Saturday, October 31, 2009

Oracle Usability Labs - A Day In The Life

I guess I'm overdue in spilling the secret about where I spent my day on the Thursday before Oracle OpenWorld…been struggling with a serious case of writer's block, which is typically the case when I touch on important new subjects.

So, writer's block aside, it's time to spill the beans: that Thursday was spent on a "deep dive" inside Oracle's Usability Lab at Oracle HQ. The Oracle Applications User Experience ("OAUE" - I'm lazy so I like acronyms) team there rolled out the red carpet and showed me, in detail, how they do what they do.

But first let's jump into the WABAC Machine (with apologies Sherman and Mr. Peabody) and set it for last July, when I had the opportunity to participate in the first wave of Fusion Applications user validation testing (I wrote a post on the experience here). The elements of Fusion Applications that really jumped out at me were related to increases in productivity and ease of use…very cool stuff that got me thinking: "how can I bottle the magic and use it when developing custom apps in my own shop?" This deep dive visit to the Oracle Usability Lab was all about answering that question.

More background. The OAUE team's motto is "It's how you work, not just how you click." The first thing I got out of that motto - usability as defined by the OAUE team is about much more than designing an attractive User Interface (although that's definitely part of it). User Experience ("UX") efforts are a much broader scope than the more traditional User Interface ("UI") design. You can read more about it on the OAUE team's website (from which I "borrowed" the following bullet points), but the core of the user experience effort is:

  • Increased productivity: helping your employees become more effective at the work they already do.
  • Increased collaboration: breaking down the boundaries that keep your employees from connecting.
  • Increased insight: supporting rapid, effective judgments.

Notice how all three points here start with "increased"? UX is really about increasing the value returned from your investment in Oracle Applications…regardless of which Oracle Applications you're using.

Oracle seems pretty darn serious about realizing the benefits of strong UX. They've built an in-house team over 130 professionals, with some people specializing in fields I never heard of before. A sample cross-section includes people specializing in the following fields:

  • Ethnographers, Cognitive Psychologists, and Behavioral Research Scientists; these folks have PhDs in Social Anthropology, Human Factors, Cognitive Psychology, and Information Science.
  • UX Strategy and Architects; experts in Human-Computer Interaction, Usability Engineering and Product Engineering
  • Product Designers and Graphic Artists; world-class visual and interaction designers
  • UI Developers
  • Interaction Designers
  • Usability Engineers
  • Visual Designers

Big investment here, even before we count the smart boards, the eye-tracking gear, the studio equipment, etc. Yeah, Oracle is very serious about this stuff.

So now let's set the WABAC Machine to the Thursday before OOW, so ya'all can get a taste of what I learned. The goals for the day were to squeeze information into my pea-sized brain regarding UX. Working with the OAUE team's Misha Vaughan and Shannon Whiteman (both these women are quick wits and I had to work to keep up; paraphrasing the words of David Crosby, don't ever play mumblety-peg with either of them…they'll steal your leg), we decided to emphasis development processes, interactive design methods, and review use cases of UX design in Fusion Applications, Apps Unlimited, and recent UX developments with the Global Business Unit apps. The idea was to construct "A Day In The Life Of The Oracle Usability Lab".

So my day went something like this:

After a brief breakfast chatting about BBQ, cooking and other personal things to break the ice, we launched into an overview of how UX fits into Oracle's overall software development lifecycle ("SDLC"). I was struck here by how similar Oracle's SDLC for apps development is to the Unified and Spiral methodologies. I spent this meeting with Jeremy Ashley (the Oracle VP leading the OAUE team for obvious reasons - I saw his great eye for design repeatedly manifested throughout the day), Katie Candland (Sr. Director - Fusion UX; Katie's an incredibly smart and articulate person, who shares her knowledge without blustering about her intelligence), Laurie Pattison (Sr. Director and general guru on SDLC - we immediately fell into mutual deep professional "like" over our mutual backgrounds in manufacturing…most of the good process people come from manufacturing), and Patanjali Venkatacharya (User Experience Architect, an enthusiastic UX evangelist, and a trained chef - yeah, I picked his brain).

