. Ask the participant to verbalize their thoughts, feelings, and opinions while interacting with the stimuli. This “think aloud” technique might not be natural for all users, but it is a great way to capture a wide range of cognitive activities; this technique focuses on gathering information on the thought process of the user undertaking the task. Think aloud will also give you insights into terminology she would use for the process or items shown to her on the screen.
    Don’t be afraid of silence while the participant is “thinking aloud.” Often times, participants will “dig deeper” for insights if you allow that moment for them to reflect.  
  3. Learn the three basic facilitation techniques suggested by the Nielsen Norman Group: echo back, boomerang and Columbo. These techniques will enable you to gather key insights, while not influencing or biasing the participant. The echo is simply repeating back the words of the user, in a questioning tone. When the user asks a question,  boomerang the question back to them– for instance, if they ask if a button will navigate them to a another page, respond back with “What do you think the button will do?”  Finally, the Columbo is a technique of being purposely obtuse, so the participant will provide details that allow you to understand her thought process and intentions.  At the core, these techniques will prompt the user to explain their thoughts, and probably give you a deeper explanation that will truly inform the design.
  4. Allow the participant to digress–to follow her train of thought in an organic manner.  Yes, you do have a script and have a set of questions that need to be answered. But real insights (or aha! moments)  often result when you allow someone to go off script.
    I watch the clock carefully while conducting my sessions and ensure there is definitely time at the end to chat off script. This time can be a great opportunity for the participant to give you a response that reflects on a specific task that they completed. It also allows the participant to summarize their experience and “wrap up” details from their perspective. 

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  1. If you have the time, spend 10-15 minutes and jot down or elaborate on the key things you learned immediately after the session. You will be surprised at the accuracy of top-of-mind insights, noted right after the interview. If you wrote a couple of notes in “chicken scratch,” immediately after the session is the best time to elaborate on these ideas, so they are not forgotten. You will find that your high level notes or summary of the session can be formulated in that short time frame.
  2. Listen to the session recording to assess how you did as a Moderator. As a moderator, sometimes it’s annoying to listen to your own voice! But there is much to learn from reviewing and analyzing your own contribution as the interviewer of the session. Use this review as an opportunity to improve both your ability to ask questions and also your facilitation techniques.
  3. Know your audience when you make your presentation and make sure that your findings tell a story about the data. Like any good movie or presentation, a good story contains the following key elements: great characters, a believable challenge, details on obstacles, and finally, the outcome or recommendations to win that challenge. To do this, I often showcase one or more specific users that were interviewed and bring their struggle to life–I indicate how representative she is of the user base. Knowing your data will serve you immensely when you craft your storyline and provide recommendations. The more you know your data, the better you will be able to present the challenge and support it with specific details.
    For New Yorkers and those that have a passion or interest in creating a better world, I highly recommending you following Ben Wellington and his blog here

Soon we’ll all be tackling ambitious new projects, engrossed in whatever goals the New Year brings for our careers. I encourage my fellow researchers to reflect upon and learn from the past twelve months, before you dive back into those trenches! I would love to hear from others about the keys to making their projects successful, and how they will carry those techniques forward as they dive into another year in the UX trenches.  All the best to you in 2018!

There’s a New Pot in Town!


There is a new pot in town, in case you haven’t heard. It’s called… Instant Pot.

This new pot wasn’t created by chefs or an existing cookware vendor. Instead, some resourceful networking and telecommunications engineers decided to create a pot employing the latest technology, to create the best cooking experience. These brilliant and inspired engineers (from Canada, of course) essentially created an electric pressure cooker and slow cooker in one. The merged device focuses on ease of use, speed and product safety. The result is a pot that is disrupting the cooking industry and impacting dining tables across North America.

What is driving the sale of more than a million of these pots? What is motivating its almost fanatical user base to write rave reviews and create Pinterest recipe board after Pinterest recipe board? In my opinion, the product was able to fulfill a modern need that was previously overlooked by any other existing cooking device.

