The Engineering Stakeholder Interview

Written by: Kim Goodwin

This is an excerpt from from Kim Goodwin’s excellent Designing for the Digital Age. It is quite long, so we’ve broken it into several sections. Many thanks to Ms. Goodwin and Wiley for allowing us to share this with our readers.

Engineering stakeholders

Try to speak with engineering management as well as the design engineer(s), if such a role exists; it’s seldom a good idea to involve the entire engineering team at this point. If there are no design engineers, a system architect and GUI lead may be the best option for software expertise. When hardware is required, be sure to involve the electrical and mechanical engineering leads, as well as anyone responsible for manufacturing.

Programmers and engineers may initially be wary of designers. They may have worked with people who called themselves designers, but who proposed horrendously difficult solutions that seemed “cool.” Programmers may feel that designers are stepping on their toes, since some currently design screens themselves. You might also encounter mechanical engineers who view industrial designers as stylists rather than problem-solvers. However, any technical group’s reluctance to give up control over design is usually due to the fact that so far, they’ve been the most competent to do it. It sometimes takes a while, but once they see that good designers can actually do a better job than they can, most engineers are delighted to let go of the design.

The focus and length of engineering interviews differs quite a bit between a new product and a revision of an existing one; in the first case, there is more room for the design to drive the technology, while in the second, the capabilities of the existing technology, when combined with the project budget and timeline, may introduce significant design limitations.

However, don’t ask what you “can” and “can’t” do because in a healthy organization, that will be a business decision and not a technical one—although physics really does limit what you can do with hardware, there’s very little you can’t do with software given sufficient time and budget. Instead, ask what kinds of things would be hard to do and why.

Engineers also tend to relax more when you say you’re not trying to get them to commit to anything at this point, but simply to get a sense of what they already expect may be challenging. The following questions are helpful on most projects, though most projects call for additional, unique questions, too:

What technology decisions have already been made, and what’s driving them?

In the case of a new product, the technology decisions would ideally happen once the design started to take shape, but this is not always the case. When an existing product is being reworked, the technology train may have left the station a long time ago; the software development platform or perhaps several of the electrical components have already been identified. Even decisions that have already been made are sometimes unmade later, though, if the reasons are compelling enough.

For example, one client told us they had already sunk millions of dollars into a particular system as the basis of their development. However, our later research showed that users had needs this system simply couldn’t address. The company’s executives weren’t excited to see those millions go down the drain, but they were glad they’d learned about the issues before throwing away the additional millions they’d planned to spend.

How large is the engineering team assigned to the project, and what are their skills?

This is ideally determined by what the design requires, but in practice there may be a fixed number of people and days allotted to the work. As with technology decisions, though, designers often better serve the business by questioning such parameters than by accepting them. The most important thing to look for is a mismatch between the expectations for the product and the number and skills of the engineers. If you’re designing a big enterprise product and there are only two developers assigned, you’re going to run into trouble.

Likewise, if the software or hardware team has very limited skills, you may need to scale back your design ambitions, though it’s better to find a tactful way to encourage stakeholders to bring in the appropriate expertise if you can. Lack of skilled programmers was an enormous problem at the height of the dot-com boom, when companies hired anyone who’d taken an HTML class and called them software developers; this seems to be less of a problem during “bust” cycles but is likely to crop up any time there is a shortage of talent. I’ve seen similar issues in organizations where mechanical engineers are only accustomed to doing plastic casings and not designing moving parts.

You may wonder how a designer can assess the skills of an engineer. In truth, most designers can’t. However, if you have enough experience working with skilled people and less-skilled people, you’ll learn that certain attitudes and behaviors tend to indicate skill level. If you hear engineers saying that something is impossibly hard when half of your last ten project teams were able to build it, you might start to wonder.

It’s also a bad sign when programmers are anxious about designs they can’t assemble from off-the-shelf libraries; it could mean the timelines are ridiculously short or they’ve seen truly absurd solutions proposed, but sometimes it means they simply don’t know how to build it. The most skilled programmers and engineers get excited about technical challenges, as long as the challenge is there for a good reason and the timeline is reasonably sane.

Could you draw a diagram and tell me in lay terms how the existing system works?

Sometimes this is important information; sometimes it isn’t. You probably won’t know until later whether you need it. Certain system limitations, such as client-side data that’s not always synchronized or response times that are very slow, can make interaction design more challenging. The same is true of hardware systems; if it won’t be possible to change certain kinds of boards or other components, you may not have much room to change the form factor. Just be sure to take this information as food for thought, rather than as something carved in stone.

