Case Study — Alfred Müller AG

Interaction Design: Field Study // Paper Prototype // Lab Study // Workshops // Personas // Wireframes // Mockups

As part of a PoC for a Document Management System I conducted a field study that surfaced unexpected findings. Based on those we created wireframes and used them in a Usability Test.
Programming the proof of concept was a lot more streamlined because of the UX deliverables.

Assignment

Our client is a prime contractor in the real estate industry and their SharePoint intranet and collaboration platforms where rarely used despite good training efforts and as a result lacked a common way of handling documents. Our task was to proof if SharePoint could be used to build a useful DMS. As the first attempt had failed usability was a main focus.

Our study consisted of a two day field study to understand the document life cycle throughout the different departments and another two days conducting a lab study using a paper prototype. Due to the summer holidays approaching the time frame was only two weeks from the first day of the study to the finished report. Because of this we used a lean approach where findings where saved as PBIs and in a basic requirements list. Our final deliverable was a full backlog and a common understanding on the project team, summarized in a very short report mainly focusing on high level findings both for the current and further releases.

Kick Off Workshop

We collaboratively created the personas using lean characters, set out a road map for the studies and selected 18 test users from all departments and ages. We had a permanent team consisting of the project managers and myself plus additional members (information architect and our lead developer) that accompanied us for at least one day during the study.

The two main personas we created where the “dossier internal” and the “dossier external” user. The first is mainly working within a few dossiers and has a deep knowledge of them (real estate agents or construction site supervisors) while the second uses a wide variety of dossiers but with a shallow and very specific subset of folders (marketing or team leaders).

Field Study

We spent two days observing the users working with documents and interviewed them on the current document life cycles. The results were interesting to say the least: E-Mail and MS Outlook where the main way of handling digital files. Users would send E-Mails back and forth and keep copies of often used documents in their inbox or save them locally. Of course a lot of those copies weren’t up do date anymore. Some of the teams would print out all relevant information and store them in binders specific to the property they belong to.

E-Mails and printed documents play a crucial role in this client’s document handling.

Now you might think this is a very unsecure way to handle important data. But after a closer look it was just the most efficient way to both collaborate and keep track of the tasks at hand. The inbox and calendar functioned as the to-do list, while the important documents got saved to a mail folder and could easily be accessed and searched form a single interface. As a property was usually assigned to only a single person the printed out paper was a very fast and intuitive way of skimming through a large set of content.

Analyzing the field study

The key insights where that file handling, template management and the search needed major improvements. After two days we knew that we had to come up with a very good solution to outperform the current methods.

After all — our tool had to beat Windows Explorer.
We used affinity diagramming to distil the findings into a lot of post it notes

Because it was impossible to make our tool faster (less clicks) then Windows Explorer we had to add real value in order to make our users happy and drive user adoption. Our solution combines a new process based information architecture with an optimized template management and an enhanced UI.

Every dossiers has a single known state within the business process map and document templates related to it. By enhancing the [add new] button we not only show a selection of document types (Word, Excel, PowerPoint) but suggest the actual documents used in the current state. By allowing the user to choose the actual document they wouldn’t have to be bothered with the rather abstract concept of a document template at all.

If you wish you can take this even one step further and add some automatization to the dossiers. Milestone documents like a final protocol could trigger actions. This wasn’t part of the scope for this project, but it is important to have a vision: how about a dashboard showing all the project states and what mile stones are missing before a project can proceed to the next phase. Or once the final protocol was added send marketing a notice that the real estate will become available on the market within the next six months so they can start to prepare the sales material.

Paper prototype lab study

Do you remember how we observed users flicking through binders full of printed documents during the field study? A lot of the daily work is comparing invoices and requests to protocols and contracts. For the paper prototype we designed a three column layout where each column serves the same dedicated purpose throughout the UI.

A sketch of the three columns navigation, files and preview
  1. Navigation Column
    users select the dossier and subfolders, making use of a pattern they already know from Windows Explorer.
  2. Files Column
    lists files matching the current navigation selection. Inline search and filters allow the user to narrow down the list.
  3. Preview Column
    large preview of selected file allows users to quickly skim through digital documents without actively having to open the files. This is added value over Windows Explorer right here!

During the study we had a one hour break after each participant to iterate on the prototype. But because we had done a thorough job in the field study and when designing the prototype most of the participants where so successful at completing the tasks we had a hard time finding parts we could further improve.

Myself, the client project manager and our lead dev working on the prototype (ltr) between sessions.

We did however add another persona as we felt sporadic users had very different needs from our two main personas and needed to be catered for separately.

Annotated Mockups

After conducting the two studies I felt our developers would greatly benefit from detailed mockups showing the layout and interactions. I got an extra two days approved by the client and we used the expanded mockups in conjunction with a requirements list to define the final scope of the proof of concept.

The green blobs describe parts of the interface that will be included in the PoC while the orange ones aren’t.

Conclusion

The most challenging part about this project was the very short time frame that forced us to really focus on this one project and work some night shifts too. This is rather unusual as most client’s project managers have other duties as well and thus can’t put such a concentrated effort into a single project. It definitely helped that we had a great C-Level commitment and they were very supportive in getting us the users we needed in such a short time.

The workshops where very well conducted and the results prove that it was well worth the effort. To be able to observe participants interact with the fictional interface of our paper prototype and solve tasks was an exciting experience. In my opinion such workshops have to be a standard part of any of our future projects.

Urs Schenker on Proof of concept e-dossier RMS
Project manager internal projects at Alfred Müller AG

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