The Instant Pot team took 18 months to design the first iteration of the Instant Pot. The engineers who invented the pot made an effort at the onset to better solve the user’s problem, rather than add a function or feature to an existing design. Clearly, the team made an effort to understand the user’s goals before designing the product.

Users want to have a healthy home cooked meal at the end of the day

As a working mom, I want to provide healthy food and well-planned meals for my family. The fact is, I work full time–I can’t deliver a savory pot of curried chicken on a Wednesday evening, after catching the train home from the office. The Instant Pot team recognized that in our fast-paced world, there is still a need for healthy cuisine that has a “slow cooked” flavor–so they focused on quickening the cook time without sacrificing flavor.

Cooking and sharing a meal is a key social endeavor

The Instant Pot team also understood that cooking is core to human interaction and socialization. The CEO of the Instant Pot, Robert Wang, noted in an NPR article  that, “cooking is very much a social behavior. If people make good food, they will be raving about it, including the tools used….” Wang and his team instinctively knew if they built a product that would encourage families sitting down together, it would be a win for not only the product but also for the families themselves.

The Instant Pot team started by first understanding the problem, developing a deep understanding of the user they were creating the product for and used those insights to inform the design of their magical pot.

Additionally, the team identified pain points with the existing tools. (When it comes to pressure cookers, the term pain point has both a figurative and literal application!)

Pressure cookers are complicated and dangerous devices


The team acknowledged that pressure cookers are not “easy to use” devices and wanted to alleviate that user pain point. In the Ottawa Citizen article, Wang noted that he “still [remembers] yellow stains on the ceiling in my neighbour’s kitchen when I was a child… they opened the lid too soon, and the food hit the ceiling and caused minor burns. It was really scary at the time.”

I too have a horror story with a pressure cooker. After relocating to the San Francisco Bay Area from Canada, as a young woman, one night I had a craving for my Mom’s authentic Indian lentils. My friend Deepak suggested we use his pressure cooker and recreate the sumptuous dish our Punjabi mothers had so often prepared. There was a flurry of phone calls to discuss ingredients, followed by the obligatory warning by both mothers to be careful using the pressure cooker. We worked through the meal prep, “steaming” with anticipation. The time to enjoy the lentils of our labors finally arrived, and we eagerly joined forces to remove the cooker’s weight and then its lid. To our shock and dismay, the ingredients in the pressure cooker spewed all over the kitchen, showering us with scalding droplets. We were unharmed, but our cooking egos suffered some minor burns.

Slow cookers are well… slow


While pressure cookers allow for quick meals (if you are successful at mastering them), slow cookers require patience and time, and are basically a whole day affair. Personally, I only use the slow cooker on days when I know I am home and babysit and “stir the pot” occasionally.

And… some tastes are compromised in the slow cooker

Additionally, if you are a true foodie, the flavors of the food gets compromised in the slow cooker. This simply happens as the items in the slow cooker are in an enclosed pot all day and no steam is removed.  Condensation builds on the lid and eventually drips back into the slow cooker, resulting in diluted flavors and mushy vegetables.

The Instant Pot understood these core user pain points with the existing tools, and sought to create a device that would provide the best flavors without compromising safety and ease of use.

As an article in Today noted, the Instant Pot has programmed cooking settings, “including soup, poultry, rice, beans and chili, and stews—[taking] most of the guesswork out of how long and how high to pressure-cook a meal.”


Finally, the inventors of the Instant Pot are committed to  continuously improving and refining the Instant Pot product for their users.

As noted in the Ottawa Citizen article:

The second iteration Instant Pot added a sauté function, so you can brown meat, then add other ingredients to the same pot to make a slow-cooker stew, for example, without dirtying more than one (dishwasher-safe) pot.The third Instant Pot, called the 7-in-1, added yogurt-maker to the pressure-cooker, slow-cooker, rice-cooker, porridge-maker, steamer and sauté-pan functions.

