UX Talk with Tobias Komischke

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UX insights are used to market a product

Tobias Komischke has been working in the area of user experience for over 10 years. During that time, he has lead projects and teams to create user interfaces of superior usability and compelling appeal in various industries. Tobias is Director of User Experience at Infragistics, Inc., an experience design company providing front-end controls, tools and services across industries. While he is deeply familiar with most aspects of user experience, his specialty is Human Factors Engineering which is rooted in his academic background in cognitive psychology. For his Ph.D. he applied his knowledge to the area of industrial process control systems. An acknowledged evangelist for user-centered design strategy, methods and processes, Tobias is a frequent speaker at conferences and author for technical journals, magazines and blogs. He is a reviewer for international journals and conferences and is a member of HFES and UXPA.

Helmut: When did you recognize the first time in your life that user experience is important to you?

Tobias: In my generation – actually our generation – the movie WarGames in 1983 was very influential in showing us teenagers what technology can do. One scene showed Matthew Broderick hacking into his high school’s computer system and changing his bad grades into good ones using a phone modem. I think I’m not the only kid who replicated that green command line user interface from the movie on his own PC – which was a Commodore 64. Now, this was not about user experience exactly, but about getting familiar with software and hardware. I found a way to make use of software for myself soon: Me and my buddy played table tennis against each other in our basement– each and every day, for years. We couldn’t agree who was better so we wrote a program in Basic on a C-64 Commodore that would keep and display the stats. He was all concerned about the code, I was all concerned about an easy way to enter the scores and to visualize them meaningfully. I couldn’t really understand why he was so happy to deal with code and he couldn’t quite get why I was so concerned about the UI. Today, that’s still what both of us do. He studied computer science and became a software architect; I studied cognitive psychology and became a UX professional.

What are key lessons you have learned in your early user experience days?

During my first summer internship at a HCI research institute, I was tasked to carry out usability test series with elderly persons to assess the usability of a novel touchscreen-based central remote control for household appliances. It was specifically geared towards the elderly, so a lot of design considerations had been made to accommodate this specific target audience (font sizes, touch target sizes, color contrasts, etc.). We tested with people between 75 and 86 years of age. It was eye-opening to observe actual users interact with the product prototype. It turned out that you can do everything right in terms of the software ergonomics, but still provide a sub-optimal user experience. The test users didn’t struggle with text sizes or contrasts, but with understanding the basic concept of controlling a washing machine from remote. It was hard for them to map the real world machine and its hardware controls to the virtual representation on a touchscreen and understand states, functions, etc. It just taught me that your own mental model of the product that you design is different from the mental model of the users – which you will only understand if you see them interacting with your product.

Is there a funny UX story you would like to share?

When I was fresh out of college and starting my doctorate work at a large company in the area of industrial process control, I participated in a meeting where some big shots came to my group and talked about a new software product that they wanted to develop. It was essentially about 3D plant visualizations allowing you to navigate through a 3D virtual representation of a factory and get real-time data on equipment, process states, etc. Money didn’t seem to be much of a concern; they wanted to push the envelope. I was impressed with the level of detail that they already had months prior to the actual start of the project. I was also impressed with the role that UX played. They mentioned “customer need”, “user expectations”, and “usability” in about every other sentence. So during a break I went in a somewhat shy way to the project lead, the guy with the multi-million Dollar budget, and said to him: “I really like how you derived this product idea from the real need of customers and users. How did you elicit that need? Did you do surveys? Or interviews? Or other things?”. I was genuinely interested because up until then I only had textbook knowledge about market and user requirements analyses. I wanted to know how the professionals went about this. He looked at me and answered: “Oh, no, we didn’t do any of that. We just thought that kind of a product would be sexy”. That reply pretty much shattered everything I came to believe after years of learning about user-centered design. But it also taught me how decisions in companies are made and that the weight of UX in those decisions can be rather small. Needless to say, nothing ever came out from this sexy idea.

What are today’s UX related challenges?

