My Role and Timeline
We were a two person team. The timeline for the project was five weeks. My role in the project was planning and facilitating primary research, running stakeholder reviews, creating prototypes and providing final deliverables to the client.
We were working with the team of LabOrders, which is a centralized order management platform specifically for scientific labs and institutions. It’s quite helpful and used by almost everyone— from researchers to lab managers to financial and procurement divisions within an institution. The goal of the product is to simplify the process from requesting a product to receiving it in the lab. Without LabOrders, the process is in itself quite tedious as any request has to go through multiple departments before it can be sanctioned. LabOrders provides a centralised platform to improve the order management process by keeping everyone in the loop. To further assist the researchers in choosing the products, LabOrders has a catalog of 4 million products with relevant prices from suppliers. The product also has additional features like controlling the budgets, managing contracts with vendors etc.
LabOrders wanted to improve the usability of the privileges/permissions section of the product. In that section, administrators and managers could manage the privileges given to various users inside the institution. Each privilege gives a certain kind of access to a user with respect to a certain project or grant.
- Understanding the business: Given the problem definition, we formally began the project with a meeting with Tiago Carvalho, CEO of LabOrders and Bruno, a frontend developer. The goal of the meeting was to understand the business, the product road map and any business/technical constraints.
- Conducting User Research: With a foundational understanding of the business, the next step was to understand the users of the product. The objective was not only to understand user goals, their needs and motivations but also their context of use of the product(environment facilities, workarounds, triggers) by observing them in their natural environment. In order to achieve the above, we decided to employ contextual inquiry as a research method. We conducted 4 interviews, 2 on-site and 2 remotely.
- Analysing qualitative data: We analyzed the data we gathered from our users to identify opportunities to improve the product. While analyzing the data, we realized that privileges was the second least important task for our users. Our findings showed the most surprising insight that in order to complete a task inside LabOrders, users spent plenty of time communicating outside LabOrders. Due to the frequent context switching, users got distracted easily which lead to delay in task completion, reduced efficiency and subsequent stress.
- Client Review: We held a meeting with our client to align expectations by showcasing the research and the direction we intended to pursue to solve the problem of communication. We also showed him the first iteration of redesigning the privileges section, taking into account the technical constraints.
- Using prototypes as a research tool: Based on the feedback from the client and our own findings, we decided to test the usability of our redesign of the privileges section. Additionally, we also built a medium fidelity prototype to solve the problem of communication within LabOrders. Here the goal was to use the prototype as a research tool to gain further insights and further develop the prototype. We tested the prototype with 2 users.
- Second round of iteration and Presenting to the client: After getting feedback from users, we iterated on our previous designs both for improving communication and the privileges section. Finally we presented our proposed solutions and ideal strategy to the CEO of LabOrders.
The client was quite happy with the work we presented. He said the conclusions from the project made him think about opportunities that he did not anticipate. We proposed that improving the efficiency at work for lab managers, by improving communication inside LabOrders would be in line with their strategic positioning as a software for happy labs. This in turn would help in achieving their business goals of acquiring more users, along with establishing a competitive advantage.
Process — Part 1: Discovering and Defining the problem
Meeting the client
The project began with Tiago Carvalho, CEO of LabOrders getting in touch with the founder of our school, Tiago Pedras. Once being handed the project, we kickstarted the project by formally initiating a client meeting. The challenge was to improve the usability of the privileges section of the product.
The goal of the meeting was to better understand the business, their goals, the target user and any business/technical constraints. Also, we wanted to understand why improving the usability of the privileges section was important.
Some of the insights we gathered from the client meeting were:
- The business goal : The primary business goal is to acquire new users and consequently generate more revenue.
- On the sales cycle: The process of acquiring a new user takes about an year. The pricing of the product is a combination of the features an institution wants and the size of the institution.
- The Product roadmap for the next 6 months: They’re currently developing a stock module inside the product. As the sales cycle is so long, they’re considering producing a lighter version of their existing product for independent labs to acquire more users.
- The target user: Their primary target user is research institutions. Within an institution, almost everyone who has been a certain level of access uses the product. At the service level, there are people who sometimes spend their entire day on LabOrders.
- About the privileges section: The team had received some customer complaints concerning usability problems associated with privileges. They also internally believed there was a scope for improvement in that section.
