Uncovering Users In Your Own Organization

by Lynn Rampoldi-Hnilo – Box&Arrows

“It’s still research, but from an internal perspective. There is a wealth of information at your fingertips in your own office, and surprisingly, some of it is usability-related.”

As user experience professionals it is crucial to your success that you learn who your users are, understand their environments and business needs, determine current user interface (UI) problems with the products, and review design solutions with users.

Like most of you, I can’t wait to get into the field to observe users working with my products. Yet, I’m going to pull on the reins, and do a 180-degree turn. Don’t worry – it’s still research, but from an internal perspective. There is a wealth of information at your fingertips in your own office, and surprisingly, some of it is usability-related. You can optimize your internal resources by understanding where and how you can find UI information about your users within your own company. To provide context and practical guidelines, this article presents examples of how to mine internal resources at a large enterprise software company.

Beginning with the end in mind
Successful research initiatives begin by first considering the research questions that need to be answered, then by selecting sources and methods to obtain those answers. Many user experience (UE) questions can be answered by examining internal resources. These questions may include:

Who are the product users? What types of industries do they represent?
Although these might sound like marketing questions, they are important for UE professionals to know as well. Defining the user base is key for research purposes, as well as for understanding the usability patterns emerging in different markets. One would expect that a hospital, for example, might use purchasing software differently than a manufacturing company.
Are usability issues already being documented within your organization?
Before running numerous usability studies and visiting customer sites, first find out what customers are already reporting. These reports can be a low-cost way to collect and summarize feedback and can direct your future research initiatives.
Where is the UI becoming an issue in your organization’s business? What are the usability hotspots?
You can ask questions to determine whether the UI is affecting:
Revenue-generating sources: new sales, upgrades, and competitive pressures
Customer relations: implementation, training, documentation, and help desk calls

Assessing internal documentation can help the UE team react to some of these problems and make the appropriate changes before problems escalate.
Internal resources
Most companies—small, medium, and large—maintain their product, sales, and customer knowledge within some sort of information documentation system. This knowledge organization can range from Excel spreadsheets to multi-database knowledge management software solutions such as Lotus Notes (Zorn & Taylor, 2004). Every company categorizes and prioritizes information differently. Likewise, not all companies have the same resources written about in this article and many have additional sources not addressed here. At a minimum, this diversity provides directions for exploration.

PeopleSoft’s UE team has found it valuable to look at the following sources:

Customer Database
An application that supports all customer-facing operations. This application feeds into a database that contains all customer information, including customer contacts, business details, market details, products implemented, and licenses sold.

Support Call Center
Most companies with a customer call center have a tracking system to log the issues reported by customers. Many log issues into categories, such as “usability.”

Consultancy and Implementation Services
Consultants have day-to-day experience with product implementation and customization. They document customizations made to the UI based on customer needs, such as accommodating changes to infrastructure or business processes.

Product Managers
These individuals have ongoing dialogues with customers that influence the future direction of the product. Product Managers can alert UE teams to design issues, such as a major redesign needed due to newly added functionality.

Company Survey Data
Most mid- to large-scale companies evaluate their customers’ satisfaction with their products. Usability may be one of the dimensions surveyed.

Examining and synthesizing information from your own corporate resources will allow you to have a deeper understanding of customers and users prior to conducting field and usability research, incorporate usability findings into the product release cycle phases, and leverage internal relationships for future research and design reviews.

When to assess your internal resources?
Assessing internal resources is a continuous task. Information is constantly being updated, in many cases daily. Reevaluation of data may occur quarterly, yearly, and/or at salient times during the product release schedule, such as the product planning phase.

Another key time to investigate internal resources is when you start a new job. This is a great time to understand the knowledge management tools and information collected within your organization. Identifying your key contacts and information sources as early as possible helps you be more productive, efficient, and better at decision-making. Questions you may ask yourself include: who does what, when, and how? Who has liaisons with the customers? Which interest groups have an impact on the product designs? How is customer feedback typically handled?

Findings first! What types of usability results can you expect to find by doing internal research? Table 1 below provides a description of each resource, denotes the format, and identifies key usability issues that can be uncovered.

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