Especially with the mobile solutions becoming more and more popular for field work where the working conditions can be extreme and unhandiness soon leads to linemen returning to the pen and paper, ensuring the tools and devices are easy-to-use and support the user workflows is more important than ever. For that, user experience specialists play a very important role in designing the solutions to fit their purpose - work that goes way beyond the user interface.
Working at the heart of the product development, Minka describes her role as that of a translator, or a facilitator, between the different stakeholders in the software development process. Who else is involved varies from project to project, but there is always a utility-vendor combination of process owners, software administrators, project managers, developers - and very importantly, the end users. “Especially in the utility business, you have so many different kinds of user groups using exactly the same solution that you really have to understand everybody’s needs, combine them and create a concept and a design that works for everyone.”
Behind the scenes: User Experience beyond the UI
Making use of user-centered design methods, the UX work at Trimble typically starts from creating a user experience concept, including personas, user stories, workflows and the basic idea of the solution at hand. The first phase is usually the on-site user research to observe and gather the information from the end users and also the different stakeholders both from the utilities and in-house experts.
User testing goes on during the whole process in different phases. “It’s very crucial - the more user testing, the better the end result,” says Minka. “I try to have the first testing sessions as early as possible, even with paper prototypes. Exposing the design to the actual end users is always incredibly valuable, and it’s different than having, say, a utility process owner or a project manager explain the end user work to you. When you go out in the field, when you go and experience the situation yourself, that’s when you really feel it.”
“You see only the user interface, so you think that is the UX work, but it goes way deeper than that.”
“I also do interaction design,” Minka continues. This usually involves wireframes, which are sketches of the solution, starting from the really rough hand-drawings and progressing to the digital, detailed designs. “You plan out what the user is going to do and what kinds of screens are needed. Then, you combine in more detail on what the different screens are going to look like and what the interaction is in each of them, and that is how it develops,” she explains. Sometimes, the last phase also includes interactive prototypes.
“My job is also to walk through the user workflow with our developers and explain how the piece of software is supposed to work within that,” Minka goes on. “I explain how the interaction between the user and the solution works, what kinds of transactions there are and how the workflow is supposed to continue. After that, we can start the development work, the programming, and it is only after that - at the very last stage - that we come to the graphic design phase."
IN THE SPOTLIGHT
The past years, the utility business like many industries has seen a rise in the demand for high-quality user experience design. Also Minka has noted the change - for the positive. “There is a common effort both from our side and from the utilities and end users to work together very closely,” she says. “Our customers are really keen to be involved and they put a lot of time into working closely together with us, for example, organizing the field observations or user testing setups, so that has been extremely valuable.”
Minka also points out that there is no such thing as a ready product. “I think nowadays it’s something that people understand. The solution is never ready. Instead, the iterative process that goes on through the development of a new solution continues after the release. We always continue working on it and make it better,” she wraps it up.
Keep on iterating, Minka, say I - for the value that the user experience experts put in our software is incredible. After all, the highly-praised smoothness of use of, for example, our Utility To Go mobile solution is not a coincidence at all - there’s a whole lot of designing work behind it!
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