In the field with user-understanding pros

Understanding your user’s workflow can shape how you approach product design and development

The Authors

[caption id="attachment_25633" align="alignleft" width="136"]Heather GruberHeather Gruber[/caption] [caption id="attachment_25632" align="alignright" width="151"]Teresa WhitelyTeresa Whitely[/caption]

Heather Gruber (@GruberXperience), Senior Human-Centric Researcher and Interaction Designer for User Centered Design (@UCDNewsletter) at Elsevier, is a designer, human-researcher, stepmom to a teenager, wine enthusiast and avid fan of Veuve Clicquot and usability design. Her background is in human factors psychology with a sub-speciality in human-computer. She has worked at Reed Elsevier for 13 years, concentrating on areas of user experience for both medical care and science research. Her pet side project is usually working with other internal teams and customers innovating on current and new product ideas. She is based in New York.

As a User Experience Specialist in Elsevier's User Centered Design group, Teresa Whitley (@teelea) has led projects on SciTopics and SciVerse Hub and is now conducting research and doing user interface design for the Scopus product team. She discovered her passion for user-experience design while she was earning her degree in visual communications and interning for the Customer Interface team of LexisNexis, part of Elsevier's parent company, Reed Elsevier. Upon graduating, she began working for the User Experience group at LexisNexis as a visual designer. Her projects included the redesign of and developing a color palette for visual representations of data for colorblind users. In 2010, Whitely made the transition to Elsevier. She is based in Dayton, Ohio.


Impact – whether large or small — is what each of us makes in the world. At Elsevier, we have the opportunity to work with brilliant people in diverse fields of science, medicine and technology who reside around the world and who are making their impact towards a better world to live in.

In UCD, our aim is to help people who use our products make their impact faster, better and sometimes safer. We do this by what we call "user understanding."

What is in-the-field user understanding?

Understanding your user's workflow can shape how you approach your concept and design development. At Elsevier, our User Centered Design (UCD) group conducts user understanding research to gain insights into how our customers and other users are engaging with each other, the tools they are using, the information they seek and how they work around pain points to get a job done.

These factors provide valuable information on how to design the interface of Elsevier's online products.[caption id="attachment_25640" align="alignright" width="480"]

Two third-year residents are consulting with an attending because they need Internal Medicine to

Two third-year residents are consulting with an attending because they need Internal Medicine to "clear " the patient of any serious medical issues before they can schedule surgery. Understanding the points of collaboration and the types of decisions that need to be made at different points of the workflow can indicate opportunity areas for product enhancements and points in the workflow for decision support information. (Photo by Heather Gruber)[/caption]

In the online world of UCD, user understanding refers to the collection of methods used to learn about how a person interacts with the world around them. In an academic setting, when user understanding is done in the field, it is called ethnography.

At Elsevier, we work in a commercial environment of compressed time periods and use various methods to perform user understanding.User understanding helps us verify the difference between opinions and behaviors. The opinions of users often vary from their behavior. This variance is also important to understand through research and analysis.

We know that what a person says they do and what they actually do are not always the same. User understanding activities can produce qualitative and quantitative results to validate what is a behavior versus an opinion.

User understanding is not always just about the person "using " the product. A user can influence the customer's decisions on what products to buy. Sometimes we need to understand the customer that buys the product for the user. Occasionally, the user and the customer are the same person, but in this article, we will focus on our relationship with users and their interaction with information.

Think of parents taking their child to the grocery store. They may prepare a list of items to buy, but when they get to the store, the child starts bartering for different sugary items they are craving that day. The parents give in to certain items that are not on their list and decide to say 'no' to others.

If you were to ask the parents at a later date what they bought at the store that day, they would probably refer back to what they had intended to purchase, maybe even referring to their shopping list. Would this be an accurate portrayal of what they had purchased at the grocery and why they purchased it? Of course not, because their behavior is crucial to understanding, and here the customer was influenced by the "user. "

When does UCD do user understanding?

