Here’s What May Sound Like a Crazy Idea

Written by: Kevin Goyena

Build a command line option into your next user interface.

Some of you techies may be reading this and thinking, “Yes! I live in a command window all the time on my computer.” Well, I’m not really thinking about you as my target audience. I’m talking more about applications used by everyday people outside the IT industry.

Hear me out.

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10 Practical Tips for Increasing the Impact of Your Research Insights

Written by: Mike Katz

User experience (UX) researchers tasked with improving customer-facing products face many challenges on a daily basis—perhaps none more daunting than translating their research insights into positive change. This article presents 10 tips I have learned over the course of my career to help UX researchers increase the impact of their research insights in applied settings. These tips are intended primarily for in-house research teams, but they may apply to consultancies as well.

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Method Mondays: Never Stop Learning

Written by: Ann-Sofie Ruf

Benjamin Franklin once said: “Tell me and I forget; teach me and I may remember; involve me and I learn.”

At the SAP Design & Co-Innovation Center (DCC), we frequently organize the so-called “Method Mondays,” a regular one-hour meeting series in which the team members share, practice, and test different methods.

In this article, I would like to share the five methods with you that work best for us—they’re worth trying!

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User Research With Small Business Owners: Best Practices and Considerations

Written by: Chelsey Glasson

The majority of our work at Google has involved conducting user research with small business owners: the small guys that are typically defined by governmental organizations as having 100 or fewer employees, and that make up the majority of businesses worldwide.

Given the many hurdles small businesses face, designing tools and services to help them succeed has been an immensely rewarding experience. That said, the experience has brought a long list of challenges, including those that come with small business owners being constantly on-call and strapped for time; when it comes to user research, the common response from small business owners and employees is, “Ain’t nobody got time for that!”

To help you overcome common challenges we’ve faced, here are a few tips for conducting successful qualitative user research studies with small businesses.

Recruiting

Recruiting tip #1: Give yourself an extra week, and then some

It generally takes more time to recruit for research projects with small businesses than what’s typical for consumer studies. There are several reasons why this is the case.

Existing user research participant pools tend to be light on small business representation, meaning recruiting for your project may have to start completely from scratch. Also, it can take time to track down the appropriate person at a small business to talk to—are you trying to reach the owner, the accountant, customer service staff, or…?  

Finally, small businesses are accustomed to companies trying to sell them new offerings or get them to sign up for product pilots, and many have been scammed in signing up for “free” pilots or services that end up turning into a perpetual sales pitch. Because of this, the chances of a small business owner or employee saying “No!” to participating in your user research is especially high.

Recruiting tip #2: Make sure you’re crystal clear on what type of business you want to recruit

There’s quite a bit of variation in terms of business environment, priorities, strategies and other factors across different types of businesses. Accidentally overlooking important criteria could be detrimental to a study.

For example, do you want to talk to a certain type of business, such as professional service, service area, or brick-and-mortar? Does it matter if your study participants are from B2B vs. B2C companies? What about online vs. offline businesses? Additional points of consideration include number of employees, business goals (e.g., does the business want to grow?), and revenue.

If you’re not sure if you’ve overlooked important criteria, ask for feedback from product managers, marketing professionals, and other user researchers who may have relevant information. It can also be helpful to see how entities such as the Small Business Administration categorize business types.

Recruiting tip #3: Make sure you’re crystal clear on whom you want to interview

When conducting research with small business owners, it’s common to assume that the business owner is involved in most decisions, but that’s often not the case.

Is it actually the business owner you’re interested in speaking to? Or, do you need to talk to someone who’s responsible for a specific task, such as someone who managing online marketing decisions or handles the company’s financials? The larger the company, the higher the chances are of the company owner delegating responsibilities.

We typically ensure we’re speaking to the right type person by asking screening questions specific to roles and responsibilities (see examples at the end of this article).

Recruiting tip #4: Avoid hobbyists disguised as business owners

It’s common for hobbyists—for example, people who casually sell certain services or offerings for personal enjoyment—to sign up for user research involving small business owners. On the surface they pass many of the screening criteria, but in reality their motivations and behaviors are quite different from a full-time business owner or employee of a business. We typically screen out hobbyists via recruiting screening surveys by asking if potential study participants spend at least 30 hours per week in their role as business owner or employee of the business.

