28 July 2021 Ilaria Bevilacqua

Software development and User Experience: a listening approach

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The fascination of the technological world in which we live can be explained in a very simple way. It is based on a factor that can hardly be ignored: the human one, based on listening and attention to oneself and to others. In the creation and development of a software, what emerges is that it is a product made by people in order to better meet the needs of others and give a positive user experience. How? By asking questions and being curious. Curiosity, in fact, is not an eager instinct to be fulfilled quickly to satisfy one’s ego. Curiosity is like a sensation, it is the common thread that inexorably binds man to something other than himself and to his perception of himself. Being curious means being in the world like an infant, like a philosopher. It means always listening. And it is through this approach that technology and all that it entails, such as software design, become part of a new humanism.

This prelude can be summarized in the acronym “UX“: the first contact that each of us has with the User Experience (not to use anglicisms), occurs very naturally, because the truth is that it does not involve anything different from what is (or should be) the approach to life itself. An approach made of questions in order to understand everything that surrounds us.

People and curiosity at the centre of the User Experience

Do you remember the first time you did your own laundry? The anxiety of choosing the right program among all those in the washing machine will surely have made you regret the good times when your thoughts were more focused on getting those clothes dirty. Perhaps, however, this perception does not overcome the agitation felt every time you find the words “push” or “pull” in front of a door. These feelings of discomfort, fear and difficulty, according to Donald Arthur Norman (who coined the term User Experience in 1993), are not a limitation of the user, but rather an error on the part of those who have designed objects of daily use without considering the normal mental activities essential for the fruition of an environment, an object or a service.

That’s why the study of User Experience – the set of activities and analysis that aims to understand what a person feels and thinks when using a particular product and service, whether digital or not – is so important in everyday life and why UX is closely linked to curiosity and listening to oneself and to others.

The importance of User Experience in software development

Saying “software” the thought can run to NASA instrumentation for quantum computing, but also, for example, to e-mail software. So there are software of different complexity, different nature and different aspect, even if, tendentially, the functions commonly used are always the same. But why then is there so much difference between software with similar functions? Yes, the answer is usability, and therefore user experience. To do without it would mean missing an important objective: to create an added value for the people who use it.

This “value” comes from a study of people’s experience and serves as a watershed between the success or failure of a software: if it is not easy to use, if it does not solve problems and if it is not aligned with human behaviors and habits, it will certainly not be able to resist in the market. But where does UX fit within the software life cycle? From the beginning to the end. How? Let’s rely on a practical example: imagine you want to create a software that you have imagined in detail. You are so convinced of your idea that you launch the product on the market without first asking those for whom it will be intended whether their needs have really been met. Yet the reality may not always live up to expectations: your product is not liked, not intuitive, not easy to use, and instead of simplifying the user’s life, it complicates it. A failure on all fronts, for you as a manufacturer and for disappointed and therefore lost customers.

The reason? It lacked that welcoming approach to the product or service, it lacked questions and therefore answers. There has been a lack of sincere listening and a desire to create a product for others, before making a profit.

Let’s try, now, to insert a variable in this development process: the UX. Instead of moving immediately to the production of your idea, first organize a dinner with 8/10 people to which you tell what you want to achieve. Maybe, you even sketch out the start page and main menu of the software on a sheet of paper and share it. The feedbacks you get are of different types but very useful: there are those who understand but do not share, those who would do differently, those who suggest an improvement, those who would change everything. Having gathered all the feedback, what would you do? Would you pursue your idea without thinking of changing your way at all, or would you take on board the suggestions and re-evaluate some aspects? Even if you listened to only 50% of the feedback, the final software would be different from the initial idea, but certainly closer to the expectations and needs of other people. The result? Consideration of user experience makes your software more functional and therefore successful.

Card sorting

What has changed from the initial scenario? The creation of a product designed for people and with people.

At TSW we are just applying this methodology of engagement and participation to the design of a software for one of our customers in the appliance world, an IoT app that interfaces with their appliances. We’re talking to the end users, the people who use these everyday tools, we’re analyzing with our client all the logical flows and we’re doing a functional analysis, just to make it easier to design, not only the interfaces, but also the software itself, hence the programming. Involving people is leading us to a reduction of errors, to a smoother and faster management of code writing and to a reduction of rework necessary to arrive at a successful final software that makes our client satisfied for having approached the world of his final customers’ needs.

From the listening to the design: User Experience for customized software

UX becomes fundamental and decisive in particular in the realization of “customized” software, that is, software that respects the particular needs of a specific category of users: management software, platforms for monitoring time and costs, data, software for sending documentation to institutions, appliances managed by applications and much more.

In these cases it is strictly necessary to address the people who use them and design together. It sounds easy and it is, but you need to have a deep understanding of all the tools that UX provides us with. So how do you design with users? There are different ways to organize design processes. The “service design” process is certainly compatible with the more flexible methodologies, such as Agile and Lean, that often characterize production processes of important digital technologies. You can structure the design journey by iterative and incremental work sprints by performing rapid cycles of listening to the user, devising solutions, prototyping, and continuing to iterate through to product realization.

For one of our clients in the financial sector, for example, we created a software dedicated to the world of accountants, tax experts, labor law experts and notaries, with the intent to support them in the creation of an environment dedicated to the management and sending of the practices that are submitted to them daily.

Card sorting

From the very first phases of the cycle, we thought about the end user and his active involvement: from the clarification of requirements, to their analysis, up to the analysis of the software domain, basic activities for a “human centered” prototyping, focused on those who use the software. We directly asked these people to support us in the validation of the analysis output, before proceeding with the code realization, facing with them a series of tests and activities that allowed us to correct and improve the analysis initially realized.

The project was based on an incremental iterative approach characterized by:

  • Participatory design and card sorting: we involved people in the construction of the categorization forms and the new navigation of the prototype of the new environment, defining the new structure of contents and functions (Information Architecture)
  • UX/UI design: we defined the user experience and based on this we developed a co-design phase of the user experience with respect to the 4 identified use cases
  • Usability testing and feeback collection: after confirming the basic structure, the prototype was tested thanks to a UX live testing session. We collected feedback from the two tests within a report that guided the changes necessary to formalize the prototype. Finally, after the html development of the same prototype, a conclusive usability test was scheduled to validate the final work.

Inviting the same people who will use a software to participate in its realization becomes a pleasure both for them, who will feel understood, welcomed and important, and for the creators themselves, who will be able to understand their customers, as well as quickly identify the real goals to be achieved, reduce errors in the design phase, shorten the time of realization and therefore contain costs.

Usability test

The human factor as an element of success in software design

So, to sum up: in order to create well-functioning software, it is necessary to create, from the earliest stages of design, bridges between those who build the product/service and the people who will experience it. Of fundamental importance will be rediscovering the pleasure of sitting down together, talking, listening and sharing. The so-called touchpoints (points of contact) that will emerge at that moment, will have to be considered in the project, taking into account important factors related to the user: usability, clarity, aesthetics, pleasantness and functions.

However, considering that the User Experience is a relationship between individuals, we must not forget the needs of those who offer the service. This, often, goes back to the need to trigger different work processes than the traditional ones, processes that are definitely improved for the business ecosystem. Whoever deals with UX (in software and not only) contributes in fact to design relationships, connections, processes and experiences, giving the product and the brand an added value: the human one.

 

Article written in collaboration with Elena Toniolo.

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