At Autodesk, a number of us recently rediscovered something amazing at the center of our users' workflows -- users. Yes, smack in the middle of all of those products, services, features, digital models, collaboration tools, and information workflows, we found actual human beings toiling away. The realization hit us that we have focused for too long on software features and the design data produced with our technology, to the exclusion of the people who use it.
This rediscovery was articulated and documented at the Autodesk Design Summit early this year. It spawned a rapid response team charged with developing design strategy for Autodesk 360 that promotes people to first-class citizens. This team was led by user researchers and user experience designers in the Building Collaboration Group. They produced a set of workflow explorations that storyboard ordinary people collaboratively solving everyday design problems, such as specifying a custom bike and co-authoring an animated film. Rather than focusing on the data objects for the bike model or on managing the animation assets, these storyboards explored design through the lens of people's social interactions and their shared values. This week I studied the storyboards and took away these people-centered design tactics:
Design for Core Values: When designing graphical user interface, we strive to optimize ease-of-use. Expanding from the user interface to workflows -- from the individual user to the workgroup -- we strive to optimize for core values. What's great about designing for core values is that they are relatively stable, especially in the context of our professional lives. At work, we value belonging to a team, and we value interaction with trusted teammates that is authentic. We want to feel effective and efficient, but challenged enough so that we strive to higher and higher levels of mastery. We seek inspiration from the extraordinary ideas of others, and we share our ideas so we, too, can be recognized for our contributions. At the highest level, designing for people means optimizing interfaces to give people more of what they value -- identity, inspiration, recognition, belonging -- and less of what they don't value -- inefficiency and a lack of trust.
Design to Trigger Social Affordances: When you see a well-designed button on a screen it screams "Click me!" Buttons are said to afford pressing. Physical affordances are the properties of a user interface that invite physical actions. Similarly, social affordances are the properties of a user interface that invite social actions. For example, when a user searches for an object in a model, a social affordance might bubble up objects authored by people with whom they collaborate most often. Collaborators I trust will most likely publish data I can trust. When working with a well-designed search tool that leverages your social network, the search results should scream "Trust me!"
Designing our software around core values and social affordances puts people at the center of the innovation equation. To be clear, Autodesk has followed good design practice for many years by conducting user research and usability evaluations on key products. I can say this with confidence because I've personally managed thousands of hours of user testing in my ten years at Autodesk. User research is a discipline, not a design strategy. To be user-centered is a design strategy. User-centered design is the crux of the mindset shift that I see trending up at Autodesk.
Innovating for Users: Intuition or Research?
This mindset shift at Autodesk towards users, rather than technology, is part of a bigger debate about what really drives innovation. Is innovation best achieved through intuition... going with your gut? Or research... going with data?
As a researcher, I've noticed a growth in a mindset that pits intuition against user research. One line of thinking is that innovative companies don't research their users. They can be innovative precisely because they're unburdened by user needs. So the thinking goes.
We've heard both tiny startups and innovation giants proclaim that they have no use for research because research reveals only what users think they want. When in fact, users can't conceive of a need for innovative technology until they're holding it in their hand.
Are user research and innovation fundamentally in conflict?
I'm a recent transfer to the office of the CTO. My peers in the CTO's office define Autodesk's innovation strategy and research the basic science of innovation. I'm a researcher amid innovators, and I'm happy to report, I'm not conflicted. I'm not conflicted about using both intuition and research in the service of innovation. Let me tell you why.
Getting out of the Garage: Startups Do Conduct Research
One of the trends changing views of research, even for hot young startups, is the Lean Startup movement. In the words of wunderkind Drew Houston, the Lean Startup is about building "the best possible understanding of users as early as possible" -- and there are thousands of entrepreneurs who share his love for lean startup principles.
Houston is the founder of Dropbox. He says Dropbox's success has been built on three easy steps: learning where early adopters hang out; going there; and speaking to them in an authentic way. A 15 minute video where Houston talks about founding Dropbox is replete with references to his chillax but decidedly research-like conversations with users.
Houston opens several key points in the video with: "after talking to enough users, we found..." He references many deep, meaningful conversations he's had with his users. So much so, that the 29 year old CEO speaks in the first person when describing the typical Dropbox user: "Now I don't...like...have to...like...email stuff to myself anymore." He credits a large part of his success to bringing on an analytics wizard as one of his first, fulltime hires. He says this research expert "pointed Dropbox in the right direction" by focusing design and engineering efforts on the features that users value most, or struggle most with, as indicated by their usage patterns.
Houston's sage advice to all aspiring entrepreneurs is to be sure you're making something people value by knowing how your product fits into users' lives. Once the value to the user is baked into the product, then go learn more. Bake. Taste test. Revise the recipe. Repeat.
The design/research cycle Houston describes is the secret sauce of all Lean Startups like Dropbox. They all rapidly iterate through the build-measure-learn phases. For many startups, gone are the days of the big idea that hatched within the confines of a garage and incubated in multiple rounds of funding. The modern startup has to...like...research stuff now.
Reality Distortion Field: Steve Jobs Did Do Research
From the mouths of babes (startups) we learn that talking to users and analyzing their behavior is critical to innovation. Yet surely a mature, established brand can extrapolate from past success and rely on their sumo-wrestler sized "gut" when innovating. In the most famous example of this, the innovation giant Apple has made it clear that they "don't do research."
That's what we all believed until Apple's sumo-sized kimono was opened this summer. It appears that Apple's mantra "we don't research users" was, basically, a disinformation campaign -- a part of Apple's think different branding wizardry.
Court documents released in the Samsung vs. Apple case include an iPhone user study titled "Apple Market Research & Analysis, May 2011." In that study Apple asked iPhone users around the world what attributes of the iPhone are most compelling. Is the "physical design" of the phone most important? Is it "how the phone feels" in the hand? Is it the "availability of apps" or "ability to easily transfer media across devices" that compels them to buy?
Apple saved face in the courts by winning the case against Samsung but has left some UX researchers like me befuddled. Why claim to be research-free while, at the same time, writing motions in court to the contrary? One such legal motion asked that research findings not be released because "customer preferences are extremely valuable." The motion warned that competitors could use the data to "infer what product features Apple is likely to offer next, when, and in what markets." Hum. So Apple uses research data to determine where and when to place design investment. That sounds to me like a research-based design strategy.
Admittedly, the secret research was closer to market research than user experience research. And Apple's dismissive stance on research has primarily been a reaction to certain types of research, such as focus groups. Still, the very existence of "research" at Apple debunks the urban myth that the innovation giant designs in the absence of user input. Like Lean Startups, Apple too must build, measure and learn.
Conflict Free: Innovation, Intuition, and Research Live in Harmony
For startups and corporate giants alike, achieving harmony between innovation, intuition and user research will continue to be competitive advantage -- especially as technology and businesses move to the Cloud, where users expect both more innovation and increasingly social user experience.
At Autodesk, people-centered design will mean tapping the reserves of metadata we've long had at our fingertips -- author and revision history, for example -- and mashing that up in valuable ways with users' design data and social data. It means following our intuition about when and what to mash up, while also researching how those mashed up designs support users' core values.
To me, intuition and research are both extremely valuable decision-making tools. They are the yin and yang of innovation. The most innovative ideas come from user experience designers who bring their own subjective, passionate creativity to their designs, AND who continuously measure and improve those designs by listening carefully to the people who use it.
Autodesk Labs is a step in between research and beta. It is an opportunity for a technology to be previewed to gather feedback. Though its inception may be based on research or intuition, the proof is indeed in the pudding if the feedback indicates that the technology should take the next step.
A dual approach is alive in the lab.