Recruiting tip #5: Recruit extra participants

When conducting research with consumers, we always recruit one extra participant in the event there is a no-show. When conducting research with small businesses, we’ll increase that number to two or more. Given how unpredictable the small business environment  can be, we’ve found that the chances of last-minute cancellations or no-shows is much higher with small business owners and employees than it is with consumers.

Incentives

Incentive tip #1: Provide incentives other than cash

While incentives are a nice gesture, cash or gift cards are not a huge motivator, as they aren’t viewed as a worthwhile tradeoff for inconveniences that come with stepping away from running a business in order to participate in an interview.

What is motivating is providing small business owners and their employees with information and tips on how to run the business successfully: things like offering free accounting software, coaching on social media best practices, and personal access to a member of the support team for assistance. Another approach is to offer 15 minutes after the interview for free coaching and/or advice on a topic that makes sense given the study focus.

The small business community is tightly knit, and small businesses are often invested in each other’s success. Because of this, another option is to frame the study as an opportunity to improve offerings for all small businesses.

Even better, small businesses owners and employees love the opportunity to share feedback on tools and services they routinely use to run their business. If the product you’re testing or exploring touches upon tools and services already in use, it can be motivating to frame user interviews as an opportunity to shape the future of the offering being reviewed.

Finally, consider offering small business owners and employees the opportunity to participate in an exclusive Trusted Testers community, which provides the option to share feedback, receive “insiders” information and tips, and interact with and learn from other small businesses. We’ve found this option can be especially motivating for engaging in user research.

Interviewing

Interview tip #1: Consider in-person interviews

It can be hard for small business owners and employees to take time away from the business to participate in research that might be conducted at your lab or office. Likewise, for remote interviews, small business owners and employees don’t always have convenient access to needed technology at their place of business.

For these reasons, we’ve found that small businesses are much more likely to participate in user research if interviews take place at their place of business. This way they can tend to the business during interviews if needed and don’t have to waste valuable time setting up technology to participate in the interviews.

Also, conducting in-person interviews provides context often needed to understand complicated processes and workflows that business owners and their employees face.

Interview tip #2: Be flexible with scheduling

We’re also always especially flexible with scheduling when conducting research with small business owners and employees. In addition to leaving extra time between interviews, we usually also leave an interview slot open in the event we have to move the schedule around suddenly. We’re also mindful of offering early morning or late evening interview times, especially if the verticals we’re focused are service oriented (restaurants, spas, etc); trying to conduct a field visit during peak hours can be really intrusive for these types of businesses.

Interview tip #3: Be prepared for last-minute changes

The world of small business owners and their employees can be unpredictable, which is why we always schedule extra, backup participants for research. We’ve run into countless situations where a research participant cancels an interview at the last second on account of unexpected business or emergencies.

It’s also common for small business owners or employees to request location changes at the last second. For example, one time I (Chelsey) was scheduled to interview a business owner at his home (which is where he ran the business). He called five minutes before the interview explaining he wanted to be respectful of his roommates and asking if we could meet elsewhere. Good thing I had scoped out the area before this happened and had a nearby coffee shop in mind where we could talk!

Interview tip #4: Emphasize participant expertise early

When interviewing small business owners and employees, it’s common for them to want to seize the opportunity to get insider information or training on whatever topic is being explored. When this happens at the start of an interview, the interviewer becomes the expert for the remainder of the conversation which can prevent an open, honest dialogue.

To establish the participant as the expert early on in the conversation, there are a few things we’ll typically do. For starters, we always state that the goal of the study is to learn from the participant.

Next, we’ll ask the participant to give a tour of the business (if a site visit) and to explain what the day-to-day looks like in running it. During the tour and/or day-to-day explanation, we’ll call out pieces of information that are new to us and ask a few follow-up questions. This strategy usually does the trick in placing the research participant in expert mode and researchers as the student.

Interview tip #5: Bring extra NDAs  

I (Chelsey) will never forget, in kicking off an interview with a business owner in India, when I unexpectedly discovered several family members waiting to enthusiastically participate in the conversation!

The reality is that running a small business—whether in India, the US, or elsewhere—is rarely a solo operation. Consequently, we’ve found it’s common for family, friends and employees to be asked by interviewees to join interviews. This isn’t a bad thing. In fact, in many situations it’s a wonderful surprise that can lead a an engaging, insightful conversation.

Because of how frequent this scenario can be, we now always make sure to bring extra copies of NDAs.