Note that there’s a reason to ask for an explanation in both visual and lay terms, as shown in Figure 5.2, even if you think you’re well versed in techno-speak—it encourages clarity, and can be another indication of an engineer’s skill level.

Figure 5.2 Example of an engineer’s system diagram.
Figure 5.2 Example of an engineer’s system diagram.

See also:

Excerpted with permission from the publisher, Wiley, from Designing for the Digital Age: How to Create Human-Centered Products and Services by Kim Goodwin. Copyright (c) 2009.

The Sales Stakeholder Interview

Written by: Kim Goodwin

This is an excerpt from from Kim Goodwin’s excellent Designing for the Digital Age. It is quite long, so we’ve broken it into several sections. Many thanks to Ms. Goodwin and Wiley for allowing us to share this with our readers.

Sales stakeholders

Sometimes sales and marketing are lumped together in an organization, but most large companies split the two functions. In either case, sales and marketing people tend to have different concerns, so it’s important to include one or more senior members of the sales group as part of the product team. This is true even in companies that ship consumer products, since the distributors or stores to which they sell have their own concerns about things like shelf space.

An enterprise system sales team is often closer to the customers than the marketing team is. In most cases, though, that doesn’t mean they’re closer to end users—IT tools and systems used by small groups of experts are the likeliest exceptions. They may also be more focused on the here and now, since they’re getting evaluated and compensated based on today’s sales, while the marketing group is more focused on the future. Sales people may be among the voices pushing to ship the product right away. However, this is tempered by the fact that sales people get an earful when the customers are unhappy, so it’s not in their best interests to push for shipment of a product that isn’t ready.

A sales person’s biggest worry during design research is that there will be other people spending time with his customers, possibly making a bad impression, promising things he can’t deliver, or saying something that will cause the customer to wait and buy next year’s version instead of next month’s incremental upgrade. It’s important to acknowledge these concerns and to promise that you won’t do any of these things.

Good questions for sales people often focus on what they hear from customers or see at customer sites:

Who is typically involved in the purchase decision?

This question will help you identify all of the right people for design research. For example, a hospital IT department may be the apparent customer for an information system, but you may not realize that the heads of medicine, nursing, the lab, and other departments are very influential.

Why do customers buy a product like this one, and why this one over a competitor’s?

This is good preparation for later interviews with customers. A related but sometimes useful question is, “What one thing could we do to this product that would make sales easier?”

When you lose sales, what are the most common reasons?

People are sometimes puzzled at having a designer ask this kind of question, but it’s helpful in identifying potential product weaknesses. In some cases, though, what customers say is not really what they mean. For example, when people cite a competitor’s user interface as better, sometimes it’s not that the behavior is better, but that the visual design is more attractive. In other cases, the deal is lost because the product lacks important functionality or the workflow is inferior. Naturally, there are also reasons that designers are less able to address, such as poor customer service or shoddy manufacturing, though these are worth pointing out to stakeholders.

What things do customers complain about or ask for most often, and why?

Customers, like stakeholders, may ask for certain solutions without identifying the problem they hope to solve; be sure to ask the sales person why customers are asking for particular things. Sales people often don’t take the time to probe and learn the need behind the feature request, but the answer to this question may hint at some things to look for in customer and user interviews.

See also

Excerpted with permission from the publisher, Wiley, from Designing for the Digital Age: How to Create Human-Centered Products and Services by Kim Goodwin. Copyright (c) 2009.

Interviewing Executives and SME Stakeholders

Written by: Kim Goodwin

This is an excerpt from from Kim Goodwin’s excellent Designing for the Digital Age. It is quite long, so we’ve broken it into several sections. Many thanks to Ms. Goodwin and Wiley for allowing us to share this with our readers.

Senior executives

Ideally, there is at least one executive involved who has cross-functional authority and can balance the perspectives of both marketing and engineering; you need this person to make critical decisions, such as what’s worth waiting a little longer for. These are usually the most critical stakeholder interviews, because the way other team members approach product development depends on the views of the people at the top.

It can be difficult to get on a senior executive’s schedule, particularly if the executives regard the product’s design as a secondary concern. If they seem reluctant to spend the time, point out the kinds of strategic decisions that will be made in the course of the design work. However, most executives are more willing to spend this kind of time than people expect.