A key method to improve the product is through their customer community. The Instant Pot has an engaged customer base who have the ability to suggest features on the Instant Pot website. In turn, the development team at Instant Pot promises that they will release a new design every 12-18 month and provide the upgraded model free of charge to any users who have provided suggestions that have been included in the release. The community and customer engagement is key to the success of the product. Wang notes: “If the company can continue to provide quality products and support its customers and online community as it grows, Instant Pot will have staying power.”

While the Instant Pot might not be the next iPhone app nor enterprise solution, the inventors of the device seem to have approached the creation and design of the pot keeping the user at the center of their product design. Unmet customer needs were fulfilled and user pain points were addressed when the first Instant Pot was released. As the product has matured and evolved, the Instant Pot team remains focused to stay close to that customer base by relying on customer suggestions to develop future iterations of the pot.

Instant Pot’s approach to better solving the user’s problem has enabled them to create cookware that has a delightful and superior user experience. The product today has almost an almost fanatical following which owes little to traditional marketing methods. Success for Instant Pot will continue as long as the company remains innovative and connected to their user base.


Explaining UX to Kindergartners


A few months ago, I was asked by my son’s kindergarten teacher to share what I did after I dropped my son off at school.

I had to follow on the heels of one mother who is the vice principal at the middle school in the district, and another who is a professional stylist for children. My curious 5 year old was able to enthusiastically recount in great detail what the other mothers did for a living, and how they were impacting the world.

Thankfully, I believe my job impacts the way people work, and also the world itself–by making workers more effective and productive. I worried I would not be able to explain my meaningful work to my son and his classmates. After all, Caroline’s mother (the vice principal) made her role come to life by taking my son’s class to her middle school, where they saw her office and walked through the halls of the middle school, seeing the older students. Wren’s always well-put-together mommy brought in clothes, and a makeup bag she uses in professional photo shoots. Also, she showed photos and magazines where her work was featured.

How was I going to explain that I create HR enterprise software to a group of rambunctious 5 year olds? I pondered showing them some of the screens we had usability tested a few weeks back. Nope, that wasn’t going to hold their attention. The standard PPT that I share with clients to explain user-centered design just wasn’t going to cut it, either.

I figured that I might not be able to explain creating experiences with enterprise software, but could give the little ones a lesson in the basics of user experience. I decided then to take a page (okay, maybe pages) out of Don Norman’s “The Design of Everyday Things” to aid my discussion and make it more hands on and interesting for the class.

Here is the primer with some lessons for enterprise UX design sprinkled within…


I started by showing the class the following image. I asked the class, “What do you think of these boots.” 2ba0ddab2b57f52947c6f61a46addeb6
Use of image granted by The Uncomfortable:

The children pealed with laughter.

“Those rain boots won’t work!”

“Your feet will get all wet!”

I explained that these boots are exactly as they had noted: not useful.

Lesson for us in enterprise software: When designing products we have to make sure they are useful and solve the user’s problem(s). Create solutions that don’t force users to create a workaround. This will enable users to achieve their goals in a meaningful and productive way.

Mental Model

Next we walked over to the light switch in the corner of the room. I asked the children, “How would you turn the light on?”


A number of the children burst out:

“To turn the lights on, you push it up!”

“The light switch works the same in my room!”

“You push down to turn the light off!”

I took a moment to explain that through use, we come to expect certain actions or tools to work in a consistent and known manner.

Lesson for us in enterprise software: Make sure to design interfaces and experiences that match user’s mental models:

“A mental model is an explanation of someone’s thought process about how something works in the real world. It is a representation of the surrounding world, the relationships between its various parts and a person’s intuitive perception about his or her own acts and their consequences. Mental models can help shape behavior and set an approach to solving problems (akin to a personal algorithm) and doing tasks.”
(Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Consistency is critical when selecting widgets or placing navigational objects on the user interface. A user needs to be able to complete their tasks in an efficient manner and having these known navigational or gesture patterns in place, will create an overall seamless user experience.