Reporting

Reporting tip #1: Provide context

When socializing your findings to a product team, building empathy for the participants and their challenges is key. Reporting on consumer insights is relatively easy because most of us face similar challenges in our daily lives and we can easily identify with the participants. However, small business owners and employees face challenges that are less relatable.

Therefore, it’s important to create a narrative that includes the context of the merchant’s business and business practices. For example, what vertical do they work in? What does their day to day look like? How has their business evolved? What do they feel their customers’ needs are, and how does that in turn translate to their use of your product?

Additionally, keep in mind that your product won’t exist in a vacuum. Small business merchants are experimental, and are willing to try out numerous tools and services until they find one that meets most (usually not all) of their needs. Small business owners also value integration and may find creative ways to DIY integration that doesn’t already exist. It’s therefore not unusual that small business research may occasionally graze the edges of competitive analysis.

When crafting your report, create a story around the participants — what are their challenges and successes? How do they feel about their customers? How does (or could) your product fit into their business processes? Finally, video recordings and direct quotes are highly impactful and help emphasize the person behind the findings.

Reporting tip #2: Limit, but embrace, variation

Because small businesses are so varied in terms of vertical, structure, and practices, it takes a careful eye to draw unified or cohesive themes across what can sometimes seem like disparate participants.

Often in user research there is an impulse to sweep outliers under the rug. However, in small business research it can actually be helpful to call out and explain the outliers. They may represent an edge case that your team has an opportunity to address, or they might reveal something new about a vertical, business, or merchant type.  

Of course, as we mentioned earlier, it’s important to clearly define your intended participant group. Even with a clearly definition of who you want to talk to, you can expect to see a healthy amount of variation among your study participants.

Concluding thoughts

Small businesses have different pressures and motivations than consumers that are important to consider in setting up a successful user study with business owners and those who help run small businesses. To get the most out of your time and theirs, study up on what might relieve these pressures and speak to motivations, and adjust your recruiting, incentives, and interview techniques accordingly.

Sample screening questions

Which of the following best describes the business where you work? Please select one.

Food and dining (e.g., restaurant, bar, food truck, grocery store) 1
Retail and shopping (e.g., clothing boutique, online merchandise store) 2
Beauty and fitness (e.g., nail salon, gym, hair salon, spa) 3
Medical and health (e.g., doctor, dentist, massage therapist, counselor) 4
Travel and lodging (e.g., hotel, travel agency, taxi, gas station) 5
Consulting services (e.g., management consulting, business strategy) 6
Legal services (e.g., lawyer, paralegal, bail bondsman) 7
Home services and construction (e.g, contractor, HVAC, plumber, cleaning services) 8
Finance and banking (e.g., accounting, insurance, financial planner, investor, banker) 9
Education (e.g., tutoring, music lessons, public or private school, daycare, university) 10
Entertainment (e.g., movie theatre, sports venue, comedy club, bowling alley) 11
Art / design (e.g., art dealers, antique restoration, photographer) 13
Automotive services (e.g., auto repairs, car sales) 14
Marketing services (e.g., advertising, marketing, journalism, PR) 15
Other 16

Thinking about the next 12 months, which of the following are overall goals for the business you own or work for? Select all that apply.

Acquire new customers 1
Conduct more business with existing customers 2
Target specific customer segments 3
Improve operational efficiency/capabilities 4
Expand to more locations 5
Develop new products/services 6
Offer training or development for my employees 7
Invest in improvements to physical locations (e.g., new paint, interior remodeling, etc.) 8
Maintain current business performance 9
Acquire competitors 10
Other 11
None of the above 99

 

How does your business operate? Please select all that apply.

You have a physical business location that customers visit (e.g., store, salon, restaurant, hotel, doctor’s office etc.) 1
Your business serves customers at their locations (e.g., taxi driver, realtor, locksmith, wedding photographer, plumber) 2
Your customers can purchase products and services from any location, online or by phone 3
Other 4

Which of the following best describes your role in your business?

Owner 1
Employee 2
Other 3

Which of the following are you responsible for at the business you own or work for? Please

select all that apply.

Hiring employees 1
Managing employees 2
Business planning/Strategy 3
Marketing/Promotions 4
Finance/Accounting 5
Sales/Customer Service 6
Legal 7
IT 8
Other 9
None of the above   99

Which of the following best describes your current employment status? Please one.

Work full-time (30 or more hours per week) 1
Work part-time (fewer than 30 hours per week) 2
Not employed 4
Student 5
Retired 6

Unleash Your Visual Superpower!

