Start mail me! sindicaci;ón

Lacking the right tool or the right perspective?

I have a pesky question that I’m trying to figure out. I thought maybe putting it out there would help me solve it. I would really appreciate your ideas.

Let’s say you are working on a project and your main goal is to solve an information access problem: “audience X does not have access to Y data sources which would help them do their job better”. The value of the information they would draw from these data sources is indisputable.

You know from some preliminary interviewing that audience X is made up of people in different roles that share the overall problem but are interested in different parts of those data sources available. You also learned that while access is the first barrier, other barriers to use are: domain knowledge (understanding that data, knowing what to do with it), language (different segments speak about the same data in different terms) and lastly, some tool knowledge issues: the majority of people feels overwhelmed by the poor ways this data is accessible today (reports, databases, online systems, etc) when/if it is accessible to them.

From that, you feel sufficienctly confident to say you need to do something that is not just optimizing the solutions that (sorta) exist for these people, rather, you have enough information to justify that a good candidate solution to this problem is to make it easier for people to get to these data sources by creating a mechanism that democratizes access (aka provides them with a starting point to the many sources, at the very least), simplifies the consumption of said data (using plain language, removing decorations, providing relevant visualization, making it clear what the sources are, etc) and make their use of this data more pleasurable, understandable, meaningful, usable, and that ultimately becomes part of their day-to-day work (at the most ambitious).

So you are ready to go for that: How do you actually plan this “product”? (will use this term to make it easier to describe the solution). How do you make the leap from this cursory understanding to a level of “this is the stuff we need to build”? I generally have many answers for this question, but here’s where I’m stumped:

  • This is an internal project and I don’t have many resources at all to get started with (thought I know that once some success is shown, I can get more resources). That includes time for the type of research I would normally like to do for this.
  • The volume of data available is just insane. Simply building a “flexible” system that could accommodate any and all scenarios would be a very stupid idea and I know would not accomplish any of the goals above.
  • The audience I’m talking about doesn’t know what they want. They definitely expressed all the values and attributes of what they want, but this doesn’t exist and they never had anything that did this for them, so I don’t have good hints as to what are the pieces of this puzzle I need to put together (read: features).
  • In my mind, if I had a mental model map where I could align features to user tasks, I would have the right tool to be able to select what to start building first in order to make some headway. I, however, don’t know how to go through the process of creating a mental model from thin air (or my preliminary interviews). I can’t really think of how I would structure the research interviews that I would use to comb tasks from. Also, never done that for something that is entirely new (nothing to validate against).

In short, I can’t think of a better way to get from “knowing about these people pains, desires and expectations” to “here are my priorities for what to build”. I am seeing this is a new product management challenge for me in addition to UX problem to solve. Not only do I have to figure out how to create a solution that meets those goals, but I have to do this over and over for a long long time, because the success/failure of this effort = my success/failure, which is very different accountability than solving someone else’s problem. I am really enjoying that challenge, but need to learn how to bridge the gap in my own expectations and tools I would normally use to resolve this.

So, what do you think? I may not have given all the information that would help resolve this, but ask away and I’ll clarify any points.

Am I lacking tool or perspective?


Dan Willis said,

September 2, 2009 @ 5:43 pm

It’s not that I wasn’t listening, but here’s what I heard you say much louder than everything else:
- “I don’t have many resources … once some success is shown, I can get more resources.”
- “They never had anything that did this for them …”
- “Audience X is made up of people in different roles that share the overall problem but are interested in different parts of those data sources available.”
- “People feel overwhelmed by the poor ways this data is accessible today.”

This leads me to think that while the design of this sucker is a big honkin monster, you’re primary challenge is actually one of moving people within an organization and you should plan accordingly. I suggest you pick a quite discreet subset of Audience X and develop a quite discreet subset of functionality to build initially. You should be totally pragmatic and completely selfish when selecting your first set of users: it should be whoever is both most likely to understand the value of your work and will do the best job of yakking about it to the rest of the organization.

If in your initial launch you make public your definition of the initial users as well as how you are segmenting all the other users, you might be able to build up some healthy interest/competition. And you may be able to convert that interest/competition into guidance for who you roll out to next. Since your audience has never had anything that does what you’re trying, iterative design cycles should work throughout the project. The lack of previous solutions frees you of the burden of delivering complete functionality. Aim for small and incomplete.

If you take my suggestion, you’re basically following the model for small businesses in a capitalist economy. You launch a simple product line and add to the complexity of the product to increase your customer base while also launching new products as demand surfaces.

