UX workshops in product design

Imagine designing a new car. There are a gazillion things to consider, including what function it will have – sporty, family run-about, off-road? How many passengers, how will it be powered, what safety features are needed, and can it be future-proofed? Such questions, plus many more, will precede what a lot of us might think of as car design – the ‘art part’ of beautiful curves and blended colors. In fact the art part comes very late in the process.
As with cars, so too with UX workshops in product design, as practiced by UX-UI agency Ergomania.

‘Workshop’ is an overused word, often simply meaning an instructional session. We can attend yoga workshops or painting workshops, but the flow of information is very much from teacher to pupils. Such workshops are really instructional classes. Ergomania is very different because a productive, collaborative method runs through every workshop, where sharing and common understanding of goals is essential. The process creates mutual discovery of the goals for a product or service design, and is always unique. Ergomania does not apply a ‘cookie-cutter’ philosophy to client projects.

 

Maria Amidi Nouri is Partner in Ergomania and lead UX Architect, and speaks about the process of Concept to Implementation – where the phases of Discover, Define and Design are fully explored, leading to Development. But first, how has the pandemic affected things? “Our clients are banks and financial institutions,” says Maria. “So of course there has been a slowdown. However the workshop methods we use are effective either in-person or remotely. In fact we are very used to working with clients remotely, so to a large extent it’s ‘business as usual.’ We are not having to invent new methodologies to satisfy client needs – we already have a whole system in place.” So Productivity, Creativity and Delivery remain high? “Absolutely,” says Maria.

 

At the beginning of a brief, clients frequently have high, and sometimes unrealistic expectations for what can and should be achieved with their UX-UI design. So in the initial workshop it’s essential to clarify what the Business Goals are for a proposed product, and what the scope of ambition is for the product. As Maria says, “We find the intersection between the client’s ambition, the business model, and the perceived KPIs. The big challenge at this point is to define the right balance.” So at the first workshop, the primary object is to achieve early alignment between the client’s goals, and Ergomania’s deep knowledge, based on experience.

 

So where does this all begin? Firstly by defining the goals of a workshop, in advance. That may seem obvious, but surprisingly it’s not always the case in other walks of workshopping life. Based on defining goals, the output and intended benefits of an Ergomania UX workshop can be personas, a user journey, a wireframe, or a prioritized list of functions. Or all of these.

 

How do you find out what someone thinks and wants? You ask them! User Interviews of about an hour duration, with four to twelve existing or potential users are a proven method of getting down to the real issues around a product. “We dig in, to understand what people really want,” says Maria. “During an interview we look for answers to problems according to the defined goals, by exploring opinions, experiences, plans, motivations, fears and intentions.”

 

Usually at the same time Ergomania conduct separate Stakeholder Interviews – focussing on the strategic approach of key stakeholders by discussing KPIs and Objectives and Key Results (OKRs), a goal-setting framework for defining and tracking objectives and their outcomes.

 

Based on around fifteen to twenty in-depth interviews, Ergomania are now able to move to the next stage (without doing the interviews , it’s possible to move forward, however the insights of the interviews is an extra value), which helps clarify what is a ‘must have’, what is a ‘nice to have’, and which of the originally conceived features might even be ignored. This is achieved in a variety of ways.

 

Personas

Over eight years, Ergomania has developed the sophisticated use of personas. These are constructs of theoretical users representing specific user groups, based on the previous user and stakeholder interviews. Personas will include demographic and bevarioral information such as age, sex, education, location, and much more. Clearly the persona of a young, college-educated person starting out on their employment journey will be different to that of a CEO of a multinational.
So right from the start it’s essential to design and trial the different personas who will come into contact with the proposed product design. This facilitates design work and makes it far more effective.

 

Personas are firmly based on user data and user groups specified by the client, in addition to the interview process, so this is far from a scatter-gun approach to defining users.
For example, for the rapidly growing African Fintech market, it’s vital to have profiles and personas for the new, upwardly mobile urban population. At the same time, African Fintech must take account of a radically different set of personas – the rural, less educated population who are only just starting to get to grips with technology.

