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Conducting Research on a Shoestring Budget

This Blog was authored by Paul DiGioia, Designer at Nutanix 

 

Introduction
In our journey to build intentful, opinionated, and delightful products, we focus our creative attention directly on our customers. However, access to this specialized group of users can be difficult. When designing web-scale solutions, time and resources are limited. In this article, we describe our method for efficiently obtaining user feedback, and explain the benefits of incorporating user feedback into the design process.

Hungry to Provide the Best User Experience
Hungry to be the best - it’s part of our core values here at Nutanix. Our entire team is committed to creating the best user experience for our customers. To accomplish this, we are passionate about getting feedback. Working directly with our customers is one method we use to ensure we are building solutions that meet their needs and designing interfaces that are a delight to use.

Nutanix builds solutions for a very targeted set of users. These users can be challenging to find, and it can often be difficult for them to make time in their busy schedules. In addition, traditional methods for obtaining user feedback present many challenges.

Traditional user feedback options include:

On-Site Customer Visits
Designers can travel domestically or internationally to the customer’s work site to observe users and gather feedback. This option can be somewhat costly (both in terms of dollars as well as time), difficult to coordinate, and inconvenient for users (this is the design equivalent of couch-surfing). There are also challenges to scaling this solution. For each additional observer that is sent or customer to visit, there is a corresponding increase in cost.


Visiting Local Users
This is similar to the on-site customer visits mentioned above, but restricted to customers within driving distance. This cuts down on potential costs, for example, carpooling allows for more efficient travel. The downside is that this limits the pool of potential customers to a specific region and can lead to feedback results that are skewed to that specific region. For example, feedback from users in the San Francisco Bay Area can have interesting variations when compared with national or international feedback.


Videoconferencing / Telepresence
Screen sharing technology allows meetings to happen virtually and eliminates the need for travel. However, it can be difficult to sense the nuances of a user’s reactions on the other side of the screen. In-person interactions offer a much richer experience and opportunities to formulate a more human connection with customers.

While none of these methods are perfect, each has its own set of benefits. At Nutanix, we have formulated a hybrid approach that combines the benefits of in-person interactions without the logistical issues it can bring.

Our approach is simple. We leverage the Nutanix .NEXT conference - which brings thousands of customers from all over the globe to a single location - to host our own user feedback lab. With a modest amount of space and infrastructure, anywhere from 5 to 10 collaborative workstations are arranged to support 1-on-1 interactions between customers and designers. Conference attendees have the option to visit the lab and engage with designers inbetween their other conference sessions. This drop-in style of attendance has morphed into a registration-driven style, due to increased demand for these sessions over the years.

The interfaces being examined can be anywhere from click-through prototypes, to full-on Javascript mockups of the final product. This approach reduces churn, because we aren’t forced to change the design after the feature has been fully implemented. It also allows us to focus our attention on interactions and user needs, rather than on implementation details.

As an alternative, we could have chosen to outsource this research, but there are benefits to doing this in-house. The design team and engineering teams - the folks involved in building the product - are able to gain empathy for our customers. They get to understand the complex business problems and technical challenges that our customers are trying to solve. This arms the team with a clearer vision of how to build products that satisfy those needs.

It is important that these sessions occur in-person and are driven by the members of our own design team. Interactions with customers are often nuanced. Summarized reports or transcriptions of these engagements can’t fully communicate the subtleties of the human connection. Designers are better able to understand our users when they experience their reactions first-hand.

Incorporating user feedback into the design process is a key part of how we deliver delightful experiences to our users.

Humble in our Approach
It’s clear that Nutanix benefits from these engagements with our customers. So what’s in it for them? Our belief is that all engagements with our users should be mutually beneficial.

We know that our customers are busy people, with busy personal and professional lives. Their time is precious. Since user-centered design is all about empathy, any approach to research must come from a place of genuine respect for our users.

What are the benefits to our customers?

Engagement is low-cost and low-effort for our customers
Conferences present us with opportunities where our customers and design teams are in the same location at the same time. It is relatively easy to quickly match up attendees and designers, since both are already attending the conference. Since this lends itself easily to lining up the timing and the location, our users don’t have to worry about scheduling their workday around a feedback session or accommodating visitors at their workplace.

Early exposure to new features
Since we incorporate feedback early and often in the design process, we are usually focused on testing interfaces that are still quite new. This means that the users we collaborate with often have the opportunity to experience products and features in the testing phase. Customers see this as an exciting chance to get a behind-the-scenes look at what to expect in the next release.

Incorporating feedback directly into the product
Our users enjoy collaborating with our design team in-person. A number of customers have thanked us for allowing them to be a key participant in the design process. We listen to all feedback, find the areas that need improvement, and work to build solutions to meet our users’ needs. In some cases, we are able to make design corrections on-the-fly based on feedback, and then re-test those changes to ensure that we are truly meeting our users’ needs.

By providing real, tangible benefits to our customers, these feedback sessions have become one of the most highly sought-after sessions of the conference, and have “sold out” for three consecutive .NEXT conferences.

Honest - Transparency Makes for Stronger Collaboration
Obtaining open and honest feedback from our users requires an open and honest approach from our side.

First, the idea of “asking for help” can initially feel awkward. However, asking a customer or potential customer to critique our work isn’t an admission of weakness or a sign of failure. Instead, we see it as an opportunity to explore new creative directions and a commitment to making the product as strong and delightful as possible.

Second, whenever a team is involved in creating something new - whenever we push the envelope - there is always some risk that it may not resonate with our users exactly as intended. There’s some vulnerability there. Sometimes we may strike gold; other times, we may discover areas that can be improved and enhanced. Our belief is that this vulnerability is a key factor in obtaining honest feedback from our users. Being open about our creative explorations allows our users to respond with their honest and unfiltered thoughts.

Finally, innovation requires that we seek learning and discovery vs. simple validation of our ideas. The way we approach getting feedback from our users is important. Our curiosity doesn’t end when we discover whether the customer likes the design or not. Instead, we strive to understand why they had their reaction. The focus is on the insights and motivations that drive those decisions and opinions. This humble approach allows us to dive more into the qualitative side of research.

As designers, we must be honest in our relationships with our customers. The openness is appreciated by customers - and in return, they offer us their honest opinions. These feedback sessions allow us to form a true and mutually beneficial relationship with our users.

Conclusion
When designing simple interfaces that solve complex business problems, getting it right requires research and feedback. Traditional research methods make it difficult to incorporate feedback in an efficient and timely manner. This presents challenges when the technology moves at a breakneck pace. At Nutanix, we employ a hungry, humble, and honest approach to obtain user feedback.

We invite you to be a part of the experience. Join us at the .NEXT conference, where designers will be on-site for 1-on-1 collaboration. Or reach out to us anytime at research@nutanix.com.

© 2017 Nutanix, Inc. All rights reserved. Nutanix is a trademark of Nutanix, Inc., registered in the United States and other countries. All other brand names mentioned herein are for identification purposes only and may be the trademarks of their respective holder(s)

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