Designing a better Asset Management experience (B2B) — a UX case study

A practical application of design thinking in the energy sector

With a myriad of sexy consumer-facing UX case studies being showcased on Medium, I thought I’d be a little unconventional and show you a real design problem from a different perspective, following the principles of design thinking.

Screenshots of the iPad and Desktop application with other screenshots behind it for framing

Outline

For CompanyX, finding and reporting on energy metering assets in the field was an arduous manual process full of human error and recurring problems. External field operatives (field-ops) responsible for handling these metering assets, faced unsolicited contact and penalties when things went mysteriously missing from their inventory.

Business case

Reform was well overdue.

Design challenge

Right asset, right place, right time.

  1. Making inventory management more efficient and informed.
  2. Providing visibility at all times.

My role

I led the analysis and design of the asset management experience between February 2017 to August 2017 through discovery, inception and delivery. Collaborating with an Agile cross-functional team of developers, a project manager, a product owner and a number of executive stakeholders.

Understanding the problem space

From the onset, we didn’t have an understanding of the current asset management experience and state of affairs. I partnered with fellow colleagues to undertake user research and see what we could discover.

Insights from the field.

Over a week, we interviewed key people affected by the existing experience to understand their pain points. The goal was to understand what worked, what didn’t, and various workarounds that could become future opportunities.

A warehouse featuring stacked pallets of meters stored neatly on large shelving
A warehouse featuring stacked pallets of meters stored neatly on large shelving
A birdseye view of boxes of inventory placed on the floor
A birdseye view of boxes of inventory placed on the floor
Inside one of the depots

Discoveries

  • Troublesome deliveries. Partial, late or incorrect deliveries arrived in warehouses, which confused field operations staff, costing them time and money to ship back assets or work out a re-allocation plan.
  • Frustrated people. Inventory managers couldn’t track the location of assets to ensure inventory levels are correct. Frequently, this led to a mystery search which was wasteful and frustrating for field ops who would be pulled into an investigation.
  • Excess motion. A significant portion of the inventory managers’ time was spent copying across data from one system into another to communicate with industry systems for compliance.
  • Workarounds. A significant portion of warehouse managers’ time was spent tracking inbound and outbound assets into a manual single-source spreadsheet (or on paper). This was a symptom of the frequent investigations and fuelled a sense of safety.
  • Equivalent tooling. It was discovered other suppliers who worked with field-ops had provided mobile/iPad applications to help them with capturing inbound and outbound assets. Field-ops felt excited at the prospect of something similar for CompanyX.
  • Suboptimal processes. The returns experience was broken, often leading to confusion and lack of accountability for recirculating the meters into a refurbishment process.
A sheet of paper stuck on a wall, with stickies and index cards on it describing the personas
A sheet of paper stuck on a wall, with stickies and index cards on it describing the personas
Rough personas

(Key learning) There was genuine hunger for a tool to keep track of inventory across warehouses.

Going into the field, we expected a lot of resistance to change from field-ops given their workload and external interests.

A room of people sat around a conference desk engaging in conversation
A room of people sat around a conference desk engaging in conversation
Stakeholder workshop to discuss research findings and build empathy

(Key learning) There was a communications disconnect between field-ops and the inventory controller.

Inventory management and field-ops were frighteningly divided by communication barriers. Talking to each at different times revealed a gap in empathy for each other, their respective problems and views on responsibilities and accountability.

Sheet of paper with an email printed, mounted on a clipping board. Written text all over it.
Sheet of paper with an email printed, mounted on a clipping board. Written text all over it.
Paperwork used to record asset serial numbers for tracking and allocation

(Key learning) Manual processing and human errors, everywhere.

Field operations teams would receive deliveries of meters by the hundreds (sometimes thousands) at once. Each serial number would have to be marked and recorded, sometimes on spreadsheets, other times on old fashioned pen and paper.

Reframing the problem

As a team, we agreed based on research that:

  1. No consistent mechanism to reliably manage assets caused diffusion of responsibility, discord, incoordination and inefficiencies.
  1. How might we provide a reliable mechanism to manage assets?

The solution

Our proposal was StockR. A web and iPad application created for inventory managers and field-ops to provide visibility into assets and manage them throughout their lifecycle.

Screenshot showcasing the field operatives iPad interface (which includes a scanner)
Screenshot showcasing the field operatives iPad interface (which includes a scanner)
Screenshot showcasing the field operatives iPad interface
Screenshot showcasing the field operatives iPad interface
Desktop screen showcasing the inventory managers interface
Desktop screen showcasing the inventory managers interface

How we got to the solution

Right asset, right place, right time, with visibility.

  1. What visibility is needed to make informed decisions on the asset lifecycle?
  2. What mechanism(s) exist which can feasibility support the inventory management experience whilst simple and efficient in the context of use?

The law of supply and demand.

In the pursuit to understanding why the wrong assets were in the wrong place at the wrong time, research revealed that demand wasn’t driven by consumer needs, but rather driven by an internal planning team who allocated install jobs directly to field-ops. They would then carry out the installation on the property.

Sequentially ordered sticky notes and index cards, depicting the user journey for the application
Sequentially ordered sticky notes and index cards, depicting the user journey for the application
Visualisation of current-state journey map and pain points (Obfuscated for confidentiality reasons)

Good data aids good decisions.

Whilst we didn’t have scope to optimise the end to end process, we could make incremental improvements to supply forecasting to reduce the amount of non-value added waste downstream. Its biggest enemy - inaccurate and insufficient inputs.

A wall of index cards and sticky notes with data points on them, ranked top to bottom by priority
A wall of index cards and sticky notes with data points on them, ranked top to bottom by priority
Ranked data points later built into the systems
Two people sat at a table with cards in front of them, prioritising the different data points
Two people sat at a table with cards in front of them, prioritising the different data points
Card sorting exercise with one of the inventory managers.

Thinking outside the box.

As a designer, it’s very easy to be constrained by the comfortable world of desktops, devices and applications. It was important for us as a group to acknowledge that there might be other mechanisms that can solve our problems more elegantly.

Retreating to convention.

Whilst we revelled at the idea of utilising the best hardware on offer, there was no denying that a mobile and desktop application was a more practical approach. Field-ops and inventory managers were well versed in using Android, iOS and desktop, had used similar platforms from other suppliers and we could start adding value pretty quickly.

Photo of two iPhone sized sketched photos
Photo of two iPhone sized sketched photos
Early low-fi prototype to validate user needs and key assumptions
Collage of photos of people using the real application and the wireframes and prototypes used for testing
Early sketches and Balsamiq mockups used for idea validation
Diagram of screenshots annotated with labels to represent the flow and user goals
Simplified UserFlow — used to guide product development and communicate with our stakeholders.

The result

In the months after my involvement on the project, the team continued to build out the roadmap alongside parallel products to offer more support. The new team evolved the design language and took a lot of the learnings we had made into other products.

  • Large decrease in capture and allocation error rate*
  • Minor reduction in asset rental costs*

Hybrid Product Manager and Designer. Currently working @ Rokt. Passionate about solving really hard problems whilst zipping around the world!

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