From that example it can be seen that for the same product group, in the same country or region, users can be very varied. So creating and refining personas is a highly effective tool to begin understanding real issues. At this stage it’s also important to regularly do reality checks to ensure that user needs are aligned with the relevant business goals. If the personas which have been developed don’t reflect business goals, then clearly something is out of sync, and it’s back to the drawing board – often literally.

 

The User Journey

Having accurately defined a persona, it’s also necessary to look out from that persona’s viewpoint. How does the proposed product or service design impact them? How are their eyes and ears and sense of touch affected? Ergomania usually visualises two stages to this, the current one and the ideal future one.

 

Let me divert here with a story from my own experience. Many years ago I did communication work for the packaging company Tetra Pak. At the time in Britain there was an ongoing meme (as we would now call it) about how difficult the cardboard cartons were to open, and TV consumer programs often demonstrated this, at the expense of the company. Eventually the Managing Director of Tetra Pak UK went on TV to demonstrate how easy a carton was to open. And spilt milk all over his expensive suit.
A charity organization representing Senior Citizens then challenged the Tetra Pak designers to understand how tricky for older people the cartons were to read, hold, and open. They produced a travelling exhibition, where Tetra Pak employees had to open packs while wearing ‘desensitizing’ thick gloves, and seeing what they were attempting to do through glasses which mimicked macular degeneration and cataracts. In subsequent years, the Tetra Pak ‘easy open’ product line was rapidly overhauled.

 

So it’s clear that whatever age or ability, users of a product go through several mental and emotional states while interacting with systems. There is, for example, no such thing as software which is ‘idiot proof’. That’s according to software developers, whereas many of their users will at the same time be asking, “Which idiot designed this piece of junk?” I must admit to have often fallen into this second category. At such times my mental state might be described as confused, and my emotional state as frustrated. These are not satisfactory feelings for a user, so the User Journey, as developed by Ergomania, is a vital part of the workshopping process. Understanding all the touch points of that journey provides information which will later, when real users engage with the product, avoid the deadly question of, “Which idiot designed this piece of junk?”

 

Experience maps

The purpose of Ergomania workshops is always to learn more, in advance of critical decisions about design and functionality. The User Journey provides overall clarity of how different personas react and interface with a product, but how to capture that information? This is where experience mapping enters the frame. The aim is to pinpoint situations where a system’s relationship with the user gets critical. In my milk carton example, most people agreed that the functionality of the product was great for transporting and storing liquid food. There was just the critical pinch point of actually opening the damn thing.
So by using experience maps, the goal is to identify problematic situations, and indicate solutions for potential obstacles. If, for example, the design team are from a culture of left-to-right readers, will their product still have the same (alleged) ease of use when taken to a culture of right-to-left readers? Answer: probably not.

 

Sometimes the fix is relatively easy. A new car design will include the options of right hand driving, as well as the more common left hand driving. It’s a simple response to real user experience and practice, and not something requiring extensive user mapping. However for more complex systems, the user journey and the mapping of that journey are vital tools, and an inbuilt part of the Ergomania workshop process.

 

Another frequently deployed approach is the Design Sprint which is a methodology created to go from an initial idea to a concept which can be wireframed. “Usually a Design Sprint will take no more than a week,” explains Maria. “We have two kinds of Sprint – our own development, and we also utilize the Google 2.0 model. On the first day, whichever model we are using, the purpose is to define the problem for which a solution is being proposed. The following day is all about bringing concepts into the frame with visualizations of a ‘Prototype’. We are always moving towards something tangible which reflects the insights and learning of everyone in the workshop.” Note Maria’s suggestion that the Ergomania participants are also in the process of learning. The company may be experts in their field, but the process is never one way.
With the Sprint achieved – typically in a week, or three days for the truncated version which doesn’t include testing – the process can now move on to wireframing.

