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User Research for Enterprise Products

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Archeology, anthropology and product design: Digging for a deeper understanding of user behaviours with the ‘chaîne opératoire’

Designing products for enterprise poses a distinct challenge: how can you create a product which suits the needs of different working cultures, each with their own set of rules of user behaviour which have become entrenched through years of practice?

This is the exact challenge we’ve faced when designing Skylark, Ostmodern’s own backend framework for video-centric products. One element of that framework is the CMS. The practices of using a CMS form within the particular work culture in which it is used. Processes, workflows and work arounds evolve in a way which is unique to the context of their environment.

Before beginning to design for users in such complex environments, it is essential to gain a strong understanding and appreciation of how the people you are designing for work and think about their work in order to define a clear set of requirements and problems to solve.

When it comes to learning about how people work (or do anything for that matter), there’s nothing better than observing them as they act on a daily basis within their working environment, capturing as much rich detail as possible in the time allowed.

This is where an archaeological methodology can help. The chaîne opératoire was originally devised as a method to learn about societies through their technical processes. The method has been adopted by a number of disciplines, including anthropology (which is where I picked it up).

It requires a researcher to observe and detail each step in a technical process, be it making a pot, writing a blog post or creating an editorial collection of video content to be published online.

At each step of a process every tool, touchpoint, actor, action and inaction is recorded, every idiosyncrasy mapped out. We’ve seen users opening multiple browser windows as they complete tasks, news reports written over memos sent back and forth across the editorial team and rough scrawled post-it notes stuck on the side of computer monitors as a reminder to pick up the kids after work.

Digging deeper in follow up interviews shakes off any initial bemusement at a user’s unorthodox way around a desktop and replaces it with the all important ‘why’ - the reasoning behind their behaviour.

All of this builds into a rich picture of a user’s current workflow.

Repeating this research across multiple different work environments uncovers different networks of touchpoints, triggers, barriers and social relations into which any new product will be introduced. Through analysis, patterns emerge to provide an insight into the common themes in the tasks that users are trying to accomplish, the problems they are trying to solve and how they are trying to solve them.

In our multi-disciplinary team at Ostmodern, product analysts, product design and user research work together to translate these insights into a clear set of themes and requirements that will define the product, prioritised by the value they will bring to the end users.

Building on these themes and requirements, the product design team begin to form ideas and sketch solutions which will ultimately develop into a product concept.

As these concepts develop they need to be validated with the people who will actually be using the product to ensure that designs are informed by real user experiences.

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