Observing Users for Software Development

“You can observe a lot by just watching.”  Yogi Berra

Too many years ago, I sat in a sterile conference room at DEC mesmerized by the lecture being given by the talking head on the video, Russ Ackoff.  Ackoff was defining the difference between analysis and synthesis and was using as an example designing the best car.  In describing analysis, he talked about most people starting by benchmarking the best parts at every location in the best cars.  But you notice if you have all of the certifiably best parts, they won’t even go together to build a running car.  He then went on to emphasize that to design well you must start with a process of synthesis.

Synthesis starts first by understanding the context of the system under study.  You then go up to understand the system that contains the system that you are interested in, looking at the collection of systems that make up the containing whole.  You then work out how these systems interact with your system under study.  Only when you’ve figured out how the containing whole system works can you understand the system you want to design for.

As good analytical types, the Extreme Programming (XP) and Agile founders used a process of analysis to come up with the principles and practices of XP.  Their starting point was working against software development teams always being blamed for late delivery of software that wasn’t very usable.  In the end, they did a great job of solving for the problems of the software development team, but they didn’t design in the context of the whole problem.  For example, there is no equivalent of Xtreme Marketing or Xtreme Customer.  The XP designers pushed all of those problems onto a customer representative who would sit with the development team and TELL them the necessary requirements.  The customer representative becomes cut off from the richness of their work context and the development team is reduced to HEARing what is needed to be built.

Research studies on adult learning make clear that the best way to learn is to experience the topic directly.  Instead of telling me how to pick up a baseball bat and strike a pitched ball, show me how to do it.  Then let me quickly try it myself.  Learning can then quickly accelerate if there is an experienced coach operating from a rich framework of how different individuals can master striking the ball.  The coach operating from a mental image of how that person’s physique and skills could best accomplish the task can then give pointers on how to best move from one’s current capabilities to the ideal.

David Kolb is one of the leading researchers on adult learning.  A summary of the process and learning styles is:

“Much of our traditional learning experience has led us to believe that we learn best by listening to experts. It has been found, however, that learning that results in increased self-awareness, changed behavior, and the acquisition of new skills must actively engage the individual in the learning process. In particular, adults have been found to learn more effectively by doing or experiencing.

Kolb Learning Styles

Adult learning specialist, David Kolb, has described this learning process as a four-phase cycle in which the learner: (1) does something concrete or has a specific experience which provides a basis for (2) the learner’s observation and reflection on the experience and their own response to it. These observations are then (3) assimilated into a conceptual framework or related to other concepts in the learner’s past experience and knowledge from which implications for action can be derived; and (4) tested and applied in different situations.

The adult learner assimilates useful information into their personal “experience bank” against which future learning events will be compared and to which new concepts will be related. Unless what is learned can be applied to actual work or life situations the learning will not be effective or long lasting.

People responsible for designing learning events should keep these phases in mind as they develop ways to help the learner understand and be able to use the new knowledge and/or skill.”

Kolb's Learning Styles

Recent cognitive science research is showing that not only is experiencing a better way to learn, but also how that experience is gained.  My daughter, Liz Walter Shelly, makes this research concrete by illustrating how best to learn to climb a rock wall:

Monkey see lets monkey do

“Watching expert climbers actually can improve your performance…

“What’s the most important muscle for climbing?” my instructor asked for the fifth time. “Your brain,” we dutifully chanted in unison, still a bit skeptical. Yeah, yeah, your brain is important, but our instructor’s splayed limbs demonstrated that he certainly wasn’t hurting for other muscles. Meanwhile on the ground, my forearms were burning after one climb up the 8m wall. (Though in my defense, it was the one with the crazy incline). Still only a beginner, I drool at the nutters on the Banff mountain climbing films and wonder at whether I’ll ever get up the nerve to tap in my own piton, or go on a multi-pitch climb.

“A springboard diver in my past life, I recently caught the climbing bug, and would much rather be trying to crimp my fingers around some miniscule hold than actually working on my dissertation. To alleviate my guilt, I decided to look for links between this thrilling sport and my journal article reading. During my grad student day-job, I study the human visual system. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you why sunsets are so breathtaking, or why you can be looking directly at your keys and still not see them. However, I can tell you a little bit about how it is that we translate a visual image into an action. More importantly, the scientific community at large is starting to understand how it is that just by viewing expert performances, we can subsequently improve our initial athletic attempts.