 

Wireframes

In the computer animation industry, wireframes are the basic design of a scene or character, used to prove how it looks, and interfaces with other elements. When the wireframe reaches a stage where all the elements are working satisfactorily, then the ‘skin’ is added with all the surface features in place. Later, scenes will be polished and lighting effects added, and so on. The wireframe will have ‘come alive’ to delight the intended audience.
As with animation, so too with an Ergomania workshop where wireframing is deployed. With the personas defined, the user journey understood and mapped, the process of translating this to the basic structure of a screen is commenced. Now the sometimes abstract findings of the inquiry process begin to be concretized. Wireframing allows the clear visualization of how the UX-UI will actually function and helps indicate any pinch points along the way.

 

Prioritizing functions

Most clients want their products and services to do everything possible and ‘be all things to all people.’ This is rarely a realistic approach. A high-performance sports car cannot also be a family run-about. So prioritizing functions is also a key part of the Ergomania workshopping approach. What are the must-haves, what are the nice-to-haves, what are the can-live-withouts? Often – especially in Ergomania’s specialty Fintech area – the temptation is for clients to wish for everything in a product. Of course sometimes that is possible, but rigorous prioritization is the way to define results, and prioritizing functions can sometimes reveal surprising new rankings of importance.

 

Here Ergomania frequently uses the Kano model, developed by Professor Kania Noriaki in the 1980s, as an excellent solution for measuring client preferences during product development. The method classifies customer priorities in five categories: Must-be, One-dimensional, Indifferent, Reverse and Attractive features, plotting functionality against satisfaction. Says Maria Amidi Nouri, “Our Kano workshops are very popular as they really point up User Needs as opposed to Business or Product Owner wants. It’s another route for separating the must-haves from the nice-to-haves. When a Product Owner gets the point it smoothes the way for more rapid and focussed development.”

 

Getting the functions of an offering prioritized may seem an obvious activity, but it needs significant guidance. Think of any typical Board of Directors and the range of functions they represent – Sales, Marketing, R&D, HR, Customer Relations, and so on. Each have their priorities, and often believe that their priorities outgun those of everyone else!
The process of prioritizing functions therefore provides reality-checking, bringing logic, rather than emotional investment. With that established, it’s possible to achieve true alignment and buy-in from all the stakeholders within a business.

 

And how long does all this take? “It depends on the size of the project of course,” replies Maria. “One recent banking project occupied six to seven months for eight to ten people on a daily basis, most of which was accomplished seamlessly online. Another very major rollout of a digital wallet product for another bank, across three platforms, took two years of continuous Discover, Define, Design and Development.” As I said, this is definitely not a company which brings cookie-cutter solutions – every response is custom-made.

 

So what is a UX workshop?

UX workshops, as run by Ergomania, are productive and collaborative product development processes based on a professional methodology. This has been developed by the company over a twenty year period, with around two hundred high profile international organizations in the banking and fintech arena. Without doubt these UX workshops add considerable professional value to a product design project, as acknowledged by the roster of returning clients. Ergomania’s strong team of senior professionals, with vast project experience keep close contact with the customer, to think together, build trust, and accurately track needs. Often only one or two initial UX workshops can clarify all the issues needed to then move on to the specific design phase of a project.

In the past this has often been through personal onsite presence, where the interpretation of gestures and movement become valuable indicators of progress. As well as these ‘soft skills’ the Ergomania team also deploys a wide range of tools, including the use of Miro, Realtimeboard, Whimsical, Hangouts, Zoom, and many other contemporary technologies.
These types of software lend themselves to remote working, and Ergomania has huge experience in this area, and also offers the many benefits of nearshoring. Typically, even after establishing onsite meetings, the company and client organization will thereafter meet online to develop a product. Remote working is not a new experience which the pandemic has forced on Ergomania’s workshop process, it is a well-established and well-developed methodology. The result is a highly collaborative way of working which is already fully realized.

 

Tracking and developing change requires experience, the right tools, and precision in how they are used. Conducting UX workshops adds great professional value to a product design project, and often after only one or two sessions it is possible to progress to the specific design phase. Ergomania has the experience, knowledge and tools to produce results from UX workshops. And, as Maria Amidi Nouri is keen to remind potential clients, “We aren’t new to remote working and workshopping. In fact the current pandemic plays to our strengths, and in no way has it restricted our Productivity, Creativity, or ability to Deliver.”

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