Interviewing Executives and SME Stakeholders

And Everyone Else

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.

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