General Assembly ‘Talk Data to Me’ Series: How to engage the broader community during enterprise technology design

General Assembly ‘Talk Data to Me’ Series in Austin, TX

For software design teams working on enterprise-level technology products, our users are often highly specific and highly technical. This can be a difficult challenge, as our opportunities for relevant feedback are limited. Gone are the days of design school when we could set up interactive surveys on street corners and end up with several hundred relevant data points and a long list of insightful user quotes about a particular research question or offering. Within enterprise technology design, we have to be more strategic and more creative in our methods for acquiring user feedback to inform our designs.

During the past eight months, I’ve been been able to work with a team of designers, developers, and product managers on an enterprise technology product that democratizes the power of deep learning for computer vision by being intuitive enough for non-technical, line-of-business users. Due to the excitement to design for a broader user group, as a user experience researcher I wanted to take the opportunity to engage our design team with local communities for relevant and iterative feedback.

Through the process of reaching out to different groups, specifically here in Austin, TX, and seeing the excitement and participation of the entire design team, I’ve outlined three tips for engaging the broader community during enterprise software research and design.

Have 2 or 3 distinct user feedback funnels.

Finding the ‘perfect user’ can be time intensive and extremely limiting. As user researchers and designers, we have to more flexible and creative when it comes to what and who defines valuable feedback. For this current product, I created a research proposal to address 3 distinct feedback funnels.

  1. External clients: “ideal” users with the in-house capacity to purchase and leverage our product at scale
  2. External users: members of the community familiar with or interested in data science and using AI for computer vision, but are likely unfamiliar with IBM products and services or are not likely to adopt the tool in an enterprise setting.
  3. Fellow IBMers: developers, designers, and data scientists within IBM that have a connection to the space through discipline, expertise, interest, or past work…never overlook the expertise in your company and the quick iterative feedback your colleagues can provide!

The combination of these 3 feedback funnels creates a holistic view of the product’s performance through different lenses. From the external clients, the critical feedback we receive is whether our product is solving their use cases and business needs. From external users, we are able to conduct pure usability tests to ensure that our product really is easy enough for non data scientists and AI experts to use. From IBMers, we are able to better abstract away some of the complexities of data science and AI from our design because we have experts helping us understand what information is necessary to reveal to the user. We can quickly improve our designs and technical knowledge before testing with external clients and users which increases the value of the conversations we have with each respective feedback funnel.

General Assembly ‘Talk Data to Me’ Series in Austin, TX

Involve the entire design team in crafting and articulating the product design story.

When looking to populate the second feedback funnel, external users, one of the first groups I reached out to was General Assembly, a company that provides educational courses for in-demand skills such as user experience, data science, and web development. They were very open to collaborate with our team and came with several suggestions for how we could engage with current graduates, alumni, and Austin professionals.

When I started approaching these different communities it was important to clearly articulate what our team is trying to learn from the community and our product design mission. As a team we asked ourselves:

Q: Why is this the appropriate community for usability feedback?

A: General Assembly has several students interested in user experience and data science and we are designing a low-barrier-to-entry product in this space.

Q: How do we explain both our design process and the product capabilities in a short and digestible session?

A: Crafting engaging and informative presentations that quickly introduce the audience to who we are, our team goals, and the value we see in the audience’s feedback.

Q: How do we articulate our brand and process in way that makes users, who are unfamiliar with our work, feel they can participate and provide value?

A: Our team created product logo stickers, informational product cards, and other takeaways to create a polished and clear message for audiences that may be unfamiliar with our company’s product work in this space.

I recommend going through a quick exercise with your team to make sure you can answer similar questions before agreeing to community events to ensure it’s the best way to direct the efforts of your team and the time of the community.

Product logo design by IBM visual designer Kylee Barnard

Reach out to communities where there is a two-way value exchange.

As designers, we are constantly seeking sources of relevant and meaningful feedback. But we often forget that asking someone for their time is perhaps the most valuable thing we can ask of another person. When I called General Assembly, I wasn’t sure about the exact nature of our exchange, but I had worked with other educational institutions in the past and knew that students are always looking for more information about a field or how a company works. We were able to engage with a user experience design class and also speak as part of General Assembly’s ‘Talk Data to Me’ series because we could provide subject matter value within these spaces. I recommend crafting a talk that is about 80% providing value to the community and 20% asking for value, or user feedback, in return. For my talk to the user experience class, I talked about what it means to be a user experience designer on highly technical products, how IBM has created a design culture for designers and non-designers alike, and the ways in which the four software designer roles at IBM work together and collaborate (user experience researcher, user experience designer, visual designer, and front-end developer).

Usability testing session with General Assembly student

Outcomes and Conclusions

To help give an idea of the inputs and resulting outcomes for this research approach, I’ve broken out ‘inputs’ and ‘outcomes’ below:

There is no ‘perfect user.’ I encourage user experience researchers and their design teams to look beyond screener-based recruiting and existing users from past studies by engaging the broader community when possible. Not every project will provide this opportunity, but if you are a designer working on data science or AI products, there are opportunities for feedback that directly improve the design, experience, and functionality of your product. Moving beyond product benefits, engaging the broader community helps the entire team craft and articulate their product mission and brand. Additionally, it enables the design team to recognize and share the knowledge they have acquired while working in a particular space, helping to democratize data science, AI, and deep learning, the root of our product mission in action.

All thoughts expressed are my own.