Microsoft Consulting Services provides enterprise level software solutions to businesses in over 82 countries across the world. Solution delivery ranges from operating system deployments to network infrastructure design and custom application development. A division of the enterprise-level application development group is the User Experience design team, whose specific services range from user research to custom branding, front end design and implementation.
To investigate the techniques, tactics, and philosophies used in User Centered Design by Microsoft Consulting Services’ User Experience Team, I spoke with Andrew Miller, who is a Microsoft User Experience Lead with Microsoft Consulting North America.
Since MCS provides Design work for external customers, their user experience team uses a robust, flexible methodology that allows them to interact with customers of all sorts who have varying amounts of previous experience with User Centered Design. When interacting with customers who may never have worked with User Centered Design or User Experience before, the UX group frequently engages customers during presales, delivering overviews and case studies on UCD, in order to establish credibility long before getting into specifics of implementation.
The UCD delivery approach used by MCS hinges upon a deep understanding of their customers’ environment, culture, and history, as well as current and future business needs. As such, establishing a meaningful relationship with clients is pivotal to a successful engagement. Andrew explained that there are several tools at the disposal of UX consultants for each specific implementation that the UX team delivers on. Among these tools is the User Needs Matrix, which is used identify groups of users. This is done by establishing common sets of functionality required by different real-world user types.
User Personas are metaphorical characters created to embody common behaviors of user groups. These help designers to make design decisions during prototyping which are based on key user roles and types.
Once these personas are established, their behavioral patterns are used to walk through each task in the various workflows that they will carry out in a site or application. This ensures that all of the application requirements that were established with the customer are covered in a way that is both robust and usable. These High level Scenarios can be broken down into their individual steps for the purposes of Acceptance Testing, and later become functional groups which the engineers implementing the solution may build test scenarios against.
Again, these are just some of the tools that UX consultants at Microsoft use when implementing a solution. In our discussion, Andrew was quick to point out that there is no such thing as a cookie cutter engagement, and that from project to project, customer expectations can vary wildly. One pattern that has emerged is that customers seem to have an extremely difficult time determining how to best order and arrange navigational structures for more complex sites and applications.
To get past this challenge, Miller’s team uses a multi-step approach; first reviewing existing solutions’ content, functionality, and navigational structures, in order to determine what is currently available to users. Project stakeholders and key users are then interviewed to see what additional behaviors and content may be added to new versions. This information is then generalized, and put into a list of simple components. Items in the list are then printed on individual physical notecards. Then, in a series of interviews with several typical users of the application, these cards are sorted into related groups. These groups are documented and compared across all users interviewed. Common patterns in groups are used to determine navigational structure. This process may be repeated for subgroups to further hone in on the best possible navigational structure.
Another challenge that Andrew and I spoke about was the dangers of working with individuals who have a heavily technical background. Understandably, IT professionals and Software Engineers typically see solutions through the lens of their particular areas of expertise. This will often predispose them select technologies that they are already familiar with to implement solutions for which the chosen technology is inappropriate. A good parallel of this in software design is the use of Microsoft Excel to store customer information or financial records – while Excel may be able to provide the functionality needed, it is certainly not as robust or secure as using an established database system like SQL Server for such a wealth of information.
Back in the world of User Centered Design, Andrew has found it to be extremely valuable to avoid discussing specific technologies until a nearly full understanding of functional and interface requirements are established. Many times, this is best accomplished by producing low-to-mid fidelity sketches and wireframes of applications which in no way resemble specific technologies. This moves emphasis away from technological specifics, and instead focuses on the needs of the users of a given system. Andrew has found that this method nearly always leads to an obvious direction for which technologies to use as a platform for implementation.
Overall, it appears that the UX team at MCS approaches UCD in a very well-grounded, realistic way. The realization that not all customers are familiar with UCD and the values inherent in its use, coupled with a flexible, people-oriented UCD methodology seems to allow them to execute on their projects in a very nimble, effective way.