Understanding the challenges beyond the stories: UX in action
Leo Barnes Lead Consultant - Business Strategist
At the heart of every successful technical solution, customer service, or top selling product line is an understanding of the end user, a design that plays to the needs and behaviours of that user, and a commitment to creating an experience that elicits positive emotions. This is User Experience (UX), and at Ensono Digital our tried-and-tested approach has underpinned successful solution designs and supported our clients in creating better business outcomes for over a decade. Our approach always stands us in good stead but it’s our experience and intuition that often gives us the edge – it’s when we listen to our gut that we uncover the real gems.
Being a good User Experience designer is about staying inquisitive, digging into behaviours and drivers, and building an honest picture of how people really interact with the business and its services. Ultimately UX is about problem solving, but often organisations, staff, or customers don’t actually know what their real problems are.
As UX specialists, our role – simply put – is to understand and unpick blockers in any experience and design smooth paths to a positive outcome. Often though, it’s listening to that nagging feeling, being tenacious and returning to the experience over and over again that helps us to uncover challenges that would otherwise go unnoticed.
For Ensono Digital this was made particularly evident in our engagement with a major freight and passenger service company who manage multiple routes between the UK, Channel Islands and France.
If you live anywhere near a working port, you’ll have seen the hundreds of trailers and containers poised on their journey between origin and destination, parked in close formation or stacked several stories high. The vast trailers are usually 20 or 40ft long and are used to transport all manner of goods around the world. Every trailer’s route is a series of handoffs between transport providers; road haulage to shipping to local network logistics.
Freight service covers the portion of the container’s journey from the port to the overseas destination, managing handoffs from the UK road haulage companies, and on to the destination country’s logistics provider. As part of their digital transformation programme, the business was looking for a solution to digitise their core operational activities. Designed to drive cost saving and revenue generating opportunities, the transformation’s primary deliverable was the digitisation of trailer management, the cornerstone of international freight management. Over the course of our engagement Ensono Digital developed a drag-and-drop tablet-centric app for the freight team, as well as a new booking portal for freight customers.
As with any Ensono Digital development, the design was accurately developed and the technology was successfully deployed, but it was the UX that unearthed some of the biggest wins for the business.
At the point we started working with them, the organisation had been managing the movement of hundreds of trailers into, around, and out of ports for over 20 years using largely manual processes. Highly skilled loading officers and ‘stevedores’ would plan and execute the lifting, shifting, loading, and unloading of each one of hundreds of trailers a day and every booking and onward movement was planned and recorded on paper.
Although the port officer, loading team and stevedores’ skills and experience meant that the operation itself was slick and successful, reporting was an onerous and unreliable task and all customer bookings needed to be carried out over the phone. These weren’t so much problems, but opportunities abounded to rationalise and streamline process, and improve the experience for staff and customers alike.
Ensono Digital’s UX team led the discovery and research phase working with stakeholders and set out to follow our standard practice to explore the businesses processes. Working with partners from the business and specialist mobile providers we focused heavily on UX planning in the discovery phase ultimately developing the first wireframes for the development teams to use. Intuition told us that even with our extensive interviews with staff, and early observations of the freight team at port, we didn’t have the whole picture. We took the step of shadowing port employees through the agile development phase, sharing the prototype and gaining, what turned out to be, vital feedback.
It was working alongside the freight team at the dock, as the seasons changed, and the cold and rain began to hinder their activities, that we discovered a simple challenge that had the potential to undermine the usability of the new digital system. Wearing gloves to guard against the cold and wet, users were struggling to engage with the buttons and form fields that were better suited to bare fingers in dry conditions.
The steps they needed to follow were harder to complete and the consolidated process – pulled into smaller number of screens – exacerbated the issue and made it harder to get through the journey. Immediately we were able to return to the design and revisit the size of the buttons and icons, as well as breaking the process down into distinct steps presented on more, easier to use, pages. This design flowed through the agile processes into a new prototype and, ultimately, a fully rolled out solution that was well received by the freight team from the outset.
Design for where the ‘real work’ happens
This ‘real work’ analysis is close to the concept of ‘Gemba’ employed in lean thinking practices. Gemba itself is a Japanese concept that (loosely translated) means ‘the real place’ and is the place where the real work happens. Most used in businesses using Lean Management practices, managers and leaders conducting a ‘Gemba walk’ will spend regular, meaningful time on the shop floor (or equivalent) to observe work practices, engage with employees and customers, gain deeper understanding of process, and look to identify opportunities for continuous improvement. As with the deeper dive activities we carried out with the freight company, this level of closeness can reveal embedded working practices that are broken or suboptimal and could be improved in the user experience journey.
Although Gemba is more frequently seen in the improvement of existing products or systems, and UX is more relevant in the development of new solutions and products, the concepts feel like two sides of the same coin. Both practices bring business benefit through improved efficiency – particularly in ways that can be evidenced with the System Usability Scale (SUS) standard of tracking value – and both Gemba and UX serve to root newness in reality and practicality. The principle is also the same for both Gemba and good UX design: sometimes you need to break out of the standard practice, get away from the desk or the meeting room, and go to where the ‘real work’ is happening to find the answers.