Call to Action

Next I reached for an iPad and showed a screen from children’s game . I asked the class where they would click on to start this game.


The eager class belted out that they would click on the green arrow. Instinctively the children knew where to press to start the game.

Lesson for us in enterprise software: Where using bold childlike imagery or text isn’t the solution for enterprise software, a clear call to action on the task or tasks a user can complete is necessary in a user interface, so that a user can efficiently do their work in the system.

Pain Points

Next, I passed juice boxes around so they could touch and feel a physical object and provide feedback.juicer

As the children tried to sip and sipped their juice, there were a number of comments heard.

“Can you help me take my straw out of the wrapper?”

“I can’t put my straw in the box.”
(As I observed one student try and insert the “wrong” end into the juice box)

“Can I have a tissue?”
(In response to an inadvertent squeezing of the juice box)

After my end user observation, I asked the thirsty kindergartners what issues arose with the juice boxes. As expert end users, they described the issues:

  1. The straw can be hard to remove from the box (assuming that the box has a straw J)
  2. Putting the straw in the juice box was difficult. Often times, the little fingers were trying to insert the wrong side of the straw into the box.
  3. The juice can easily be spilled if the student accidentally squeezes it.
  4. It’s hard to know if you have finished drinking the contents of the juice box.
  5. You can’t see what the juice looks like.

Lesson for us in enterprise software: Understand your users. For enterprise software, you user might is not the person purchasing the software. Continuously improve the design of your product by testing it with end users and understanding their wants, needs and pain points.

My examples were complete and I had a bunch of sugar-happy students on my hands. I took a few minutes to explain the concepts we had discussed and experienced. After the discussion on user experience was complete, I summarized what I do at my work to the class: “I make sure that your mommies’ and daddies’ work can be done in the most effective and efficient manner possible.”

My presentation was done. I left the school feeling like maybe there were some design thinkers in the group and just maybe they were inspired.

That night at dinner, my son said, “Mommy, I am glad you make it easier for people to do their work! Did you bring any of those extra juice boxes home?”

It all goes to show you that everything you need to know you learned in kindergarten; and once in while it’s good to get a reminder of that simple approach to learning.

Undercover Boss: Drawing Parallels between a Popular Reality Show and UX Methodologies


While flipping through random TV stations the other night, I found myself landing on an episode of Undercover Boss. If you haven’t seen the show before, the premise is this: a powerful corporate executive, usually one that leads a multi-million dollar company, disguises him (or herself) and goes undercover to discover certain realities about the day-to-day operations of his business. The CEO sees firsthand what his lower ranking employees are dealing with and eventually, there is an emotional moment when the CEO has a powerful epiphany, realizing he has to change the way he manages some of his business operations to have a more successful company and happier workforce. It dawned on me, as I found myself immersed in the televised world of Undercover Boss, that the show is inadvertently showcasing user research methods and advocating user research as a catalyst for innovation and change.

Contextual Interview

The episode of Undercover Boss I watched featured Mitch Modell, CEO of Modell’s, the East Coast’s largest sporting goods retailer, who shaved his head, sported a fake mustache, put on casual clothes and showed up to one of his stores in Connecticut as a new trainee. Upon arrival, Mitch meets the store’s manager who walks him through the store and provides an overview of the business. The manager explains some of the challenges in his position while Mitch regales him with questions.

The research methodology that Mitch employs when meeting this manager is the contextual interview. Through targeted questions, Mitch was able to get an inventory of the activities that the manager is involved in on a daily basis and an understanding of the business processes at that particular store. To understand each response, Mitch probes so he can fully understand the manager’s perspective. Additionally, as a result of being in context with the user, Mitch is able to see what work tools and environment the manager uses so he can understand day to day management operations.

Through the contextual interview, Mitch learns the store is not receiving in-demand, seasonal inventory that directly affect profits and productivity. After discussing the issue with the manager, who demonstrates an impressive understanding of both the individual store’s needs as well as the company’s macro-culture, Mitch realizes that in always focusing on Modell’s big picture, he has overlooked important considerations that affect individual stores, customers and employees.