In our team, we recommend user-understanding activities to our online product teams before a project gets off the ground. This is often when teams are exploring new ideas. Sometimes they are unsure what the context may be for how the product will be used or what product features and functions to provide to make it useful. Understanding the user needs in context helps us understand how best to design a product for our users.[caption id="attachment_25639 " align="alignleft " width="432 "]

A life sciences researcher at his desk in a shared office. This was a study about deeper understanding in the role of books in research as we evolve toward eBooks.

A life sciences researcher at his desk in a shared office. This was a study to gain deeper understanding of the role of books in research as we evolve toward eBooks. (Photo by Heather Gruber)[/caption]

User understanding is also handy to use for our current online products. For instance, if our user's needs change or their workflows change, it's good for us to know about these changes so we can evolve with them. Sometimes it's just the case that a product team may want to introduce a new feature, and we want to understand the impact the feature may have for our users to ensure that it will be positive.

UCD recently worked on a project where we needed to look into the workflows of academic researchers. The product team was interested in seeing what tools they were using to share journal articles and collaborate with their colleagues.

We started by looking through the UCD archives. Many times there is past research that we can use as a starting point for new projects. We found academic researcher workflows that were six years old and began our research by taking these user workflows through a user-understanding process. This process allowed the workflows to be validated while identifying new tools being used to alleviate pain points. This research process allowed the team to save time and money by directing their development efforts to the appropriate needs of the user.

When a user allows a member of our team to visit and shadow them, not only do we get an intimate feel for their routines and work-a-rounds, but we also see ideas of how to provide that something extra — that something which not only makes using our products easy but (hopefully) enjoyable to use.

What goes on during a user understanding session?

Being able to perform user understanding relies on support and collaboration from a passionate team to help set the goals, plan the methodology and procure permissions to visit users and customers onsite. We adapt our methods to compressed time periods, often meeting with users iteratively throughout the product development process. We aim to aggregate our findings quickly to help the product manager, designers and developers use these insights to guide their decision making for the product. This approach is one of the most key to  keeping the user at the center of our focus when crafting the products they use.[caption id="attachment_25641 " align="alignright " width="420 "]

A clinical consultation reviewing a patient 's Xrays.

A clinical consultation reviewing a patient's Xrays. He was diagnosed with lung cancer 5 years ago. At the time his life expectancy was only 2 years. This patient goes for new imaging each 3-6 months. The doctor is looking at the newest images with his assistant. The doctor has identified approx. 8 small, new nodules in his patient 's lungs; however, he suspects these will be benign. This moment was interesting to us because it indicates a moment when professionals seek other professionals to help with decision-making. (Photo by Heather Gruber)[/caption]

We've been in many settings in many different places – classrooms of culinary schools to medical schools, exploration in patient care from private clinics to emergency rooms to operation rooms, from imaging labs to microbiology labs to pharmaceutical labs. We 've placed ourselves in the shoes of students, librarians, nurses, physicians, residents, surgeons, educators, technicians, institutional administration personnel — acting as a sponge to soak up the small but telling details of your day-to-day activities.

For one medical project, we wanted to learn about clinical decision-making in high stress areas for early-career physicians. So we worked with teaching institutions to obtain confidential access to observe residents working on nightshift in emergency room treatment areas.

A lead user experience researcher started this project by observation. Dressed in scrubs standing alongside third-year residents in the emergency room, she watched them navigate quick decision-making to provide urgent care to incoming patients. Observation allowed her to understand the dynamics of the treatment space (such as how far away the nearest computer was to use to look up a procedure when the on-call attending wasn't around to ask) as well as, the type of information needed to make confident decisions (that is, short, concise "what-to-do" style information rather than textbook-style paragraphs).

How does it help?

At Elsevier we judge the success of a product by many factors, with user satisfaction at the core. What better way to find out how to satisfy our users than to ask them about their needs and watch them in action. Identifying the pain points in a user's workflow can easily turn into new opportunities for improvement.

Developing ideas or products can be like stepping into the unknown. Having the user-understanding data to back up ideas — or drive you in a different direction — gives us the confidence to move forward.

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