Written by: Steve Turbek

From start-ups to banks, design has never been more central to business. Yet at conference after conference, I meet designers at firms talking about their struggle for influence. Why is that fabled “seat at the table” so hard to find, and how can designers get a chair?

A superhero, partially wireframed and partially illustrated.
Designers have the magical ability to visualize the future.

Designers yearn for a world where companies depend on their ideas but usually work in a world where design is just one voice. In-house designers often have to advocate for design priorities versus new features or technical change. Agency designers can create great visions that fail to be executed. Is design just a service, or can designers* lead?

*Meaning anyone who provides the vision for a product, whether it be in code, wireframes, comps, prototypes, or cocktail napkins.

Does a designer just make pictures?

In years of presentations working at an agency, I learned to sense the tension building before a design was revealed. At a certain point, clients stop listening to the strategy—they just want to get to the pictures.

But does that mean that designers should just make pictures and leave the strategy to others? No. No one wants to be a mere stylist, but it can be hard to lead when you feel typecast as a pixel pusher.

Communication is the core skill of a designer—every other ability depends on it.

The best designers transcend the gap between strategy and execution. They know that communication is the core skill of a designer: We don’t make the thing; we show how it should be made. But rather than seeing picture-making as a mere stepping stone toward strategy, we can use it as our “super power” to lead.

I have the good fortune to work with a talented illustrator. She uses the same tools I have, but when she touches them, drawings appear. It’s like a super power! That is the same impression people have of a good designer. But how do you lead with pictures and not simply push pixels? Let’s a closer look at unlocking the designer super power.

Pictures are power

Imagine getting two ideas for a new product. One person described the idea in an elevator pitch; another showed you a mock up. Which one would you listen to? Which seemed like they made more effort and had explored the idea further?

A good visualization gives the designer influence that goes beyond rank or title.  Pictures expand the collective imagination, making abstract ideas tangible and build-able.  

A junior designer I once worked with made a comp of a new dashboard idea in her spare time and emailed it out. It bounced around the organization and got taken up by the president as their future vision. Was it fully thought out? No. Did it instigate change? Definitely.  

Anyone can write bullet points; few can communicate what an experience will feel like.

Designers complain about executives meddling with designs, but seen another way, designers have access to leaders most other roles never get.  The only time a database admin gets executive attention is when the web site crashes. The best designers take advantage of the opportunity to engage in a strategic discussion.

Design itself is a product

Many groups in an organization have a thing that they “own” that gives them leverage in decisions. Developers own the code, business owns the proposition, yet design is considered a “service.” One opportunity for designers is to “own” the future, to use their unique skills to document and maintain the future state of the product.

We all sketch before we design, but too often the sketches go in a drawer when the project starts, often never to be seen again. What if designers were responsible for delivering the short term design documentation AND keeping the long-term vision alive?

“If a picture is worth 1,000 words, a prototype is worth 1,000 meetings.” —saying at Ideo

One team I’ve worked with helps bridge this gap on strategic projects by maintaining an “experience roadmap.” The roadmap is a collection of prototypes showing what each release will look like. The team also keeps the design vision up to date, updating it as they learn from customers. Agile teams can lose the long term direction by focusing on small sprints. These designers influence the strategy by showing how each release moves toward the ultimate vision.

A superhero supervises releases
An experience roadmap shows how a product can evolve—and whether it has weak points along the way.

Sort of like version control for something that doesn’t exist yet, the roadmap highlights the main “branch,” shows the variations explored, and documents the business and design decisions.

The roadmap doesn’t just benefit the project team or the designer. When you work at a large firm with many teams, communication is essential. As one business partner said, “I could spend all my time just keeping up with that everyone else is doing.” Creating design documents that solve problems for the whole team increases your influence.

Incubate ideas with visuals

I’ll let you in on a business secret: Most business plans are only sketches; even their creators aren’t half as confident as they want to be. They’d like to engage a designer, but many don’t think they can afford it. UX ideology can hurt also. Hearing that design means a “four step user-centered design process with a team of five people for six months” can convince people to skip design right when it is most helpful: the beginning.  

Working with half-baked ideas could be a nightmare project (I know several designers who have vowed to never work with start ups again), but it’s also an opportunity for designers to lead. The key is being willing to collaborate and get outside of our comfort zone.