We then moved into a great discussion on UX process-related "war stories". This session was especially rich with information because of the cross-section of people involved in the discussion - UX people, project managers, and strategic/functional people. Scott Robinson (Sr. Manager - Financials UX and a walking, talking bundle of pure energy) and Victoria Anderson (Mgr. Payments - I immediately trusted her comments because it was obvious she calls 'em as she sees 'em).

The next series of meetings involved reviewing the specific use case regarding the role of UX in HCM development. Again, the discussion of people was great because of the cross-section of people involved. Funny thing, though, is that I started to notice some recurring themes coming from all of these sessions. More on that later. We lost Scott and Victoria here, but gained Aylin Uysal (Sr. Manager - HCM UX) Rohini Panchapakesan (Director - HCM Product Development), and Ivy Leung (Principal Interaction Designer). These folks turned on the light for me about things in the design process I'd never considered. We also gained Meg Bear (VP - HCM Development, an old Twitter pal, and one of the most insightful people I know),

Next came an overview on how to incorporate UX into an Agile project. Most of the folks in the room broke away for other activities, but we did gain Natti Zick (Mgr - GRC and Projects UX; Natti's an old pal now, as we worked together during my Fusion Apps user validation sessions in July). Pretty interesting on how consistent the process remains, even though you're breaking the work into not just incremental but also iterative chunks. Natti did a great job of showing me that, with UX, the same practices apply irregardless of the overall project approach.

So that was my morning…spent a working lunch comparing notes with several of the folks from this morning, as well as Dilip Chetan (Sr. Usability Engineer and another great person I've worked with before) and Casey Edgeton (Interaction Designer - a new friend for me).

The afternoon started with a tour of the Usability Lab. Jatin Thaker (Sr. Manager - Usability Labs) led the tour. Jatin also led my group tour of the Usability Lab last January during the User Group Summit (amazingly enough, he remembered me - I guess this much ugly in one package really does leave an impression). I saw test and feedback sessions conducted with both individual users and groups of users. I also had the chance to work with the new Talent Management application using a Smart Board (no mouse, no keyboard…not much training required - this really made my eyes light up and my ears spin).

After the tour, George Hackman (Sr. Director - Operations UX) gave me an overview of the UX guidelines, principles and standards used within Oracle for Fusion development (George and I think alike - I think this was the beginning of a long and productive relationship). The first thought that struck me here: how valuable this information would be if it were exposed to Oracle customers. Many of us are developing with Fusion development tools. Many of us may soon be extending Fusion Applications. If Oracle shared their information in this area, the value to users would be substantial. Even more value would be a mechanism for feedback from Oracle customers to continually improve these guidelines, principles and standards. We'll see…

I then had the chance to roll up my sleeves and provide a customer's perspective on designing LOVs with George and Sherry Mead (Architect - Technical UX; a virtual fountain of technical information). This was an absolute hoot and I hope my input provided some value. In any event, it was great insight into the thought process that goes on behind the design decisions.

Next was an orientation for the Oracle Usability Advisory Board ("OAUB"). I committed to joining the OAUB before I visited the Usability Lab (I was sold once I saw the impact on Fusion Applications), but it was very nice to meet Anna Wichansky, the Oracle Sr. Director over the OAUB, face-to-face. Another benefit is that I'll be able to work more with my friend, Oracle Usability Engineer Alisa Hamai; I'm really looking forward to that. I'm also looking forward to working with the OAUB, hearing the strides other enterprises are making in the field of UX, and kicking in my own two cents.

Due to a lucky break with timing, I participated in a quick user feedback session on a collaboration tool prototype. It was pretty neat to see collaboration of an instant messaging type embedded in enterprise apps. I've never been a big believer that IM should be be a part of enterprise apps, but this prototype had some features that caused me to reconsider my thinking.

