CUA of the Month – July, 2014

Leon King
“If you are doing a good job, you are raising the boat across the entire company higher rather than just a particular product. It is unimaginably rewarding coming to work when you are in a position to have that scale of impact.”
 
Mike Berg
User Experience Central
Microsoft

UX Ground Zero at Microsoft

by Jim Garrett

At the center of supporting four hundred usability professionals and fifty-eight testing labs at Microsoft, is our Certified Usability Analyst of the Month, Michael Berg.

Michael is with User Experience Central, ground zero for supporting testing and technology. He started as a contractor at Microsoft in 2001, and was the first person to become a CUA at the company.

Tell me about your role at Microsoft.

The group I work for is an operations team. We are called User Experience Central and essentially we are a centralized body that acts to support user research across the company.  My customer, or user, is a user researcher or usability professional.  There are about four hundred usability professionals at the company. These are my end users and they work across virtually all Microsoft products or product groups.  Our goal as a team is to support usability work across the company with our product portfolio.

So you work in a group that supports all of the other usability experts?

Yes. Our team manages our usability resources. We have fifty-eight labs located in Redmond, Fargo, Silicon Valley and Cambridge, Massachusetts.  And we have new labs coming online in Seattle and London. We have a database of participants who have enrolled in our program and we continue to refresh it.  Our database is about 1.1 million users globally today. We also support needs such as research incentives, tax reporting, document artifact archiving, and legal processes.  We license tools on behalf of our research community, and fund various sponsorships and community events. In a nutshell, we identify, plan and manage the resources that enable user experience research to happen at Microsoft.

Can you explain that a little more?

If you work in Microsoft’s Xbox group, for example, you have a strategy for how you are going to tackle UX work in the Xbox field. It comes from within that local organization and any training, any design standards, any standards for research practices are all driven locally within the Xbox team.  They would come to us, however, if they needed a facility to run a study, or if they are looking to have participants screened and scheduled for any upcoming studies. If they need to think about incentives for the participants, they could have us handle tax reporting. They may need help with planning study logistics, or working with legal requirements for a particular study need. It is a support role, and the support spans across our wide audience of researchers.

Can you give examples of some of the information you would send up the line to these user groups?

The way it works is that they would come to us and they would request resources.  They’ll say, “I want to do a remote usability study four weeks from today and I am looking for an audience in Chicago, Miami, Dallas and Silicon Valley with this profile.”  Our job is to supply the technology that they would use for that remote study. If they want to use the usability lab while they are conducting that remote study, we may book that lab and make sure that it is configured so that it supports that remote study.

We would also look for likely candidates for the study and we screen them against the profile. Once we have confirmed that they fit profile criteria, we schedule them for the study. We send the participants information about what is expected for the study and how they can participate.  There is follow through after the study as well.  We make sure the incentives get to them and we make sure that we collect and store non-disclosure agreements if that is involved.

Is that a challenge orienting your deliverables and successfully satisfying requests from all these varied customers?

It is a strong challenge for sure because the needs of the Bing team are very different from the needs of the Windows team which are very different from the needs of the team that works on our developer tools.  We just have a very wide ranging audience that is all looking to one place for support and technology. The support for testing needs can be really varied.

Is your group involved with design?

I wouldn’t call it one of our core functions or maybe even one of our core skills as a team, but because our audience is so large, it is common for us to have to build tools or programs to support needs here. We end up getting into creating and designing either a process for how to do research or a tool that makes up for it.  So we have a few proprietary tools that help us to support research at that kind of scale, and these are designed in-house with our wide-ranging users in mind.

What you are currently working on?

We are exploring things like online screening of participants and see if that is able to have an impact on how soon we can get participants into studies. Panels have become a new thing for us.  Agile feedback has become much more important, so we have experimented with having users on standby who are known to meet certain profile criteria so that we can get them into studies more quickly. And we’re doing more work with internal participants these days, to support those same needs for user input. We’ve also seen a lot of focus on accessibility research and in involving more non-local and international users in our studies.

Any new challenges you see coming up or any new directions for your group?

I think that our interactions with participants are changing quite a bit.  Rather than a traditional lab with a one-way glass, the focus is more on fluid interactions with participants. It is more common to see a need and then just interview, or just to talk to somebody to gather information rather than the old fashioned strict evaluations.  There is a need for very loose creative methods in how we source feedback from users and how we engage them in our product life cycles. We’re experimenting with new lab designs, new tools to support low-fi, or more ad hoc research needs.

 It takes them out of being lab rats and more as people.

Right!  Exactly.  Contacts and variability between users that fit your profile is more interesting or more of a focus than it has been.

You have both the CUA and the CXA, was there a difference it made in your work?

It is such an integrated skill set that you feel more empowered – like you could move forward and apply the skills in a very practical way immediately. It was wonderful because that credibility made you feel empowered to push a user centered approach to a project on this end and show that you could back up your decision.

The CXA expanded my thinking about UX strategy as a company and how your strategy matures as your competence in UX does.  There is a concept in the UX tract of can’t do versus will do.   Usability is a can do.  The user completes the task successfully as intended, whereas the CXA really focuses on what do they want to do and are they enjoying doing it. It takes it to that next level because you think about new products.  How do you introduce new products? How do you think about your competencies and your strategies as a company or team or organization?  CXA really gets into how do you move forward with a product portfolio, or how do you think about introducing a new product into the landscape.   It is like CUA on steroids.  It’s awesome!

 What do you enjoy about your work at Microsoft the most?

If you are doing it right, you are making a difference here.  The impact can be very great.  It is like you drop a pebble and it becomes a wave.  By supporting usability research as a larger discipline, you are kind of impacting all of the products.  If you are doing a good job, you are raising the boat across the entire company higher rather than just a particular product.  It is unimaginably rewarding coming to work when you are in a position to have that scale of impact.

CUA of the Month

Each month we highlight the successes and achievements of a different member of our CUA community. If you are a Certified Usability Analyst and would like to be considered for CUA of the Month recognition, please send a brief professional bio to hfi@humanfactors.com

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