We’ve heard it before: we should focus on designing for an experience; experiences are fundamentally different design challenges to a product or services; experiences are designed from the outside in.
We’re also told that we can apply this experience-centric perspective to tackle problems beyond the design of a product or piece of software. But we don’t often see examples of these ideas being put into practice. So that’s what I’d like to share.
Earlier this year I was asked by a client -YHA Australia – to work with them on a project aimed at selecting a new core IT platform for the organization. YHA Australia operate a network of some 120 or so hostels across Australia, and the system serves as the primary booking and hostel management system for each property.
During the first meetings to discuss the system it became fairly clear that the organization lacked any real sense of purpose for the system, and no clear idea of the strategic role the system might play in the organization.
More importantly for me, there was no real understanding of the role of the hostel management system in delivering a service or experience to hostel guests. What this meant was that we had no basis for prioritizing system features, or weighting features in the selection process.
To help facilitate this understanding I proposed to undertake some work with organization to help them better understand three things:
- what does the guest lifecycle look like, and what are the characteristics of the experience at each point in that lifecycle;
- in order to deliver on that desired experience, what does the business need to be doing; and
- what are the technology requirements or features needed to support these business functions.
This approach explicitly mirrors the user:business:technology trinity of requirements that need to be balanced in order to deliver a quality experience, that in turns delivers value to the business. It also provides us a slightly simplified view of the framework Peter Merholz discussed in his recent HBR article, which begins with the experience and works inwards through interactions, touchpoints, procedures & systems.
In order to understand the guest lifecycle we brought together a group of experienced industry operations (hostel management), marketing and front-line service staff. We worked through a series of brain-storming and analysis tasks to arrive at a draft lifecycle.
This draft lifecycle was held up to reality using a number of techniques including:
- contextual enquiry
- interviews (with guests, more staff)
- research in social networks
Using materials, research notes from previous projects (I’ve been working with YHA Australia for a decade), and interviews with back-office staff, each element of the customer experience was mapped to one or more front- and back-office tasks that need to occur to ensure the delivery of the experience as ‘designed’.
This research allowed for significant improvements to be made to the lifecycle in the pre- and post-stay stages of the service delivery. The detail in these two stages was meaningful because it allowed us to identify elements of the experience that would have been unsupported and yet clearly fit within a guest’s mental model of what constitutes the experience, even if not being a part of the traditional view of the service.
Most importantly, the research allowed for the experience to be deconstructed, and the important elements highlighted. This part of the work was informed by competitive analysis carried out previously, allowing points of clear and valuable difference between YHA and it’s competitors to be identified and prioritized.
By this stage we were back into familiar IT territory: what were the characteristics and features of the system needed to support the business functions previously identified. The big difference now, however, is that each business activity is directly related to a specific element of the guest’s experience.
Structuring the evaluation framework in this way also allowed us to question a lot of firm assumptions about what elements and functions within the IT system were most important. When features aren’t directly delivering a customer benefit, or enabling staff to deliver a customer benefit, it is muct easier to question the importance of that feature.
This framing of the problem also focused attention on several different sets of interactions within the overall service delivery system:
- that between guests and the system, mediated through 3rd-parties (e.g. external reservation sites);
- that between customers and front-line staff; and
- that between staff and the hostel management system.
In other words, we have defined user experience requirements for two distinct audiences: customers and staff.
The next stage in the project is to layer in the functions that the business needs that aren’t tied directly to a customer experience. These include features related to financial management, corporate governance and risk management. In this model, these business-centric considerations are separated from the guest-centric considerations, and evaluated in parallel.
We are still in the process of using this approach to select the organization’s new IT platform, but this new framework has helped to transform the decision from a tactical, ‘day-to-day’ operations decision into a strategic choice affecting the whole organization’s positioning and point of difference.
I’ll be talking about this project, the approach, and lessons learned at UX Australia 2009 – a 3-day user experience design conference, with inspiring and practical presentations , covering a range of topics about how to design great experiences for people. It will be held on 26-28 August 2009, in Canberra (Australia).