The day wrapped up with a review of what I saw, heard and thought, followed by a great dinner with several members of the OAUE team…plus Sachin Agarwal and Gangadhar Konduri from the WebCenter team (their WebCenter demo is definitely worth attending if you get a chance).

My takeaways from my "day-in-the-life" with the OAUE team really came from what I observed as a series of themes repeated in one form or another throughout the series of the day's meetings:

  • The benefits of successful UX absolutely rock. I'm a convert. Building apps according to the way users work does increase the value returned from investing in applications.
  • Oracle is building serious momentum in rendering benefits to customers through a strong UX. I see it baked into Fusion Applications, especially in terms of the "shallow navigation" (never more than two or three clicks away from getting the job done) and the ability to easily identify and resolve exceptions. I see it in PeopleSoft, especially in the way some of the process flows are being improved. I'm starting to see it in the E-Business Suite with elements of the UI and the emphasis on analytics to report exceptions. I expect it to have an impact in the world of Global Business Unit industry-specific applications.
  • A consistent, repeatable process is key to pulling UX off successfully. Without the process, you'll get widely-varied results and a truckload of frustrated users.
  • Everything I just said about a consistent, repeatable process also applies to design standards. A consistent application of pre-defined design principles leads to a consistent result…which means that improving the design principles leads to improved results.
  • Research matters...I mean it really matters! You can't improve the usability of a product until you know the types of users and how each type of user works. I was very impressed with the amount of research and analysis performed by the OAUE team at the beginning of any UX design work.
  • Designing the interaction between product and user is more important than most of us in IT realize. .Apple is a great example of this. Why would I use a smart phone that, until recently, couldn't copy & paste, edit docs or spreadsheets, or even send multimedia texts? It's because the design of the interaction between my iPhone and me is unequaled - heck, even unpacking the phone was an experience (the box is still in my closet - just can't bring myself to throw it away). Ditto for the Apple operating system, OS X - heck, there's a whole community dedicated to porting OS X to other hardware platforms…just because the interaction between user and operating system is so well-designed.
  • You can't over-communicate. Users, developers, designers, project managers, whoever. Bring 'em on board early and communicate very, very frequently.
  • Of course, a huge part of communication is listening. Listen to the users. What you think may be a great business process and wonderful UI may come across like a steaming pile of virtual compost to the people who need to use the product. Take criticism well and take notes.

So, in all, it was a valuable day from my perspective. I ended the day with a truckload of principles and specific ideas I'll be taking back to share with my own shop. I'm grateful to all the Oracle folks who took time away from their "day jobs" to spend time with me, and I'm especially grateful to Misha Vaughan for putting this whole thing together.

If you every do get a chance to spend some time at the Oracle Usability Lab, grab it. It's a day well-spent.

Questions go in the Comments...


Anonymous said...

Floyd, thank you for this nice post about our efforts with Fusion and Usability. We are very proud of this and it's great to find others that share our passion.

Also interesting that you made a post that mentions such a great group of ORCL people. It's an honor to be included in such a prestigious list for sure!


Misha Vaughan said...

Hey Floyd,

You have a remarkably good memory. It was really helpful for us as well to hear your questions and comments about what was most relevant as lessons learned.

Get ready for round 2!


Olivia Spensor said...

Hey, This information is really helpful for us. There are a great group of ORCL people. Well, these applications are very useful and you can read more about it on the OAUE team's website. Good Luck....

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Miles Thomas said...

Hi Floyd

I also got to attendthe UX labs during Openworld Week (on the Friday before flying back to the UK on Saturday). I was also impressed with the processes that they are undertaking.

One of the discussion points that I had was regarding useability for very task oriented users.

My example (and challenge to the UX team) was warehouse operatives using a limited-functionality, essentially text based handheld.

The UX challenge here is not so much richness but out and out speed; streamlining the app to make repetitive actions more productive. And for high volume, very repetitive tasks (commonly seen in retail environments) a few seconds off the transaction time can translate to very significant labour savings and hence a business case.

The point was noted for consideration.