“Back in 1995, a couple of researchers noticed that the same brain areas active when a monkey reached for a grape were also active when the monkey saw another person reach for the grape. Hmmm, that’s interesting – what you do and what you see are linked at a fundamental neural level. Subsequent experiments found that individual cells in the front parts of the brain seemed to represent complex actions (e.g. reaching, grabbing) no matter whether it was the monkey that moved, or a nearby person who reached for the reward while the monkey simply watched. Furthermore, the cells had preferences for different actions – some brain cells were interested in reaching, some in tearing, while still others preferred bashing or poking. A couple of years ago, another group of researchers found that human brains are activated differently when watching someone else perform movements that they can also do (say, ballet dancers watching ballet performances), versus when watching people performing movement sequences at which they’re not expert (say, a rock climber watching a ballerina). Hmm, that’s interesting – so what you can do influences how you see.

“I’ve always maintained that I dove better during the years that I was “second-fiddle” on the team. Those years at practice I had the pleasure of watching my expert teammates nail dive after dizzying dive, while I struggled to keep up with the number of flips and twists. Lucky me though – as I had the visual reinforcement of their excellence, my brain learned to pattern my own movements from theirs, allowing me to improve by leaps and bounds (excuse the pun). In climbing, one of the most important things any beginner can do to improve her performance is to spend hours watching the pros (or really anyone a decimal-rating or two better). Someone actually studied this for his dissertation already and found that beginner climbers shown a video of an expert climbing a route did better on that route themselves than those shown a video of a novice climber. So, what you see influences what you can then do. At some level this is old news – of course you should watch experts – only a scientist would find something miraculous in any of this. However, the fact that we know that the exact same brain areas are engaged in observing as well as producing motions will allow us to better train athletes, mentally as well as physically.

“In many athletic programs (no matter the specific sport), video technology has taken over practice, allowing athletes to see their performances immediately after they’re executed. My former diving coach would TiVo each practice – allowing us to dive, watch what we just did, and then hop back up and try to improve on it. This helped for some aspects of the dive; for example, I never would believe that my feet came apart during twisters unless I saw it on tape! However, some of the recent research suggests that, while watching yourself is good and all, it’s watching folks better than you that will have the beneficial impact on your brain circuits.

“One last kicker – another set of studies investigating mental imagery found that simply imagining moving one’s finger increased muscle strength in that particular finger. Extrapolating from this suggests that just thinking about yourself ascending that route may actually help you develop the strength to do it. So all those athletic loons that you see staring up at the chalk marks on the wall, making small movements here and there as they decide on foot placement, are really teaching their brain what to expect on the way up. In short, much of the neuropsych research suggests that the best time to train your brain is while you’re resting your muscles. Stare at the wall. Really scrutinize your fellow climbers (well, the good ones, anyway). Of course, any decent athlete knows all of this at an instinctual level already. But hey – you’ve now got a great excuse to hang out and watch the experts for an extra hour as your muscles recuperate… Of course to see if you’ve learned anything, you’ve got to get out there and actually climb it.”

By removing the customer’s context and any direct experience of their total problem/opportunity, the XP development team cuts off significant information streams.  One of the first things I learned in my ten years of studying and teaching at the Institute of Design (ID) of the Illinois Institute of Technology, is that humans are very inarticulate at describing how they perform some complex behavior or what they might need in order to improve it.  It’s one of the many reasons why interviews or focus groups do not lead to successful designs.  At ID, students are taught to observe, observe, observe.  They quickly learn that humans are extremely articulate in their actions and behaviors.  You just have to observe them.

A core technology in observing people is the use of video ethnography.  That’s a big social science phrase for simply videotaping people in the context of their actual work so that you can study, deconstruct, and share the results with others.  This technique is a staple of athletic teams from young children to professionals.  Yet, it is little used in business where it proves to be even more valuable.

My first introduction to the power of video ethnography was on my first visit to ID.  Over my 40 years of building and managing software product development, I’ve searched for a way to design a product right the first time.  I’ve looked in hundreds of places for that magic elixir.  I’ve been frustrated out of my gourd with all the usability (UX) professionals who tell me my product sucks after I build it, but have nothing to say when I start to design.

