CUA of the Month – May, 2008

Pinky Thakkar
"The new system is so user friendly that the 'Online Help' tool is not being used! All of this started with the usability testing and user interface design work."
 
Pinky Thakkar
Senior User Interactive Engineer
Physicians Mutual

Insuring Usability Engineer watches users in action, brings user-centered design to Physicians Mutual

by Doug Gorney

Pinky Thakkar is no armchair usability specialist. If there's one thing she loves to do, it's to put herself where the action is.

As Senior User Interactive Engineer at Physicians Mutual, Pinky studies service representatives and insurance customers in actual use situations to see what the business end of usability really looks like. In conjunction with her Web development background, that kind of first-hand knowledge helped make user-centered design an unshakeable element of the application development lifecycle at Physicians Mutual.

Even though it was years before she first heard the term "usability," Pinky's early career experience showed her that effective applications must take into account the needs of end-users and the development goals of business stakeholders – along with the realities of designers. While working at Satyam Computer Services in her native India, Pinky was charged with developing user interface standards, putting requirements into UI screens, and functioning as a liaison between business clients and development teams.

It was while working in London as a Silverline contractor in 1999 that Pinky first heard about usability. The term immediately resonated with her.

"A picture began to form," says Pinky. Usability testing, she realized, was her favorite task. Along with the give-and-take, what she enjoyed most about meeting people who used the applications she helped create were the insights into behavioral mechanics that underlie successful design – and seeing how emotional responses played a part in interacting with a Web site. "Since then, whenever I design, I have certain questions in my mind: 1) What do users look for? 2) Are they able to find or achieve their goal when they are on the site?"

That picture would be completed in 2001, when a contract brought her to the U.S. Working on Allstate Insurance claims application, Pinky spent time watching the day-to-day process in their Dallas claims office. Based on real-world situations she observed, she created a wireframe prototype which matched the actual workflow of claims representatives and the use patterns of policyowners. During her time at Allstate Insurance, she worked with a number of Certified Usability Analysts trained by Human Factors International. "I wanted to become certified right away," she says.

It would be six years and several more stages in her career before that happened.

In 2005, Pinky came to Physicians Mutual, the 16th largest individual health insurer in the U.S. and Physicians Life, a life insurance company with over $3.7 billion of in-force life insurance. On her first project she was part of a team charged with rewriting the company's Billing and Collection systems. It was a challenging task. The old legacy systems were not user-friendly – either to customer service representatives or policyowners.

"Reps had to go through two different applications and look at three or four different screens to find customer information, even just a policy number," says Pinky. "With thousands of calls per day, this made our customer service representatives' jobs very tough! So that was one of the major stress points."

Fortunately, during the Bill and Collect design process, Pinky received the CUA training she had been looking forward to for so long. "The training was very good, very helpful, very interactive. Certification has helped a lot – both with my job and the projects we are undertaking at Physicians Mutual."

The research methods Pinky learned during CUA training helped her during the user interface design process, where she worked directly with users to determine their needs and use patterns. As a result of her user interface design, the team was able to effectively combine information from multiple applications into a single-screen portal environment, with data fields that allowed customer service representatives to find information quickly and easily.

Pinky credits the methods learned during her CUA training for the success of the new user interface screens. "The CUA training builds trust, and both the business side and the designers showed that they trusted me on this process," says Pinky.

The redesign of the company's billing and collection systems required thousands of hours effort. The system's user interface is critical because it is the touch point between the system and the business users. Rose Earlywine, an Assistant Vice President in the company's Policyowner Services area, has been pleased with the results.

"The new system is so user friendly that the 'Online Help' tool is not being used!" she says. "All of this started with the usability testing and user interface design work."

The Bill and Collect system was the first phase in a redesign of all Physicians Mutual's internal systems. Pinky's user interface design work has set usability standards for future projects, and the user interface for each new system will be modeled after the screens that she created – a significant impact for the company, and a direct return on their investment in CUA training.

Physicians Mutual also wanted to add the option to make premium payments through the company's voice response unit (VRU), giving policyowners the convenience of making payments 24 by 7. Pinky downloaded a case study on Interactive Voice Response by HFI's Eric Schaffer and John Sorflaten. She based her flow diagram on principles derived from this study, and policyowners responses have been very positive.

Physicians Mutual is now redesigning its customer-facing site: PhysiciansMutual.com.

"Based on the success of the Bill and Collect system and on the status I gained by becoming a CUA, stakeholders from designers to the business development team approached me at the very first stages of the application development process," says Pinky – and they continue to consult with her as the consumer site takes shape. Because they know Pinky will look, listen and guide the design by asking the right questions – and finding the right answers.

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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