“Designers can be solitary people who emerge from their work with the answers that will fix everything. Wrong.”  –Bradford Shellhammer

Designers all over complain about being brought in too late to a project. To break this conflict between early access and full process, our group developed a process to help executives visualize their ideas. Nicknamed “FutureMap,” it is creative session to document an idea in its earliest stage.

We gather a small group of partners to hash through the idea on whiteboards with a designer listening in and working live on the projector in the background. In a few hours, we have enough to communicate the idea and build excitement. We also build relationships. When the project is ready, you know that designer is going to have a seat at the table.

A superhero guides a meeting.
Live visualization sessions quickly get ideas out of people’s heads, show conflicting needs, and bring people together.

Always be closing

In the heat of a project, most designers focus on the product itself, but every product will have to be promoted and sold. Whether the customer is an individual consumer or an internal partner, your success depends on communicating what a product is and why someone should care.

Embracing marketing is a powerful way designers can lead product strategy. In the earliest stage, before any code is written, only designers can get customer feedback. Lean startups like to talk about minmum viable product as the smallest amount of effort to validate an assumption, but it is odd that they jump right into coding. The fastest way is almost always making pictures. Every designer already has the tools on their computer to answer product questions by engaging with the customer.

Even before you design the full product, design how you are going to communicate the value.

  • Use InDesign to make a brochure. Get feedback in a train station.
  • Use iMovie to make a fake TV ad. Get feedback online.
  • Use Dreamweaver to make a home page. Measure clicks on Google Analytics.

Some may feel that marketing is not part of user experience, but talking to real customers is the only way to get honest feedback. If you can’t sell a feature, maybe you shouldn’t build it. This has the potential to focus the product and save hundreds of hours of development. If you do it right, you will end helping to drive the product strategy.

A user researcher I work with became a leader when she demonstrated that you could usability test a value proposition. She made A/B variations of a marketing page, each with showing different features. Online testing  tools like Loop11 or usertesting.com make it easy to show a page to a couple hundred people and see who clicks the link. You can then follow up with questions on how well they understood the offer.

Making pictures helps us think

There is an old joke about politician logic:

  1. There is a problem. We must do something
  2. [X] is something
  3. Therefore, we must do [X]

Sadly, this isn’t limited to politicians. One of the less appreciated audiences of making pictures is the team itself. Any group of people working closely under pressure faces the invisible risk of tunnel vision or group think. Who hasn’t been surprised when a design idea, that seemed obviously right, stumps users in testing?

The best way to avoid it is to not have an idea. Have two ideas. Think of it as A/B testing throughout the design cycle. It’s one of the core ideas of our team’s UXD process; any concept phase must produce at least two options that can be tested.  We do this to make sure we fully develop each instead of compromising two ideas.  The most common conflict is between the expert user and the novice. Melding their needs is the best way to create bad design. Instead, design each and test. Who knows—maybe the experts enjoy the simplicity of the novice design!

There is a psychological angle to this. Many designers struggle when they see a specific design as “their baby.” Having multiple children, so to speak, helps us fall in love with problem, not the solution. This keeps us focused on leading the team toward the best solution and away from defending a flawed design.

Defeating “designer kryptonite”

There is one last aspect of your super power: You will lose it if you stop using it. I interviewed a smart candidate recently. He had great things to say about Scrum, meeting delivery deadlines, business metrics… but his visuals were no different than any business analyst. He had lost the creative spirit.

Designers on long-term projects risk exposure to “designer kryptonite”—the thousand tiny compromises due to politics, budget, legal, and our old friend “time to market.”

A superhero is threatened by kryptonite.
Designers need to refresh their powers, or lose them

Putting your creative self out there is draining. Design that inspires your company requires we reignite the creative passion from time to time. Conferences can help, but sometimes it is as simple as having a supportive event to remind us why we became designers in the first place.

Our team runs design challenges every few months. These are open entry design competitions where any designer can sketch a design without the usual requirements. Doing pure design in a social environment is great fun and produces great work. More than once, these radical visions inspired our partners to kick off a project and take it to market.

Lead by (visual) example

People usually think leadership means just telling everyone what to do, but a more effective style is servant leadership. By solving other people’s problems, by making them successful, you become a great leader. Like user centered design itself, designers have the ability to use their skills to help the people on their team.

Yes, this is more effort, but it is the kind of effort we got into design for. You don’t need to be bitten by a radioactive spider or come from another planet. What special powers do you have? How can you use them to help others and lead?

 

Illustrations by Laura Fish.