End User Testing

In another scene, Mitch arrives at a company warehouse to work as a warehouse worker. He meets a fellow employee who explains that Mitch will be responsible for getting inventory assembled and transported to the waiting delivery truck.

As Mitch starts working in the warehouse; he quickly encounters issues, such as clumsily knocking over boxes, while struggling to move merchandise with a forklift from one area of the warehouse to another. Mitch also struggles to neatly and efficiently stack boxes on the delivery truck. While Mitch is able to complete the tasks, he does so with assistance from his fellow colleague and additional time on each task.

Even though Mitch is not a true end user, his attempt to complete tasks to achieve a desired result is common to end user testing or usability testing. In usability testing a user is asked to complete tasks so that researchers can understand where he or she encounters problems and experiences confusion. Often, multiple users are asked to complete the same tasks so the researcher can assess if most users are encountering similar problems. The researcher will make improvement recommendations depending on the patterns they see.

By being an end user and completing the tasks in this warehouse “usability test,” Mitch quietly realizes that as a CEO, he has under appreciated this critical job in the company that he was considering for a reduction in pay. Mitch realizes the warehouse role is critical and requires someone a special skill set, specific training. Additionally, he realizes that in order to retain the best employees for this job, he needs to pay them a competitive wage.

User Observation

In yet another scene, Mitch shadows a Modell’s truck driver who is making deliveries on the busy streets of Manhattan.

User observation is a method where a researcher will observe a user in his work environment. Typically the researcher will spend time with the user in order to formulate a full picture of his world. Through observation, a researcher has the ability to gain understanding of an individual’s behavior, tools, tasks and pain points. By observing the user in context, the researcher is able to notice details that the user has taken for granted when completing his or her tasks.

While observing the driver, Mitch sees how he encounters hours of delays as the truck is denied parking at various delivery destinations. The driver is unfazed and notes that these delays are part of the job. Mitch quickly realizes that the warehouse driver has outside forces that inhibit him from doing his job in a timely matter that could be rectified by better delivery schedules. As a CEO, Mitch had no previous understanding of the complicated logistics involved in just this key aspect of his operation.

Insights through Context

Contextual research immerses the researcher in the world of the other person (user). The researcher is able to gather stories, see what the other person is doing (or not doing), and can then frame the problem she is trying to solve contextually. When a researcher goes into the user’s workplace, she develops an unfiltered understanding of current work practices, environment and tools, through observation and the interviewing process.

By “courageously” going undercover, Mitch gains critical insight into both employee and customer experiences at his company, which he has always previously viewed through a macro-lens. These new micro-insights expose various internal issues and greatly increase Mitch’s sense of empathy, for both employees and customers; and these revelations would never have occurred through Mitch’s usual channels of receiving information about Modell’s—like reading a report or hearing second-hand-information. Mitch gains wisdom and perspective that has long eluded him in his role as CEO. He’s a smarter CEO than he was before he personally braved the frontier of contextual research.

Information is Power

The reality show reinforces the notion that true change in a company, as is the case in the field of User Experience, begins at the top. Until the executive branch is intimately aware of existing issues and problems, has experienced them on a visceral level, and is prepared to take thoughtful action to rectify them, nothing significant can happen. As Jeofrey Bean notes in his new book, Customer Experience Rules, “Engaging your CEO is one of the critical rules of creating a great customer experience.” Bean continues, “Customer Experience doesn’t work its way up the organization. Commitment from the CEO is vital to instill a customer experience culture in a company.” Whether he realizes it or not, Mitch Modell engages in three important applications of contextual inquiry—interview, user testing, and user observation—to learn more about his company and to determine where he can make improvements. A CEO who experiences firsthand what his employees deal with, in order to carry out their daily tasks, has the information that will allow him to change the way he manages some of his business operations; and, most importantly, to create a more innovative company and a happier workforce.