- Technical Constraints: The LabOrders team is small, of around 4 engineers. Given that they already had a lot on their plate, they expected us to work with the Bootstrap framework for the visual aspects of our redesigns, to make it easier for them to make changes.
Understanding our users
Having explored the business needs and motivations, it was time to understand the users of LabOrders. During the user research masterclass by Stephanie Troeth, we were provided with a research canvas which is used to define research objectives. In context of our project, we defined it as follows:
Conducting Contextual Inquiry
Having defined our research objectives, we decided to conduct our research by going into the field. Given LabOrders is a B2B product, it was hard to recruit users for research as most of them are quite busy. We managed to conduct 2 on-site and 2 remote research sessions.
As showcased in the research canvas, we not only wanted to understand user needs and motivations but also their context of use of the product i.e. their workplace environment and facilities, any workarounds/hacks they used while using the product and any triggers associated with their workflow. We decided to use contextual inquiry as a research method to achieve our research objectives. A semi-structured research method, contextual inquiry consists of two parts i.e. interviewing the user to establish context and observing the user while they are doing their work to understand user behavior.
Open Card Sort
While interviewing users we also conducted an open card sorting exercise. First, we asked them to name the most important tasks that they did using LabOrders and then organize them from the highest to lowest priority. This would help us better understand the main user goals. The following images are the two user responses to the above task.
In order to analyze our qualitative data, we wrote our observations in a spreadsheet and then categorized them based on relevant themes. This helped us to identify and prioritize observations and to find valuable opportunities.
Observations and insights
Our research provided us with two interesting insights:
First,although a bit confusing, the privileges section was not the most important problem to fix in the product: The card sorting exercise and our interview questions showed us that privileges was the second least important task for users, while using LabOrders. As a matter of fact, one of the users mentioned that the last time they changed privilege access was about 10 months ago.
What is the problem then? Or is there a problem?
The primary problem we found out is that users spend a lot of time switching between different applications to complete tasks within LabOrders.
This is due to an amalgamation of different problems, namely:
- Lack of effective communication: Power users, who work on LabOrders almost their entire day, spend a lot of time switching between different applications to communicate effectively.The problem arises because the product has an incomplete system of communication which leads to users
using email or a chat application like slack to gather the required information.Essentially, in order to complete a task within LabOrders, users spend more time communicating outside of LabOrders.
- Workarounds/Hacks: We also observed users employing hacks to improve their work flow. One of them had a word document where he kept a list of his most frequent replies to the popular queries. On being asked a familiar query, he would copy the required templated answer from the doc, change the details and reply back to the respondent
- Environment/Interruptions: Although some users had calm working environments, some had quite the opposite. Lab Managers who were closer to the researchers would often get interrupted, either by phone calls or in person. The Procurement Division Heads, who work in peaceful environments would also get interrupted once in a while. Also, as they were responsible for the entire institution, they would spend a lot of time communicating via emails. Below is an image of one of our users who is a Lab Manager and as you can see it’s quite easy for her to get interrupted and lose focus on her work.
The resulting context switching leads to reduced efficiency and disruption in focus. The interruptions inside the working space, either through telephone calls or interaction with other office workers adds on to their problem of focusing on a given task. The image below showcases how a user working in LabOrders would interact with different applications.
In light of our findings, we believed that one of the major contributor to context switching was the lack of efficient communication inside LabOrders. Other contributors like interruption triggers in the environment are part of the job and we can’t do much about them. We defined our scope and came up with the following problem definition:
How might we improve communication between researchers,managers and procurement heads inside LabOrders?
We showcased our research findings to Tiago Carvalho, CEO of LabOrders. The goal of the meeting was to align expectations and to give an overview of the direction we intended to pursue i.e. of improving communication inside LabOrders. We received valuable feedback from him and he supported us in pursuing our intended direction.
Process — Part 2: Developing and Delivering Solutions
Although based on user research, we understood that privileges wasn’t the primary problem, we decided to tackle it and improve upon the current version. We kept in mind the technical constraints of using visual elements based on the current visual guidelines(Twitter Bootstrap framework) to help the team ship the implementation as fast as possible.
Main tasks within the privileges section
Before diving into the design, it was important to understand the purpose and the tasks conducted within the privileges section. The following are the tasks, and the way we observed users accomplishing them, from the most to least important:
- Change/Edit Privileges of a given user in a given grant or multiple grants: Users would search the name of the person by scrolling down or they would find the grant and then find the respective user. On finding the user with the specific grant, they would select the required radio button to change the privilege. This was also the most frequent task.