Then in 1992 while visiting the Institute of Design of the Illinois Institute of Technology, my views on design were transformed by a five minute video from a student class project.  This video was my first introduction to the power of user observation.  Sitting in a miserable concrete walled classroom on the 13th floor of a non-descript research building over looking some of the worst slums of South Chicago, I could barely hear the nervous student introducing his project.  It had something to do with improving the ability of the business traveler to work in a hotel room.  As someone who usually travels 150,000 air miles a year and spends >50 nights per year in hotel rooms, he had my attention, if not my expectation that he could shed any light on a frustrating environment.

The student created a relatively simple task for a male and female pair of business colleagues.  The pair had to create a business report in a hotel room, and then type the results into their laptop PC.  In the process they had to confer with other employees over the phone to get information for the report.  The student would videotape their activities in the hotel room for later analysis.  The first several minutes of the videotape showed the awkward dance of the professional colleagues trying to find a work surface that would accommodate their needs, while avoiding the cultural taboos associated with the only work surface available – the bed.

The pair searched in vain for something that would work and yet the bed remained the only place that is large enough, was convenient to the phone, the power outlets and the available light.  The pair finally concludes that the bed is the only viable place and they start to lay their papers and computers on the bed.  They then realize that there is no comfortable place to sit.  The single chair in the room is too high for the bed surface.  Yet, it hurts to kneel on the floor and it is awkward to sit on the bed without disturbing the papers and computers.  Throughout all of this trial and error, the male and female are trying not to invade each other’s personal space so that they don’t cross the line into intimacy.

After five minutes of trying to work, the pair throws their hands up and quits the exercise.  They cannot get work done in that environment.  I was amazed at how completely the five minute video transformed my experience as a business traveler from unnamed frustration with a hotel room as a work environment to being able to clearly articulate my frustrations.  And in that moment, a solution space opened up for tens of ways to transform the business traveler’s hotel working experience.  No interviews were needed.  No audio was even present on the videotape.  Just watching the interactions said it all.  The student also showed some interviews with business travelers that provided no insights on either the problems or the solutions as a counterpoint to the power of user observation.  Even though we might be experienced business travelers, we are not usually conscious about what bothers us to be specific about the problems.

Even more impressive was that the video was generated by a Master’s student as part of his first seven week course on user observation.  Over the years one of my first tests of a method or process is how quickly can a student pick up a process or a technique.  I have seen many techniques where the inventor or teacher could reliably perform great work, but none of their students could master the technique.  Clearly, here was a process that was both powerful and could be mastered quickly.

Performing user research is relatively easy.  In its simplest form it is just finding an appropriate place to observe users and then make notes on a pad of paper.  In its most complex form it is being able to have video cameras and recorders in place so that a team of researchers which typically include anthropologists and social scientists can extensively review the interactions captured for deep analysis with formal methods.

Examples of the professional use of these techniques come from McDonalds, Amoco, and Personal Health Connections.  About ten years ago, McDonalds was interested in understanding why Taco Bell locations were up to 50% more profitable per store than were similarly located McDonalds stores.  The Doblin Group was engaged to research this topic and was able to instrument several McDonalds locations and a few Taco Bell locations with several cameras.

After viewing hundreds of hours of videotapes and generating several insights and hypotheses as to what was going on, one of the anthropologists came up with a curious difference.  At Taco Bell, the store was laid out such that all of the servers spent most of their time either face on to the customers or sideways to the customers.  While at McDonalds, servers spent greater than 85% of their time with their back to the customer.  Doblin Group coined this observation “Backs and Butts”.  If you recall the last several times you visited a McDonalds, the backs and butts of the servers tend to be quite large and unattractive.

So with this insight and hypothesis, the Doblin Group set out to test the notion in a few remodeled McDonalds.  Almost overnight the revenues and profits increased in these locations to levels higher than what Taco Bell was seeing and considerably higher than stores laid out in a traditional McDonalds style.  The good news is that the researchers proved their case; the bad news was that McDonalds was unable to depart from their tradition of “this is the way we design our stores.”  It turns out that most of the McDonalds management was home grown and had started as servers or cooks in a local McDonalds.  They weren’t about to change the formula that had made them quite wealthy.

