What a journey, NASA had been really close

How User Experience Design fit into B2B business? -A Year Review in 2015

Why I work for a B2B industry?

When being interviewed in LabVantage, I got to see a complex and highly configurable B2B web app for scientists in labs, and I was told that NASA had been using it to develop space suites. I immediately imagined how it interacts with scientists in space industry. I am a UX/UI designer who is hopelessly in love with science.

I had been through some job hunting drama in 2014. After waiting for months, the offers from world leading banks and financial firms did not come. Until I got an offer from LabVantage, I was like “Why not become a scientists’ advocate and designing something good for science this time”? If I can design an easy to use application that NASA would use to do some awesome space projects, my dream would come true! Yeah! Let’s do this! I accepted the offer and become the first and only UX designer who ever worked at this long established tech company. My journey begins here……

An illustration of UX team of One

Impressed stakeholder

Artifacts - I drew on whiteboard, paper to articulate my design process, ranging from use cases, interaction, user flow, wireframing.

From R&D team, to Marketing team, Sales team, even HR team, UX design is very new, exciting, but unfamiliar. But I understand why they get that impression. My portfolio looks is more of an art portfolio — if they don’t dig into my design process, they will easily get the perception that UX design is something creative that is produced organically. Trained as a designer from an engineering institution, design process was defined as a problem-solving process, similar to that of mathematical problem-solving. I never got tired of educating stakeholders what is UX design and how it can benefit our product.

The overall UI of a B2B (business-to-business) application is pretty outdated. You may say that there are a lot of design opportunities since the bar is pretty low. However, B2B applications usually bounded by industry regulations or comes with a series of complex workflows. LabVantage is a widely used software in the areas of pharmaceutical, clinical trials and manufacturer labs. We can easily make improvements on its 70s Microsoft alike user experience. However, where to start, what to change, why do we need to change, and how do we educate customers to accept these changes? These questions force myself to think critically all the time. Some decisions are no brainer, such as changing the typography to improve readability and consistency, but changing without rationale means risks to the business. People were skeptical about changes and that might turn the customers away. To move things forward and push the changes through, I found that using presentation as proposal works really well, and it made each change looks professional and convincing.

Even with well thought presentations, rejections from different point of view always lie on my table. I get to learn to listen to feedback, and how to elaborate and illustrate my idea. A picture is worth a thousand words, therefore, I used sketches, flowcharts, user stories, prototypes as the communication tools to convey my visions. The PM and Dev have been very supportive and always exchange their thoughts on the design with me. Although I was inspired from their feedback, but user-centric design is not only about inspiration and creativity. At the end of the day, I am the user advocate, if I don’t speak for the users, no one else will do.

I remembered that during a company event, a painting night, I drew the Van Gogh’s starry night. It was the first time I paint the picture and everyone says it was really impressive! The next day, the whole company started to describe me as “she was the one who drew the starry night!”. Since then, the stakeholder interview with external departments seems a little easier. The time spent on drawing lots of animation cartoon (as my secret hobby) has finally paid off.

Photos from left to right, me drawing, the final version, my painting process

Focus on Usability

A good user experience is not just about look and feel. I still remember vividly the documentary about a tragic airplane crash I watched 15 years ago. That crash made me to start thinking about Human Computer Interaction, “They could have designed a better interface, so that pilot was not confused between different flying modes and people would not have not died!”; according to Wikipedia, the Air Inter Flight 148 crashed in 1992 and 87 out of the 96 crew and passengers on board were killed. And the primary factor? Poor UI Design. There were two flight modes: Vertical Speed Mode and Flight Path Angle mode. These two displays were so similar that it is almost impossible to differentiate them. Thus, pilot inadvertently left the plane in a wrong flight mode. After further investigation, programmers modified the interface to prevent confusion with the Flight Path Angle mode. Every time when I have been through a tough battle, I always remind stakeholders to not to use any ambiguous design as the risk for users errors are high. Form a deep empathy as a user advocate, and I committed to bring them an easy-to-use product.

An Example of Usability Audit I did

Another fun part was being a UX team of one, I had been thinking the similarities between cognitive styles in psychology and strategies in design thinking; Analytic vs. Holistic Thinking. I believe it usually takes both thinking methods to comprehensively approach problems and create design solution.

How to measure the success of design?

After eight months of critical usability review, it is time to collect data on how the design improves user experience and increases users satisfaction. LabVantage Inc has an annual customer education and technology conference, and there are around a hundred customers coming from all over the world. Since it is the first time we demonstrate the new software and they don’t have time to fully experience the system, I was only testing two metrics: attractiveness and clarity, so we did not test efficiency and dependability. The survey was structured with nine items scaled from 1 to 7 and 1 feedback textbox. We got 5.73 out of 7 with a standard deviation of 0.93, from 34 participants. I also talked to one of our major customers, Mayo Clinics and Labs Inc. I was glad to hear that they appreciated the design and got excited while using it. What exceeded my expectation was that the leadership team were also thrilled to see this data. At that moment, I knew that data was very helpful when communicating with stakeholders who don’t have strong design background. I still believe in my gut and be confident in making design decisions. But thanks to the data, 5.73 out of 7 , all my hard work in the experiments, the debates, and my patience, are worth. As I learned from Dantley Davis, Design Director of Netflix, to most of stakeholders, data is believed to be relatively unbiased, therefore they tend to believe data driven design.

I actually haven’t gotten a chance to visit NASA or to interview users from NASA. All I know about NASA is how they use our system according to my managers and business analysts. I should have asked for more opportunities to be get closer to it.

Photos of how LabVantage Inc celebrated LabVantage 8 launch across US, Europe, and Asia in Feb 2016

A big thank you to the R&D and PM, and also my best friend, the customer support team. They know the best of how our users actually use the system. I am proud to be part of the process to transform a traditional B2B system into a modern, easy to use product. Special mention to my mentor, Anthony Viviano, my former manager Puneet, VP of Product and Gabe, Chief Technology office. Without their support and inspiration, I could not grow and achieve so much within a year.

Some inspiring articles

http://blog.martindoms.com/2011/01/24/poor-ui-design-can-kill/

http://alistapart.com/article/ux-for-the-enterprise

http://alistapart.com/article/object-oriented-ux

Some books for young designers

  • A Project Guide to UX Design
  • 100 things every designer need to know about people
  • The Design of Everyday Things
  • Articulating Design Decisions
  • Don’t make me think

Now I am looking forward to joining a talented team and devoting my solid design skills and analytical & creative thinking skills to building world-class, cross-platform digital products. Need a talented designer? Shoot me an email: joannewangdesign@gmail.com

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Thank Harper Reed, Lau Cherham, and Vlad Klym for proofreading.

Thanks for reading!