- Enable disabled users inside the platform: Clicking on the “View Disabled Users” button displayed the disabled users in the table.
- Add users to the platform: Users accomplished it by clicking on the “Add user” button and filling up the subsequent form.
The following is the current version of the interface. Based on user feedback and our own understanding, we identified certain issues with the interface. In line with GDPR, we have hidden the actual data in the interface.
Proposed solution — Iteration 1
Given the feedback, we iterated on the current interface. We initially started from low-fidelity wireframes on paper and gradually transitioned to higher fidelity mockups.
We decided to conduct a usability test on our redesign of the privileges section. We went back into the field, did usability testing with 2 users with a goal to identify potentially confusing interactions and behaviors.
Uncovering opportunities from Usability Testing
We learned the following:
- While using the new navigation, users were able to figure out that only grant information was changing but they were unable to specify the current page number. The navigation wasn’t quite intuitive for the user.
- The display of the search bar was welcomed by the users. At that point, the search bar was used to quickly find a user by searching via their name. But the functionality posed a dilemma if extended to searching via grants/projects — that is if a user’s name and the grant name consisted of the same characters, what would be displayed on screen?
Proposed solution — Iteration 2
Back to designing, we decided to improve on those issues and the following was our proposed solution:
Iteration version 2 of the privileges section with different states
Improving Communication inside LabOrders
Just to recap, during the research phase we identified problems in lack of clear communication channels across different parties. Additionally, frequent context switching further aggravated and lead to reduced efficiency and lack of focus on task. Based on these findings, we defined our problem definition as:
How might we improve communication between researchers, managers and procurement heads?
While observing users during research sessions, we found potential opportunities and pain points for our users i.e. Procurement Head and Lab Managers. Although the problem of clear communication affects all parties, we realized that the Procurement Heads were the ones who needed it the most.
The following is the user journey of a Procurement Head, conducting his day to day activities in LabOrders.
Below we have the interface of the Order list page, where the Procurement Head spends most of his time. We have labeled some of the issues that we found inside the interface.
Prototyping to Research
Having found the issues, we redesigned the current interface solving the pain points we found in our research phase. We decided to go back to our users to show them our redesign with a goal to dig deeper into understanding ways to improve communication inside LabOrders.
Keeping in mind the goal of prototyping to research, we decided against building a high fidelity prototype as it was key for us to understand users feedback based on the primary functionalities of the prototype and not get lost in the little details. We wanted to realize whether users understood the intent, if the redesign was able to meet their expectations and how we could improve it further.
Prototype Version 1
The following is a walkthrough of the the prototype we showed to our users:
After showing the redesign to the users, we got positive feedback and also a lot of room for improvements.
The positive ones were:
“Many times I receive emails from the services with this kind of notes, then I open, copy the number and go to LabOrders and search for the order. This way I lose less time.” — Lab Manager
“This is great as I don’t want to be alt + tabbing” — Procurement Head
But like I said, we also uncovered opportunities to improve the prototype further as shown below.
Back to the drawing board, we decided to tackle the issues one by one.
The most important and valuable issue we observed was when the procurement head said that “When I’m looking at notifications, I want to know which ones require my immediate attention!”
In order to tackle this issue we had to rethink how to show notifications.
The following image shows the current state of notification badges. The problem with these notifications is that they are non contextual in nature. It’s impossible to prioritize one notification over another and also it’s hard to determine whether a particular notification requires immediate attention.
We improved upon the traditional non-contextual notifications by making them more specific and functional.
Prototype Version 2
We redesigned and iterated on our previous version of the prototype. We improved upon user feedback and we proposed the following solution to the team of LabOrders.
Global Notification Page
As we were working on the improving the previous prototype, we realized the need for a place to manage all the notifications received by the user. You can see the prototype below.
This was a great learning experience for me. While presenting to the Tiago Carvalho, CEO of LabOrders — we ended the presentation with the following quote:
Happier labs need the best communication
Because we were not the only ones saying that…
They said it too.
If you’re reading this then thank you so much for being patient and reading this really long case study. I have always wanted to conduct some type of an ethnographic research method and this project fulfilled that and made it a great learning experience.