The concerns of senior executives may include any of the concerns mentioned above for marketing, sales, or engineering, as well as a common concern that they can’t get their subordinates to “see the big picture.”

What do we need to know that you don’t think other members of your team have said?

Senior executives often have a vision or perspective that others in the organization don’t. If they’ve shared that vision much at all, you will have heard it already from multiple people, but some executives communicate about their vision less than they think they do.

We know that both timeline and functionality are important, but if you had to choose one, what would it be?

When there seems to be some controversy about schedule, it’s usually because senior executives are asking to their teams to make omelettes without breaking any eggs. Mention the controversy, then ask what timeline they want you to design for and whether they would rather go to market with an incomplete product or delay shipment to get a product that meets more user needs. (Some designers frame this as “do it fast or do it right,” but it’s best to suspend this kind of judgment; sometimes, doing it “right” means shipping at a certain time to get critical revenue in the door, so tradeoffs have to be made.)

Subject matter experts

If you are working on a consumer product or a business product that involves common work or life activities, you probably won’t need domain experts to help you understand what you see in your research. For products in complex industries, though, subject matter experts (SMEs) are incredibly helpful to have around—so helpful that you might want to hire a consultant to spend a few hours here and there, if there is no expert already on the product team. Even in-house designers with a lot of experience working on certain products can benefit from the perspective of people with deep industry expertise, though they may be able to skip some of the following questions. In-house SMEs are usually part of a product management or professional services group.

A subject matter expert isn’t just someone who was a user (or did a similar job) once upon a time—it’s someone who has broad and deep industry experience and who understands industry best (and worst) practices. If your product overlaps a couple of disciplines, it’s best to have an SME in each; for example, when designing a device that delivers intravenous medication to patients in a hospital, we found it helpful to have the perspectives of both a pharmacy expert, who had a thorough understanding of the drugs, and a nursing expert, who had a thorough understanding of clinical practice.

Beware of getting presumed SMEs who are a little outside their expertise, though—for example, a surgeon who spends his time in the operating room is not an expert in how nurses do their jobs on the hospital ward.

Unless they’ve worked with you before, SMEs will be more concerned than anyone else that you won’t be able to understand their incredibly complex world, since it took them many years to get where they are. They usually wind up surprised at how quickly immersion in the usage environment can educate the design team. However, it’s important to be clear that good research techniques will let you develop a working vocabulary and high-level understanding very quickly, but you will be absolutely reliant on the SMEs for their detailed knowledge.

Spend a couple of hours with SMEs before the user interviews to get some background. Get definitions of terms, ask about best and worst practices, common processes, and regulations. If you’re talking about processes, ask the SME to diagram them on the whiteboard or do this yourself, using your sketches as a discussion tool.

Specific topics will vary by domain, but here are some typical topics to cover with SMEs:

What are the typical demographics and skills of potential users, and how much do these vary?

This information is handy for planning your interview sample, as well as for assessing how typical your actual interviewees seem to be in these respects.

What distinctions in user roles and tasks would you expect us to see?

A SME may be able to tell you about likely differences, such as tasks that vary based on seniority or skill levels that differ with geography. They probably won’t be able to point out all of those factors that make people behave differently, but they should at least be able to give you enough background to help determine how large an interview sample you need.

What sorts of workflows or practices do you think we’ll be seeing in the field?

Some SMEs will describe only the best practices in their industry, while others are very good at pointing out where reality tends to deviate from what people are supposed to do. This kind of discussion is a great way to think about topics you’ll want to explore in user interviews. However, avoid getting into tremendous detail or spending more than an hour or so on this, because you will still want to look at user behavior from a fresh point of view. A certain amount of ignorance helps you ask the naïve questions that can lead to important insights.

Other product team members

In theory, some organizations place QA and support on a par with marketing, sales, and development, but in practice, these organizations seldom have much influence over product direction. However, they may have a variety of useful insights, and at a minimum, they will be able to answer two important questions.

An experienced QA manager can often tell you how solid the engineering team is and can point out process holes that are currently leading to problems. The support or customer service team can tell you where users are most often encountering problems today, whether this is based on tech support calls for software or common failures for hardware—either could mean a flaw in the current design. In some companies, there are other groups that can provide useful information, as well, such as the training staff or technical writers, who may be able to identify where users most often get confused with the current products. Regulatory experts are also indispensable for medical products.

