You guys, half the year is gone! Well, like they say – time passes by quickly when you’re having fun. EchoUser definitely had a lot of fun this month. Here are some of our highlights from June:
- Our president, Mick McGee, was quoted in Forbes magazine about his thoughts on virtual reality will change life in the workplace
- Our resident sketch artist, Amelia Altavena, was a graphic facilitator at #InnovateEarthquakes
- Not only this, Amelia represented EchoUser at an asteroid roundtable at NASA Ames
- We got to know our Experience Director, Vel Prakhantree, a bit better
- We all went to several SF Design Week events (including talks from Indi Young, Jessica Hische, etc.) and open houses! Did we mention that we even had our own?
And we also:
- Traveled to Atlanta and Florida for work; traveled to Russian River, Glendale, and Seattle for pleasure (even crossed an abandoned railway arch that’s 347 feet above the ground)
- Went to jam out to some great artists in NYC for a music festival
- Binge watched the entire season 2 of Orange is the New Black (I mean, who hasn’t?)
- Climbed many, many things – including: Eichorn’s Pinnacle, Mt. Starr King, Lovers Leap, Daff Dome, Tenaya Canyon
- Flew out of the continent to India for a wedding and exploring!
We’re sure that the next 6 months will have more adventures in store for us!
We continue to take a virtual spin around the EchoUser offices, introducing the people who make our agency tick. Up today: Experience Director, Vel Prakhantree. Vel has worked in the tech industry in the Bay Area since 2001, specializing in untangling complex enterprise software design. Her straight-shooting style and success at aligning clients and team members toward common user experience goals has shaped EchoUser’s strategy and personality since 2010. Let’s learn more:
1. How did you get interested in user experience research?
I entered Butler University as a Business Major, with general aspirations for some kind of strategic or management path (from what discipline, I didn’t yet know). But it quickly felt rather empty. I missed the sciences, frankly, and, thanks to a pointedly engaging professor in my Psych 101 class, I became hooked on the whole process of systematically decoding the mysteries of the brain and behavior. Psychology is a relatively young science, with still so many unknowns — and that was the appeal. There were many puzzles yet to be solved, and it takes so much creativity to even think about how to approach finding answers. I did consider going the shrink route, but during junior year, I was introduced to the field of human factors: the science of designing physical or digital systems to best support how humans think, learn, decide, and behave. That appealed to me as I’d always had a strong inclination toward technology, had dabbled in coding classes, etc., and so I’d be able to apply the theoretical facets of human behavior and cognition to real-world system design problems.
The connection and the draw for me to the field of user experience research is that puzzle- and problem-solving aspect — examining both the knowns and unknowns of any situation and creatively coming up with an approach to measure and improve any experience.
2. How do you explain what EchoUser does to a potential client?
Our business process consists of a multitude of steps, but design and research are the two main parts. When a client comes to us, they want to figure out how to make their service or product better, but they may not know what or how they should be doing it. Frequently, the problem is that they don’t necessarily understand their users’ needs, and that’s where our research comes into play. Through research, we help the client identify who their target users are, what their patterns of behavior are and what problems they need to solve for their users. The designer will then take this information to come up with a fantastic design catering to each unique client.
3. UX is starting to become more understood, but what continues to be the biggest misconception about it?
People think design and UX are simple — common sense, even! But there is a lot that goes into it. It’s not just about finding that star designer; it’s about finding someone who is going to specialize in knowing the problem. There is a famous Steve Jobs quote that says “You can’t just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them.” While I understand where he was coming from, I think that’s really the biggest misconception — that you can’t, or shouldn’t, involve customers in experience design. Smart companies know that you do have to go to your users to listen and observe, tease out what they might say they want from what they really want and need, and then use that information in conjunction with great innovation. It’s about knowing the patterns of behavior and motivation of the users, which we need to understand from multiple angles and lenses before we attempt to design something for a client.
So, though design has now come into the public consciousness as a differentiator, the research behind great design is still somewhat invisible. Recognizing and investing in the right research strategy ultimately saves companies a lot of time and money once they’ve figured that out.
