Influx of customer experience data prompts tighter product design collaboration between engineers, social scientists and liberal artists.
Geeks and poets are teaming up inside tech companies to design the next generation of technology products. According to user experience veterans from Intel and Microsoft, masses of customer experience data now available and technology’s growing impact on social interactions are key factors pushing product engineers to work in lockstep with colleagues trained in disciplines such as liberal arts and psychology.
“Technology problems and challenges today are increasingly social, moral and ethical, and these are things that social scientists and humanities folks have always thought about,” said Todd Harple, an experience engineer at Intel.
Companies such as Intel and Microsoft have been hiring anthropologists and other social scientist for years to work on user experience. But according to Ignazio Moresco, a principal user experience designer and design manager at Microsoft, the rise of data has dramatically changed his role as a user experience designer in recent years.
“The ability to quickly collect large numbers of observations, analyze them and apply intelligent algorithms brings an understanding that can actually be used to modify digital experiences in real time,” he said.
Harple and Moresco see artists, designers, cultural anthropologists and cognitive scientists collaborating more regularly with product engineers who together find meaning in the data and tackle unexpected questions.
“What has happened in the world of design is that methodologies to gather aggregated data about user behavior have improved dramatically,” said Moresco, who holds a degree in philosophy and has studied interactive telecommunications.
“We’ve become trusted advisors and interpreters,” said Harple, who has a doctorate in anthropology. “User or human experience skills used to come from external agencies or academic institutions, but over the past decade in particular, user experience-related skills have been on the rise in industry.”
To keep up with what people want, need, or value and expect requires an interdisciplinary view of user data, although it hasn’t always been that way, according to Moresco.
“Rather than first designing something and asking the engineers to go out and develop it, now there is a much more constant communication between the designer and the engineer, and they both contribute to the fine tuning of their product,” he said.
He said it’s a completely new way of designing based on more objective measurements of human experiences, and this tight collaboration between data analysis and human experience architects can result in faster and sometimes more socially beneficial improvements.
“They (product developers) know how to algorithmically analyze semantic data but they don’t know how to translate that into design, and they need input from us to understand what is important or what is not,” he said.
Product Design Experiences at Internet Speed
When Moresco got his start in 1997, he said the research and development paradigm was shifting from the traditional Xerox PARC-like model to a faster product development cycle sped by the Internet. Reflecting on his time at Paul Allen’s now shuttered Interval Research, he said, “There were a bunch of top-quality engineers, psychologists and artists, and that was extremely new at that time.”
Today it’s much different for Moresco, who sees engineers regularly relying on designers and psychologists to extract valuable bits of information from trial testing and real-time user data. “Working together in this way is a new experience that did not quite exist in the ’90s,” he said.
Today he can work with developers to test out new search features to 50,000 Bing mobile users. “We can observe users’ reactions to the new features and workflows and from there decide if the new design is right or if we should modify it further,” he said. “Without the feedback, you lose,” he said. “That’s the big competitive edge needed to stay alive.”
Moresco sees the role of designers evolving beyond artists creating beautiful objects to incorporate insights from consumer experience data.
“We are more like interpreters of this enormous amount of data that is finally available to us,” he said. “We can help make sense out of it and turn it into actionable directions.”
Harple sees the role of social scientists and designers growing more critical to the product design process. But in a recent presentation to experience engineers, he warned against an overreliance on data.
“To believe that big data is somehow in and of itself the truth, is a patently flawed notion,” he said.