Reflections on Tech-Ed 2007 - Part 1
Last week I was at the Tech-Ed 2007 conference, held in Auckland at the SkyCity Convention Centre. It was a great opportunity to be there attending the sessions, exploring the Marketplace and supervising the Hands-On Labs.
For those who don't know, Tech-Ed is a conference organised by Microsoft and sponsored by a host of IT and Systems-related organsiations. The bulk of the conference is devoted to the sessions covering not only Microsoft tools and technologies, but also software development concepts and practices. These sessions are complemented by the hands-on labs, where conference delegates have the opportunity to try out the various technologies. Then there's the Marketplace, which is basically an expo with promotional freebies and prize draws on the side; and of course, the TechFest party on the second night, featuring live entertainment including Evermore.
This year's theme was "Make your mark" - which basically revolved around User Experience (UX). This theme was superbly introduced in the keynote presentation by Lou Carbone of Experience Engineering Inc. and was highlighted in a few of the subsequent sessions throughout the conference. Even though this presentation wasn't directly related to the mechanics of software development, it contained some important points that transfer directly to the higher-level aspects of building software - particularly concerning the fulfilment of user needs and desires.
Firstly, it is worth noting that in general terms, user experience refers to all factors that impact a customer's emotions, attitudes and behaviours, for the entire purchase process from identifying the need to using the product or service. Or as Wikipedia puts it, user experience is "the overall experience and satisfaction a user has when using a product or system" When applied to software, most of the user experience is determined through the prospecting, acquisition, installation and use of the software. That's where the interaction design, functionality, aesthetics and other human factors play their part.
Here are some of the main points:
- User Experience is closely tied to the combination of a customer's emotions, attitudes and behaviours. Based on a customer's experience, they're going to feel particular emotions (either consciously or subconsciously), adopt certain attitudes such as trust or loyalty, and apply certain behaviours. These behaviours can range from doing repeat business and recommending your brand and software to others, to demanding refunds and spreading the bad word. Basically user experience will determine whether people use your software or not.
- Business has changed from "Make & Sell" to "Sense & Respond". Think from a customer's point of view - if you have identified a need for something, you'll make a list of criteria (at least subconsciously) that this something will have to meet in order for you to consider buying it. Considering that the given market is likely to have competition, you'd go for the one that meets your criteria the best. The software of someone who made it assuming that people will naturally want to buy it is less likely to be chosen than the software made by someone who made an effort in sensing what people actually wanted. It is this understanding of the fundamental needs that will allow extra value to be created,
- User satisfaction does not guarantee loyalty. Carbone illustrated this through results from a survey, which found that of those who defected to another provider of products & services, 60-80% had indicated that they were at least satisfied with the products & services prior to defection. It is likely that these people found a better provider who delivered a superior experience. And what indicates 'satisfied'? Carbone indicated that on a scale of 0-10, 7/10 and above indicates pretty good satisfaction, while anything below was 'average' or 'poor'. So the new competitive advantage is therefore to create the most satisfying user experience.
- Create value, don't extract it. Profit is the reward, not a target. This is fairly self-explanatory, though it indicates a change of mindset. Carbone illustrated a once-popular restaurant franchise in the US (Howard Johnson's), which focussed on maintaining profits, took cost-cutting measures (e.g. downgrading paper serviettes to single-ply) and eventually went under.
- Pay attention to experience clues. These are subtle details that have a subconscious effect on customers' attitudes and emotions. When checking into a hotel, you'd expect to find the bathroom spotlessly clean. Finding clues that indicate the previous guest's presence would have a negative impact. Just like installing software and finding that the interface controls are displayed crooked.
As software developers, it can be hard to see how these high-level business and marketing concepts apply to creating software, but it is worth being aware of them. For commercial development this is obvious - creating value and good user experiences brings in business that allows developers to be paid, and also enhances the business' / developer's reputation. In open-source projects, creating value makes the software more desirable and entices greater uptake - possibly converting customers from commercial vendors. As for personal projects, you're more likely to use your own software rather than tinker with it endlessly or give up on it.