4. What new technologies do you see on the forefront?
Ubiquitous computing is really the direction where everything has been headed for some time now.
There are new technologies arising all the time – but the bigger question now is often figuring out the right use cases to utilize the technology. We’re in a situation right now where we have the ability to make things smaller, more bendable and more agile, but haven’t uncovered why people need technology that does that. For wearables and context-driven tech to take-off, much more user research needs to be done to determine exactly why, how and where someone might use the technology.
5. How would you go about determining the right use of a new piece of tech?
There is no one size fits all. It really depends on the technology and, largely, on how “new” it really is. There’s a wide range of questions we might first ask our stakeholders, as well as potential users, such as:
What type of people would be using the technology?
Where and how would people possibly use the product or service?
Why? What problems is it trying to solve?
Is there a ready prototype of the design, or only a concept?
What has already been tried, and did it succeed or fail, and why?
We would then likely do a field or lab exercise to test the stakeholder assumptions against the behavior and opinions of the target audience. The target users often give us insights we wouldn’t have predicted, including new potential use cases the technology could address. Again, it’s all about getting behind the user’s motivations for using any particular product – uncovering the mood and context someone has to be in to interact with the technology. If you don’t align with the right mood or timing, you can easily miss creating the experience that people will ultimately be interested in.
6. How does EchoUser’s approach to usability research differ from others?
When our clients come to us with a problem, we don’t just go into a dark room and then emerge with an answer. We feel it’s extremely important to be transparent and educate them on the process along each step of the way. We try to make them feel comfortable and confident with everything we’re doing by being very open about the different exercises and research techniques we use, mapping the strategy to the expected outcome. Clarity brings confidence, meaning less stress all around — and, ultimately, a better thought-out product for our clients.
7. If you could redesign any experience, what would it be?
That’s a tough one. But, I would have to say education — everything from early education through the university level. There is a lot to be done to change the way we educate our youth. It’s an experience that’s deep in legacy and while much of it used to work, the needs — of students, teachers, and the employers who will be hiring people post-school — have changed, and the old system no longer fits. What it means “to be an educated person” doesn’t, and shouldn’t, mean the same thing as it did in 1885.
Last Monday, I was honored to participate in a day-long meeting-of-the-minds on innovating for disasters. The players included futurists, scientists, the State of California Emergency Management Office, the City of San Francisco, engineers, the Field Innovation Team, and engineers/designers from Autodesk. I played the role of graphic note taker — capturing the spirit of the day’s voices in illustrated notes.
So what exactly did we do all day in the beautifully maintained Autodesk gallery? There were presentations (Futurecasting, The California Report Card, What is FIT exactly?, and more) as well as discussions and breakout sessions. Rather than detailing each and every phase of the day’s events, I’d rather summarize some of my own conclusions.
San Francisco is drastically behind on earthquake preparedness. The number of unsafe buildings in our city makes engineers from other countries cringe! Futurecasting (the process of predicting the future and anticipating what we can do about it) produced a myriad of ideas on how to prepare as well as how to react.
One of my biggest take-aways was something @IntelFuturist said about fear in a disaster situation and how the conversation and the way in which we articulate disasters needs to be changed. The media and responders will tell the survivors either “Everything is OK” or “We’re all going to die!” when really we should be saying:
FIT (http://www.fieldinnovationteam.org) is an incredible organization. The passion and fervor for what they do is immediately evident when you speak to any one of them. It was truly a pleasure to work with them. I believe as designers, we really can design a better experience for disaster situations. In a situation where data can mean life or death, data needs to be distilled into digestible information. FIT uses the collective intelligence of bright and diverse thinkers, as well as the cutting edge of technology, to create solutions to what can seem like hugely complex and difficult problems.
There’s a need out there for designing beyond the computer screen. EchoUser has touched on this with rethinking BART, as well as the way in which we approach the design process — i.e. evaluating design problems from the moment that the user starts their day rather than merely from the moment a user logs on or plugs in. It seems we’re doing something right, and perhaps we’re destined for larger challenges to tackle in the future. Wildfires? Asteroids? Earthquakes? Bring it on.
Only for an organization as rad as FIT would I wear my infamous #sharktights