CUA of the Month – December, 2014

Evan Sunwall
"You can use techniques like paper prototyping or wireframing to gather user validation. The freedom and experimentation that these cheap techniques introduce into the design process is crucial. It’s certainly possible to do this with code, but the conversations will unavoidably shift towards technical concerns. You may be fostering emotional attachment and financial investment into something that maybe isn’t worth it.   Don’t buy into your ideas until you know you have something that your audience  understands, values, and is willing to pay money for."
 
Evan Sunwall
Lead User Experience Designer
PROS

From Lone Wolf to Full UX Power

by Jim Garrett

When you buy an airline ticket, it is most likely PROS’s software that is pricing that ticket. From the auto parts in your car, to the gasoline fueling it and the paper cup full of coffee fueling you – there’s a good chance PROS software played a role in the pricing and selling of those products. The company serves a variety of industries, such as manufacturing, distribution, services, and travel.

In the middle of making all of this software usable and efficient is our Certified Usability Analyst of the Month, Evan Sunwall, a Lead User Experience Designer at PROS.

When Evan joined the company almost eight years ago, PROS did not have a user-centered design process or a UX team. He then began his mission of leading the design on one of the most advanced pricing applications in the world.

How did you get started at PROS?

I was sort of a lone wolf for a long time at PROS. It was only recently that we grew to a team of ten. With four CUAs, it really helps to have that common knowledge and vocabulary when talking about issues and problems.

Were you the one to open the door for user center design?

I was the crack in the wall. When I started, one of the products was struggling with user adoption, and management wanted more than just collecting business requirements and applying engineering towards the problem. They wanted more iterations, more testing, and more foundational investigation into what users were saying and doing.  This first initial project I did really helped promote the value of UX. 

We did multiple rounds of usability testing and interviews. Three different concepts came and went in terms of trying to rework the product. When it was all said and done, the resulting redesign resonated with customers and saw a dramatic lift in sales. Then we said, hey, there is more we can do here. We should do more prototypes; we should talk to more people early on and have it shape our thinking instead of just a straight shot down the pipe and hoping for the best.

How did things change to take UX more seriously?

A management change a few years ago decided to make UX a priority. They felt we needed a director; we needed to have full staffing and not just one person. That change opened the door for dedicated user research support, visual design support, and the first tentative steps towards an institutional practice here. Now we can apply more UX focus and skills towards strategic projects that showcase our impact.

Have there been any projects you worked on where you were able see a significant difference in terms of response?

We had a project just this year where we did over 25 sessions of usability testing and interviews with externally recruited participants. These folks didn’t have our software, and they often weren’t even aware of PROS as a company.  It was quite an endeavor, and one of the first opportunities we’ve had to leverage the power of a fully staffed UX team.

We used insights from the preliminary interviews to craft some simple wireframes. If the wireframes didn’t resonate, we took them apart, rebuilt them, and tested again.  Over time, the design moved closer and closer to the target. It was amazing the comments we got while wrapping up one of the final usability sessions – “This is really interesting, this workflow, this software.  I want you to call me; I want to learn more about your company.” It was satisfying to hear that kind of feedback.

It’s amazing that people have to pioneer the concept of doing everything you are doing before the coding.

I think there’s an undercurrent within the development community of the lean approach – just build it, get it out in front of users, collect feedback, and then improve it if need be. It’s an attractive philosophy, but I personally don’t believe it’s practical. Code is expensive to write, and it’s easy to fall in love with your early ideas – at the exact moment when they’re most likely wrong.

How can a person or team deal with that kind of thinking?

I have been teaching an in-house, three-hour workshop on sketching, storyboarding and paper prototyping. I go through the importance of telling a story; I get them thinking. If they have an idea for a product or a feature, first think about the personas involved and what they are doing. I present the idea of just telling a story first; here is what someone is doing, here is their day-to-day, and here is the problem. And that’s it – no UI, no nothing. Not yet at least.

If you can tell a cohesive story informed by user research and market needs, then you can graduate to discussing how to accomplish it with technology. But start lightweight – just sketch workflows out on a whiteboard, a piece of paper, or even the back of a napkin. The less effort placed in crafting the sketch, the better. It’s a tool for communicating ideas with your collaborators, not a design specification.

From there, you can use techniques like paper prototyping or wireframing to gather user validation. The freedom and experimentation that these cheap techniques introduce into the design process is crucial. It’s certainly possible to do this with code, but the conversations will unavoidably shift towards technical concerns. You may be fostering emotional attachment and financial investment into something that maybe isn’t worth it.   Don’t buy into your ideas until you know you have something that your audience  understands, values, and is willing to pay money for.

When did you get certified?

I got the CUA in 2008 and received my CXA last month.

Where has the CXA taken you in your work?

I really appreciated the idea of going further with emotional design.  The user thinks, “I understand your product, and maybe it solves my problem, but do I still want to buy it or not?”   I feel this is the next evolution of our profession. You need to design something useful and usable, but also something that is persuasive and enticing to differentiate it from your competitors.   I think learning about persuasion techniques – and the research illustrating the sometimes irrational behavior of people – was very insightful. 

Where does your satisfaction come in all of this; where is the passion, what stokes the fire?

Hearing the moment when a user says your product seems pretty useful; “I want to learn more about it” is music to my ears.  Getting the feedback that you are actually helping people, solving your user’s problems – that’s what I enjoy.  Also working alongside colleagues who respect your contributions and say, “Those user experience folks really make a difference.  We need them as part of our team or project. We have the technology, we have the business ideas, but in terms of delivering a successful user experience, we can count on them.” That is making a difference.


For making a difference in raising the level of UX in the organization of PROS, Human Factors International is pleased to name Evan Sunwall the Certified Usability Analyst of the Month for December 2014.

CUA of the Month

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