You’ll have to manage through any resentment issues between user sets, but remember that dissatisfied potential users are great subjects for user research on the fly, converting their frustration into your prioritized requirements for smiles all around. If you get serious heat from any of the groups demanding greater functionality, you can tell them they can have anything they want as soon as they pony up the resources to feed development.

Does that help?


Livia said,

September 2, 2009 @ 6:09 pm

Thanks Dan, I think you capture one of my central concerns. Doing a quick evaluation of who I would selfishly pick, I have two choices: group 1 (a minority, by the way), who happens to have the resources I want, but is actually the best served group today. Group 2, who is at the bottom of the pyramid (no resources) and is the most vocal and very likely the biggest advocates. My gut says group 1 is the right short-term investment for the return I can get to continue doing this. Having said that, this narrows down the problem but I don’t know by how much… Group 1 is actually the one I know the least, thus riskier to design for. So yes, it’s likely I’d sell my user-loving soul for the first round so I can super-serve group 1 first and get what I need. Thank you for your ideas.


Scott Berkun said,

September 2, 2009 @ 6:39 pm

I’ve never worked with you, but this reads like an analyst trying to design something. Intuition and iteration work wonders and make all sorts of challenges run for the hills, where you can take them on when you’re read for them.

I’ve been in rooms where people willingly argue for hours in the abstract without anyone making a sketch on the whiteboard. Why? They don’t want to expose their intuition and they’d prefer to argue endlessly because it’s on logical turf. Then I made a sketch of a UI and ask “did you mean this or this?” and suddenly productivity and clarity happens. Design is visual. Sometimes once you see it you know with certainty those huge concerns you had aren’t really that scary anymore.

So my advice is draw something. Sketch something. Pick a small enough part of this problem, however small it is, and let your intuition loose. Then at least you’ll be arguing about solutions, instead of obsessing about the right framework or model for the problem, which you likely won’t sort out until you’ve done a bunch of sketches to help sort out your thinking.

If overwhelmed. pick the common cases. Or even one common case. But design. And sketch. And try. And work it until it’s something that is limping along.

Once you have something, however small that doesn’t suck, add another constraint or scenario in and see what happens.

Then go back and read your blog post again. I bet you a $200 dinner you’ll romp your way through the questions you listed in your post.


Erin Lynn Young said,

September 2, 2009 @ 6:54 pm

Most of what you’ve described about the users of the data has been oriented around the way they interact with what’s out there today.

It might be interesting to separate the status quo from the end goals of each user type as they interact with the data set. What are they using it for?

From there, I would focus on determining whether the data set can even support those end needs well, as it exists today and if not, determine the resources it’d take to get the data in the shape you’d need it and whether those resources can be secured. If that can’t be done, you might be stuck with planning a band-aid rather than an ideal solution — but you’d want to know that before you got too far along.

And then, if the data set is adequate, you can identify a high-level long term plan and work with the team to prioritize the first chunks that should be tackled. The organization should help dictate the phases based on their ROI.

That might sound idealistic and I know I don’t understand your situation completely, but I hope it helps.


Lou said,

September 3, 2009 @ 11:59 pm

Honestly, there’s so much here, and it’s so late, that I couldn’t get through it all. But I’m wondering if analytics might suggest what it is that audience might want?


Cindy McWilliams said,

September 14, 2009 @ 4:11 am

I don’t know if I have any truly helpful advice to give, but the first thing I did was rewrite the problem statement in my own head and think about what my next steps would be. Here’s what came through the sieve, you’ll have to validate its accuracy and applicability.

You have a large set of data. Several segments of a large audience have overlap in which data may be useful to them – some of which they don’t have access to currently and therefore no model for usage, and some of which they may think about differently from other segments. You want to enhance their access to, understanding of, and increase their personal productivity with these new and existing data.

Create a conceptual mapping of your best understanding of the following with all the resources you have: Audiences A, B, C, etc. – motivations, needs, behaviors.

Then connect these to the data pieces they consume, what they do with them, and what they help them achieve.

Your choices in defining solutions are to:
1. Improve access, usage tools, and interpretation of currently accessible data.
2. Augment currently used data with new data to create new meaning and actionable intelligence.

As you create the above mapping, possible solutions or features should start making themselves evident as they would help you to connect the dots better. The tough part is prioritizing, and you may need some stakeholder/user input to help with that. Also crazy check with a colleague as frequently as possible. Eventually you’ll be able to circle a prioritized audience; a set of needs, motivations, and behaviors/tasks; and a features/solutions set. You should have a secondary set of all of the above as well, and you’ll want to keep these in mind as you implement the solutions for the higher priority items.


Peter said,

December 8, 2012 @ 3:02 am

Greetings! The site is great. Thank you for a great resource

RSS feed for comments on this post · TrackBack URI

Leave a Comment