Problem and Context
When joining SDL as Interaction Designer for their main Web Content Management product (SDL Tridion) I was jumping on a running train. The company had successfully adopted “Agile” for their software development group and everything was open and fast. I joined several sprint teams and provided them specific “UI designs” for features they were addressing in the scope of their sprints. First problem I had to address was to allow leg room for design to happen, the typical discussion of how does UX align and fit with agile development. Besides this I had to elevate myself out of the daily routine of the development team to get in front of customers and perform some user research and usability testing. The expectation was that the upcoming release (Tridion 2011) would include some significant usability improvements and I had to make this happen somehow.
We first addressed the lack of alignment between the agile development teams and user experience design. We agreed that each team would maintain a team backlog, consisting of prepared (“groomed”) and prioritized features or stories for at least the coming 2 sprints (not just the next sprint). This allowed UX to design, discuss, and improve stories before they got into actual sprint planning, which was very important. With this general agreement, there was no dependency on UX within the actual sprint anymore (except small adjustments or questions concerning edge cases). This took the pressure off of the team and myself as the designer alike and allowed for better planning and story breakdown. With this agreement on the detached design and development of featured from a prioritized backlog, things got more smooth and predictable.
But establishing a structured process with the development teams was only part of the solution. More important for me was to get out of the building and connect with the actual user base we were building all those new features for. In my and other companies I recognized the myth that usability and good UX is something can be addressed and achieved by hiring a designer. The designer then applies “UX best practices” and “the right way of doing things” and then it’s all good. Sounds familiar? It took me good while of convincing and explaining that “expert reviews” and “usability heuristics” only get you part of the way. Usability is the extent to which goals of users are achieved with effectiveness, efficiency, and satisfaction. All in a specific context of use and in relation to a product… to quoted he related ISO 9241-11 norm.
Meeting and engaging with your actual end users, understanding their needs and pain points, and tailoring and validating your solution with them is something that cannot be replaced by any expert advice or guidelines. So, I planned and conducted customer visits with a representative set of enterprise customers in Europe. I selected them in a way, that I had good mix of different industries and company sizes.
I performed contextual enquiries as a basic form of qualitative research, basically spending an hour per person with them at their desk. Learning about their daily routines, regular tasks, goals and success criteria, commination patterns, team structure, tools etc. Part of this was obviously to learn about their current experience with the tool I was designing for, but this open conversation helped putting it all in context. Those interviews revealed a lot of contextual information that helped me to develop a general understanding of the processes and workflows in marketing departments of globally active organizations, but also revealed a list of very concrete usability problems and complains. Things that would only pop up if a complex enterprise system is put into operation. This was the foundation that guided the day to day design of new features, and even added new features onto the roadmap as I could convince product management that fixing one of the other usability issues would deliver actual value to existing customer.
Based on the research I performed I was able to formulate a set of guiding general design principles for the release at large and for all design activities in detail. Besides that, I analyzed and grouped all usability issues I observed during my customer interviews and formulated “themes” together with product management and product marketing. This was the “UX framework” we used to define and design all features in an iterative fashion – following the Agile way as described above. We redesigned and delivered a user interface that worked across different browsers (yes that was a thing at the time), was adopting upcoming pattern from productivity leading tools, had a redesigned icon set, refreshed product branding, optimized workflows, and a lot of fixes for small in-context usability problems.
This video shoes a summary of some of the new concepts and usability improvements we put into the product in the end. The Tridion 2011 release was recognized by leading industry analysts such as Gartner and Forrester as a very strong and successful one that further strengthened SDL’s position in it's leading position. Usability was an important criterion in this overall perception and success.