See also

Excerpted with permission from the publisher, Wiley, from Designing for the Digital Age: How to Create Human-Centered Products and Services by Kim Goodwin. Copyright (c) 2009.

A Stakeholder Interview Checklist

Written by: Kim Goodwin

This is an excerpt from from Kim Goodwin’s excellent Designing for the Digital Age. It is quite long, so we’ve broken it into several sections. Many thanks to Ms. Goodwin and Wiley for allowing us to share this with our readers.

A Cheat Sheet For Interviewing Stakeholders

If you need a little help in your stakeholder interviews, tape a copy of this summary inside the front cover of your notebook.

Continue reading A Stakeholder Interview Checklist

Project Management for Stakeholder Interviews

Written by: Kim Goodwin

This is an excerpt from from Kim Goodwin’s excellent Designing for the Digital Age. It is quite long, so we’ve broken it into several sections. Many thanks to Ms. Goodwin and Wiley for allowing us to share this with our readers.

With good planning, most of your stakeholder interviews should fit within three or four days. Don’t plan on more than six interviews in a day, since they require a lot more energy than most people expect—you have to absorb what people are saying, figure out what the implications are, lead an effective interview, and take thorough notes all at the same time. A quick lunch and the occasional restroom break are essential. Plan on a short break after every couple of interviews to chat with your teammates, if possible. This table shows an example schedule.

Monday Tuesday Wednesday
8:00 Kickoff meeting Simon Parker (European sales)
8:30
9:00 Cristina Walker (clinical SME) Nothing scheduled—debrief, review materials
9:30
10:00
10:30 Ellen Kent and Ed Lieberman (product managers), walk through existing system Maria Torres (QA manager) Marty Long (mechanical engineer) and Jay Adachi (electrical engineer)
11:00
11:30 Lunch and debrief
Noon Lunch and debrief Lunch and debrief
12:30 Vijay Gupta (GUI lead) and Adam Matievich (lead architect)
1:00 Anders Haglund (sales VP) Collin Smith (CEO)
1:30
2:00 Ron LaFleur (products VP) Cynthia Woo (corporate marketing) Debrief, review schedule with Kate Riley (project owner)
2:30
3:00 Debrief Debrief Gunter Vering (professional services)
3:30 Tim Walsh (director of product management) John McIntyre (support manager)
4:00 Robin Sachs (regulatory issues)
4:30 Debrief, review schedule Debrief, review schedule

Try for at least a couple of the most critical stakeholders near the beginning of your schedule. If a few of the others need to be worked in between user interviews, that may not be a problem, but it’s preferable to finish stakeholder discussions first. That way, you’ll be aware of all the assumptions, opinions, and open issues you need to address in the user research.

When You Can’t Interview Stakeholders

The approach outlined above works well when you have an officially sanctioned project with support from the management team. If you don’t, how can you get some of this information? First, consider trying to get some of these meetings anyway; you may be surprised at how willing some executives are to spend time with you if you ask for help. Send them a persuasive, thoughtful email about how what they know could influence the design and how design decisions can affect business issues. Consider giving them a compelling article or short, interesting book on the subject. Seriously, try anything that won’t get you fired, because their involvement is ultimately necessary for the project to succeed. The one thing that won’t work is whining that you’re being excluded—instead, show them something so impressive they’ll see the value of including you for themselves.

If you simply cannot get access to the right people, see if you can get access to relevant documents they’ve created—white papers, memos, presentations, or whatever you can find. Build relationships with people in their departments so you can at least get indirect information. Above all, don’t give up—keep looking for opportunities to get them involved. Otherwise, they may very well involve themselves later, often with unfortunate results.

Summary

Goal-Directed design isn’t just about accomplishing user goals; a product or service that doesn’t also accomplish a business goal is a failure. Never shortchange your stakeholder research, even if it means compressing your time with potential users. Always:

  • Identify the full range of stakeholders and meet with each
  • Take advantage of the expertise that’s available
  • Learn about hopes, fears, beliefs, and goals
  • Avoid taking assumptions at face value
  • Remember that you’re not just asking questions—you’re also building essential relationships

Once you have a solid understanding of the business, you’re ready to move on to research with potential customers and users.

Excerpted with permission from the publisher, Wiley, from Designing for the Digital Age: How to Create Human-Centered Products and Services by Kim Goodwin. Copyright (c) 2009.