*Grin*, there are a lot. How about these two? One is the complexity that comes from technological convergence. You have principally the whole world knowledge available anytime anywhere you are. Take your smart phone for example. It’s such a powerful device and has so many different products and services incorporated. So much to do, so much to show, yet so little screen real estate! That’s what makes it complex. To make the potential accessible and enjoyable is a design challenge. The other challenge I see is the explosion of form factors and operating systems. Today, standard displays range from 3 inches to 24 inches, requiring very different ways to present user interfaces. Then we have so many operating systems now, especially for mobile (Firefox just announced its own OS). They are all different, in some aspects a lot, in some a little, but for a user it can be challenging to adopt to a new design language. For us UX people it means that we need to know and stay up to date on technologies, products, and on their design languages. If you only consider mobile, then you need to know the design languages for iOS, Windows Phone, Android, Firefox, Blackberry (yes, BB is not dead – BB10 is pretty impressive) – all of which get updated periodically. So while 15 years ago as normal designers we had to know Windows and Apple as operating systems and less than a handful of form factors, today we need to know and be good at designing for half a dozen operating systems and dozens of form factors. So I guess that was a long answer to the question, but essentially I believe the challenge lies in the ever faster pace of technical advancement.

How do you overcome these challenges?

Well, to stay current with the technical advances, you have to continuously learn – more than ever. But what’s great about UX is that you can always rely on the fundamentals. Things like the user-centered design process, the methods that have been developed since the 80s, the knowledge about the capabilities and limitations of humans, all this remains to be true. Applying this base UX knowledge gets you 80% to solving any UX issue, no matter what interactive product it is. The remaining 20% is where that product is special or unique. That specific knowledge and experience you have to acquire, there’s no way around it. It is helpful for UX teams to distribute the learning effort so that one person learns about a certain technology and then documents and shares that knowledge with the rest of the team.

Did you experience a moment where you opened the eye of another person or group about the relevance of user experience?

Last year I facilitated an UX training at a large Fortune 100 company. The guy who ordered that training for his team was a technical architect and I could tell from his engagement during the training that he was really intrigued by the topic. A couple of weeks ago we talked on the phone and he told me that based on what he learned, the fascination he has with the topic, and the relevance of UX in his field, he just enrolled in a Master’s program to get a degree in Human Factors. This guy is not in his 20s anymore; he’s an experienced and accomplished IT professional, so I was very impressed with his enthusiasm and commitment.

Interesting, tell me more about the motivation of the person why he signed up for a master’s program?

The guy understood that it’s not done by reading a book or two – he was going after a solid education. I took a look at the Human Factors program he chose and really liked it. It is both solid and applicable. In addition to the fundamentals, they have courses such as “Managing UX teams”, which is something so obvious and helpful – yet it was the first time I’ve ever seen this being part of a Human Factors curriculum. It’s just amazing how much more inclusive those programs are now – I guess it’s reflective of the broadening of UX in general. The topic has grown way beyond usability and way beyond the classic development process.

When you say UX has grown beyond the classic development process, can you elaborate on this further?

Sure. It’s actually a pretty compelling story. I used to work as a UI designer on a large-scale hospital IT system. Patient orders, clinical records, these kinds of things. We were 100+ developers, a dozen of UI designers, dozens of business analysts – the normal crew you would expect, working well together. What was new to me was how close we also collaborated with product marketing. Those folks were not part of the actual development process and you would assume they would not even know too much about what we designers were doing. It turned out though that they considered us a critical part of their job spreading the word about the product. One reason was that we could provide comparative usage data. We had modeled the interaction of our system as well as two competing products. On a click level we could show that entering a patient order could be done faster with our system than with the others. That knowledge which we used for the design, they could use directly for the marketing of the product. Another reason was our ability to explain design details and rationales to those people that ultimately decided upon the purchase of the system (physicians and hospital administrators). Because no-one had ever explained the UI design to them, these people had been under the impression that the design was more or less arbitrary. They were very appreciative about learning from us why we used certain colors, why we used certain font sizes, why the layout was what it was. It was eye-opening to them to learn about the multitude of design decisions that we had to make. And not only were we explaining our rationales, we also provided the evidence for certain decisions, for example our user modeling, scientific studies, international standards, etc. No competitor product could provide that detail level on user experience design and human factors and for that reason we got a lot of love from product marketing.

Tobias, is there something else you would like to share?

I believe that the UX profession will continue to be a growing field. UX will remain a vital force for a better living and better workplaces and it’ll remain an enabler for technology. As UX professionals we can be proud to have raised the awareness of UX throughout. Developers, for example, know much more about UX today than 10 years ago. But then, their primary job remains to architect, build and test code, they cannot be as strong as dedicated specialists in UX. That’s not to say that each and every project needs own dedicated UX professionals, but I have a hard time imagining that UX as a profession would become obsolete. The trajectory clearly shows in the other direction with no turnaround in sight. As long as humans interact with technology there will be a need for UX professionals.

Thanks so much for your time and insights, Tobias.

It’s my pleasure, Helmut.