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Building World-Class Product in Four Steps: Observation, Testing, Iteration & Learning

Maja Otic
September 16, 2020

The Situation

Every successful software company has a great division of people specialized in Design Thinking. Human-Centered Design, as it is otherwise known, is an approach to solving complex problems which aims to create the best possible outcomes for users. In recent years, even companies new and old, tech or not have adopted this technique for reimagining the products and services they deliver to customers.

“But haven’t people been trying to solve complex issues forever,” you ask? Indeed they have. Human-Centered Design distinguishes itself from other methodologies with its focus (or ‘obsession’ as some designers are oft to claim) in understanding the perspective of the person who experiences a problem, their needs, and whether the solution that has been designed for them is truly meeting those needs effectively or not.

A core tenant of Human-Centered Design is that those designing the solution must remove themselves, their biases, and their preferences from the end solution. The queen of the HCD approach is the end-user, e.g., the person who has the problem to solve, not the designer. 

At Alchemy, we feel strongly that little design has gone into the work lab staff and their leadership needs to get done in the 21st century. Chemistry is no longer a game played only with pipettes and Erlenmeyer flasks. The role of the chemist in recent decades has evolved into an interdisciplinary function that relies just as heavily on the use of computers and software as bending molecules at the bench. We believe this trend will continue in the future, making significant computer skills a prerequisite for such roles in the not so distant future.

Microsoft Excel is not designed for chemists, LAN folder structures are not designed for their lab projects and Email is not designed for sharing real-time updates. Based on the paradigm that the chemists of the material science industry are underserved, our Product team is on a mission to better understand how chemists think, work and behave in their lab environments as well as with computers. 

To ensure consistent and iterative outcomes, we follow a 4 step problem-solving method based on the principles of Human-Centered Design:


Observation

Observation is watching people in their natural environment, how they live, work and solve everyday problems. We invoke this technique to understand at a sensory level - using mostly sight and sound - how users go about completing their tasks. Sounds easy enough, right? Well, as always with human psychology, there’s a catch!

People are accustomed to performing these routine daily tasks. If we ask them about their problems, they tell us what they aim to accomplish, what gets in their way, and then provide possible solution(s). With the power of observing users in their environment, without asking for verbal input, entirely different solutions or approaches emerge. Asking users what kind of problems they have often, interestingly, does not strike to the core of their issue. That is why observation is so very important in building a successful product, tool or service.

At Alchemy, our Customer Success team serves as the primary touchpoint for all system users. As such, a big part of their role involves gathering feedback (and yes, even the occasional complaint!) from clients during their onboarding and post-launch phases. Depending on the feedback received, e.g., small configuration changes or a “gap” in terms of system capability, CS works hand-in-hand with Product from that point. Together the teams review live screen share footage of users as they move from application to application to accomplish the task at hand. By watching (and watching and WATCHING!) these video sessions with Customer Success team members - and even the occasional customer - Product can create new approaches to these common tasks.

Testing

After detecting problems and finding solutions through observation, the Product team builds interactive prototypes with high fidelity design, typically using a tool called Figma. During the “build” phase of prototyping, we gain a more clear sense of how a user flows from step to step, better understanding the most intimate details needed to create the optimal user experience. 

Prototypes are always tested first internally with our Customer Success team, and then externally with 5 ideal users (ideal in this case meaning users that typically encounter the challenge we’ve aimed to solve with the new approach/technique). This magic number of 5 is based on a simple mathematical formula, shown graphically below, indicating that after the 5th observed user, the value of input becomes de minimis. We think of this as product design’s law of diminishing returns. 

Image 1: As more users are observed, the net new value of each observation declines rapidly after n = 5.


Iteration & Learning

As with almost anything worth building - and despite our pride as seasoned engineers, developers and designers -, we rarely nail a capability 100% on the first try. Thus, iteration and learning are critical to our entire company’s DNA. In practice, iteration is once again led by observation of the user. 

While focus group participants browse the prototype, our Product team actively monitors their behavior, clicks and questions. All this watching is done for one single purpose: to understand exactly what our users need. Iteration sessions contain four steps:

  1. Apply findings on the prototype
  2. Create a new version of high fidelity designs
  3. Assess overall fit for use
  4. Conduct a new round of testing

This circular, iterative process drives the compound learning of our customer’s needs which are critical to creating world-class products.

“Easy to understand system with tremendous flexibility and industry-specific workflows - the upside here is undeniable.”

- Coatings R&D Director

“Seeing that materials created in the system can be dynamically linked to create TDS/SDSs is a game changer.”

- Additives QC Technician

“The best experience was how detailed the live demos were. I rarely see such quality in a full rollout, much less a trial.”

-  Cosmetics IT Vice President

“Translating what was learned during the one-on-one sessions and actually doing it in Alchemy was awesome.”

-  Coatings Application Expert
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