The UX Force Awakens

“The Light — It’s Always Been There. It’ll Guide You.”

My career as a User Experience Professional materialized by way of a nontraditional route. I came not from a design or psychology background, like many of my UX peers, but rather arose from the dark side–a place where design knowledge is scarce.  A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away I was an HR Practitioner. I can’t honestly lay claim to assisting the valiant Poe Dameron in obtaining the Skywalker map on Jakku, or destroying the mighty Starkiller base (which, as was the case with its predecessor, is conveniently designed to required only one, well-placed shot!)… but I do believe my early, dark side HCM training fostered an innovative approach to design, and positioned me to help lead the Rebellion charge to create the next generation of experiences for today’s workplace.

In order to escape the sinister clutches of Kylo Ren and the dark side of software design–where users cannot successfully complete tasks, or find the process to do so cumbersome–software designers must employ user-centered design principles, to insure usable and effective software, that increases productivity and also delights the user.


(I ran this by Yoda, and agree he does)

Empathy For the User

After interacting with the rogue Stormtrooper FN-2187, Resistance pilot Poe Dameron affectionately renames the unlikely wingman “Finn.” Despite their diametrically opposed backgrounds and allegiances, Poe identifies with Finn on a personal level, and takes him under his wing to brave the ruthless First Order.

In UX, we also have to take people under our wing. We must have empathy for the users of our software. By understanding how they think and work–context, goals, and motivations–a UX professional is able to create the best solution for a user’s particular wants and needs. This entails having insight into a user’s perspectives, processes and ultimate goals. How do they work? Where do they do their work? Do they get interrupted throughout the day? Do they use spreadsheets outside of the system? Who do they collaborate with? 

I once was the frustrated HR professional who was marching to the First Order leadership, as I completed basic HR tasks on hard-to-use software. I recall needing to quickly on-board 5-8 new employees before a critical payroll deadline; I also had to obtain the necessary approvals from inaccessible managers for a promotion, before I entered the data into the HCM system. Even back then, when J.J. Abrahms was still playing with action figures from the original Stars Wars: A New Hope, I encountered some of the pain points that HCM users still encounter today.

Understanding Business Needs

Poe Dameron’s droid, BB-8, obtains part of the map that will lead to Luke Skywalker, courtesy of Lor San Tekka, but an awakened R2D2, perhaps a bit grumpy since BB-8 is stealing his thunder in the seventh installment of the series, rallies for the team and provides additional details that fully reveal the critical Jedi’s location.

Similarly, business processes span across departments, roles and time.  The HR professional must not only insure that a new hire is engaged and productive as soon as possible–acclimating him or her to the company’s culture and daily operations, facilitating the provision of necessary business productivity tools with the IT department, assigning department and location-specific training, and obtaining required employee information and coordinating with Finance, so they are paid in a timely manner –but must work with other departments to accomplish this task.

Being Innovative and Creating an Awesome Prototype

Just as Han Solo, Chewbacca, and Finn take a chance by going into hyperspace warp to avoid detection and then crashing onto the Death Star, you have to take a chance and commit to an approach, once you know what you are up against… choose a design direction, formulate a concept, and put something on paper (or in a prototype). Be bold and creative! Embrace the force. You might not be as successful (or incredibly lucky) as Han, Chewy and the gang, but the only way you’ll know that is by getting feedback from users.

By sharing the design with users… the people who will ultimately use the product… you can evaluate whether or not it meets their needs and expectations. Regardless of how rudimentary your design, you can improve on it and iterate. User feedback will inform you how to revise the design.

These three UX principles combine to form the basis for a…

Jedi Code of Conduct for the UX Professional

The force can be elusive, but rest assured, the light saber is well in reach. By employing Empathy for the User, Understanding Business Needs, and Being Innovative and Creating an Awesome Prototype, the UX designer can successfully keep the dark side at bay, while designing the best experiences for the enterprise.