Are You a Transportation Management Software “Maker”?
In my last post, we discussed a few user experience design concepts to evaluate why you may love or loathe a piece of software. Hopefully that’s expanded your perspective and your curiosity, and perhaps now you’re wondering what goes into making software fun to use. Compelling aesthetics and capabilities are important, but an experience’s longevity isn’t usually a matter of the latest buzzworthy technologies. More often, the best experiences are made by teams that actively involve users in their design process. Understanding the ways software makers include their users can help you determine whether their products are built to respond not only to the needs you have today, but also the needs that will develop over the lifespan of your relationship with their product.
Determining the best strategy
There are few better voices a company can use to guide the direction of a product than those of its users. Most companies start the process of listening to those voices by researching customer feedback logs and surveys administered via email or as intercepts in the software products themselves. These are good places to begin, but they’re somewhat reactive approaches, requiring users to report ideas or feature requests only after problems or slowdowns may have begun.
On the other hand, analytics provide a great deal of information without requiring users to be aware that anything is happening. There are a variety of analytics that can inform researchers about users’ needs as well as the experience’s quality; from the path and duration of users’ movements through the software, to the devices and browsers with which they interact. It’s very valuable insight, especially when used in connection with customer feedback; balancing data and customers’ voices yields much better results than using one to the exclusion of the other.
Some companies take an even more proactive, human-centered approach, chartering field studies to observe and interview customers as they work in their usual environments. Conducting research in users’ everyday workspaces provides even deeper insights into the various physical and cognitive barriers that they may face over the course of their day, as well as some of the “hacks” they may have devised to work around them. This immersion can lead researchers to better understand root causes and, as such, devise more robust solutions to work challenges.
Facilitating effective execution
Initial research charts the way forward and helps define the metrics by which to measure a given strategy’s success. Once that’s settled, the product moves on to be designed and built: think “walls full of concept sketches covered in colorful Post-It notes” and “computer screens full of complex code which will eventually become a (hopefully) universally-loved product”.
Participatory design exercises involve open collaboration between designers, developers, and users, and can result in a lot of great ideas and deeper understanding—and are usually a lot of fun. Commonly-used activities include creating task flows and journey maps that chart out the steps, needs, and emotions that users experience in a workflow; collaborative design sessions that generate sketches and ideas for interfaces and interactions; and design reviews where stakeholders and users review potential ideas to flesh out the good, the bad, and the unusable. In addition to helping build consensus, participatory design artifacts can be used as touchpoints throughout the project, helping teams maintain alignment with project (and user) goals.
Teams will then build prototypes of the most viable possibilities that emerge from those design sessions. Prototypes can vary in form and fidelity from pen-and-paper sketches to coded interactive screens, but their purpose is the same: let users touch and work with tangible forms of design concepts and provide feedback about how well (or poorly) they address their needs. One of the best things about prototypes is that they get answers for product and development teams well ahead of the software’s final release, so any changes can be made and tested quickly at a much lower cost.
Prototypes provide their most valuable insights when they’re used in usability studies—tests where users put a prototype through real-world tasks in order to determine if it meets users’ needs. Usability studies can be performed using a variety of methods and technologies, from in-person moderated testing to remote observations using screen-sharing software; some studies involve eye tracking to provide visualizations of where somebody is looking, the path they took to get there, and how long they stopped to look. The studies are usually recorded, enabling the design and research teams to review them with other stakeholders and note where successes and failures in the concept may have occurred. Once individual study sessions conclude, the participant provides feedback in a session called a retrospective.
Retrospectives may be as simple as filling out a form or as involved as sitting with the design team to review a recording of the usability study. This is a critical step because it allows the participant to describe their testing experience and expose insights that may have been overlooked or misunderstood otherwise. For example, there are many reasons a participant could linger on a screen: perhaps they’re confused or can’t find a path forward, or maybe they may know exactly how to proceed and just want to see the other available options before advancing. Their underlying motivation may be critical to your design, but could be completely ambiguous without specifically asking the participant about why they spent so long on that screen. Instead of relying on assumptions or best guesses, understanding the full perspective behind observations helps a team refine “good” design ideas into essential features.
Assessing the ongoing experience
Even if a software product was conceived of, developed, and finally released according to well-researched needs and goals, much is gained from a continued focus on how it serves the people who use it. Some of the same techniques we’ve already mentioned, like surveys and customer feedback logs, and usability testing, are commonly used to keep tabs on the quality of the ongoing experience. The most user-focused companies will perform these assessments at a regular interval to actively monitor users’ feelings about whether the software continues to fulfill their needs, if it has fallen off track as features are changed or added, or if opportunities have arisen to further evolve and improve the product.
When you’re partnered with software makers who include you in their research and design, your preparation and focus is just as important as theirs. Research or participatory design sessions are only useful when everyone is contributing; make sure you’re comfortable with the expectations of your involvement and be ready to interact, whether it’s answering questions or helping to draw a map of your day. Be ready to talk beyond how you’re working—the specific screens you currently use or buttons you push—and get into why you work: for example, how and when you know something needs to get done, what that thing is, and what determines when that work is complete. And have fun: you’ll be building great software and greater relationships with your software partners.
Tagged LeanLogistics, Logistics, logistics management, software design, software maker, Supply Chain, transportation management, transportation management system, ui/ux, User experience