Doblin Group was commissioned by Amoco to figure out ways to make their retail locations more profitable.  It turns out that gasoline is sold pretty much the same by all oil companies and the margins are pretty much the same.  Amoco asked if there was a way to dramatically improve profitability by observing the ways that users buy gas.  While Doblin did a very systematic overview of the retail operations and came up with a system of innovations that is breathtaking in its scope and inventiveness, it was the interaction at the gas pump that captured my imagination.

Similar to McDonald’s Doblin fitted a gas station with cameras from just about every angle.  One of the things they noted was the dance that users went through to figure out how much gas they were putting into the car.  Users were contorting themselves in all kinds of ways to keep their eye on the pump handle and the gas flowing into the car as well as try to eye how much money was cranking away on the pump display.  The Doblin folks called this the “gas pump watusi” after a dance step popular at the time.  The solution was pretty straightforward – move the gauges to the gas pump handle itself.  Similarly, the social scientists observed that after filling the car themselves that most people made a trip to the rest room to wash off their hands.  So they located wash stands at every gasoline island.

Based on these observations and several similar ones, Amoco built four service stations to these specifications in Indianapolis, IN.  Immediately these stations generated 2-4 times the revenue of similarly located Amoco and competitor stations and were hundreds of percent more profitable.  The bad news was that Amoco underwent a reorganization and subsequent acquisition by BP and the innovations were never brought to life on a wide scale.

At Personal Health Connections (PHC), user observation was accomplished with several subjects who agreed to help us understand the process of dieting and weight management that they used.  A simple camera study and weekly interview process was carried out over three weeks.  The patterns of change fell into three very distinct categories:  planners, trackers, and storytellers.  Planners took a top down approach to losing weight.  They established a goal and developed activities that would help them lose weight and then monitored their results daily.  Trackers were just the opposite.  They took a bottom up approach which started with the monitoring of their daily weight and activities.  Based on tracking what they actually did, they slowly started to generate some goals that would fit their activity pattern.

PHC User Research Model

The third category of users was the story teller.  They wanted their information presented to them in the form of stories and all of their goal setting and tracking was done in the form of telling stories.  Each activity had a cast of characters, action, a plot, and an ending.  We quickly realized that the design of the website had to accommodate all three user types and that one design probably wouldn’t work for all three.  If you look at many of the best web sites today you will see functionality that appeals to each of these types of users.  What we did at PHC was to have a quick diagnostic in our first interactions with a user to let us understand which type they were and then we accommodated their need with an appropriate user interface.

The hardest of these types to accommodate is the story teller.  It is relatively easy to present information to the user in the form of stories, but much more difficult to take what appears to be unstructured text and make sense of it.  That’s one of the many reasons I’m excited about the technology we worked on at Attenex.

With computer based products one of the challenges is not to confuse user observation with usability.  Both are important but they are different.  User observation is about situating a user’s actions in the context of their daily life and understanding the Whole Process that is required to meet their intent or goals.  The observations ground themselves in a structure of observation, contention (does the observation lead to a positive or negative consequence), and what user value or values are supported or not by the users actions.  Usability tends to be focused more narrowly on how the computer program functions match the users understanding and expectations.  The big ideas that will lead to 10X productivity improvements are most likely to come from user observation.

As I reflect on the last 40 years of product development, the pattern that continually repeats is how well the first sets of prototypes for a product unconsciously employ the techniques of user observation and human centered design.  For many startups the need for their product arose out of the frustrations of the founders with existing ways of doing things or by observing some frustrated user segment trying to accomplish some task that the founders had the insight to do better, faster and cheaper.

As the deadline pressures grow and the need to generate revenue grows, designers and developers tend to quit observing users on a regular basis.  I am constantly amazed at how just small doses of user observation lead to such profitable insights.  For at least the first year of Attenex, we had the gift of being closely and intimately co-located with Preston Gates and Ellis.  A top priority for a company is setting up the infrastructure and processes so that observing users as they go about their daily work is an integral part of the product development and business development process.

As you go about the world looking for opportunities to find that “latent unmet need” use your observational skills to “see what really matters.”

This entry was posted in ALL-IN-1, Attenex, Attenex Patterns, Design, Human Centered Design, Innovation, Software Development, User Experience. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Observing Users for Software Development

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