“The role of director of user experience is pretty new,” says Steve Ballard, who has taken on this position at project management software company @task. “In consumer software it’s not so new. The product has to sell itself so the focus is on products that are useful.” The difference with software you use at work is that these products tend to have a sales force to sell, support and explain them. The shift towards focusing on user experience for workplace software, Ballard explains, is because users expect the same from their office tools as they do from the software they use at home. “People are expecting software to be useful,” he says.
@task firmly believes in producing useful software. This year members of the @task team went out and practically lived with customers in their offices to find out how the software was used. What they found out became the driving force behind the latest version of their project management tool.
Before they hit the offices, the @task guys interviewed each other internally to find out who they thought the users were. Then they set out to confirm or disprove their theories with visits to 20 companies across the U.S. “We talked to people with different roles,” Ballard explains. “We talked to team members, project managers and executives, so about 60 people. We tried to live with the people a little bit – it’s kind of anthropology.”
The visitors sat with users at their desks to understand how project management software is used in practice. The Chief Technology Officer, software engineers, product managers and usability experts took turns in attending, with Ballard going along for all the visits to provide consistency. The team took trips to big companies, small companies and various different industries from financial services to pharmaceutical and manufacturing. “We thought we would see unique challenges across different industries, but we didn’t,” Ballard says. “They all struggle with the same things. We now realise that if we can make Chris happy we can make all end users happy.”
Designing for pretend people
“Chris” is a fictional person, the archetypal project management software user. Ballard explains that it is easier to design for one person than for a disparate group. “We created user personas – fictional people,” he says. The @task team built up profiles for 3 fictional users: Chris, a project team member and software end user, Jen, a project manager and Mark, a project executive. “Nobody focused on the team member for obvious reasons,” says Ballard. “The software buyer is not the main user on a daily basis. Chris is critical to the success of @task software in any organisation.”
The @task site visits uncovered the fact that most project managers force (shock, horror!) their users to input data into a project management software tool. Stream, the new version of the @task software, tries to get away from the need to do that. “Our approach with Stream is understanding Chris’s goals, and to give him something that helps him be responsible and have control over his work. This solves the adoption problem, which is an issue for all software,” Ballard explains. The big problem for project managers, he says, is coping with ‘garbage in, garbage out’. Project managers find it hard to trust the outputs from software when they have questions about the quality of the data. Stream addresses this by aiming to empower the end user through allowing them to commit to their own dates. “If we can meet Chris’s goals, we can get data into the system for the project managers,” Ballard adds.
Usability in action
“Some customers got it,” says Ballard, although he confesses it was easier to sit with customers than with non-customers. The @task usability task force did go to sit with companies who do not use their software, so they could be sure they weren’t just “designing software in a lab.” Ballard feels the experience was very useful. “We wanted to understand the whole thing holistically,” he says. “We wanted to observe the day-to-day. In the end, they understood what it was all for – which was more than just the ‘how’ of using project management software.”
They have plans to make further developments to @task focusing on Jen, the project manager persona, and Ballard believes there is scope for improvement in how project managers use and interact with software tools. “By continuing to use this process it will allow us to make some really great innovations,” says Ballard. Project managers, watch this space. There could be something revolutionary brewing in the @task software labs. After, of course, they go out and research the design with Jen in mind.22/09/2010