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Understanding User Experience

By Lucas Daniel

Large design firms have built so much hype around the term "user experience" lately that it's hard to figure out what the words mean and how they impact Web design clients. After visiting shops in Chicago that specialize in user experience, I was able to define the term as what a person does, thinks, and feels when operating or working with a product or service. Several Chicago-based research firms have embraced this concept and are providing user experience studies for Web-based businesses that want to understand their sites' visitors better. (To see how user experience is progressing, and for more information about shops mentioned in this article, visit the sites listed in " Online").

One such company, HannaHodge, took the idea of user experience research and expanded it into an approach to Web design, creating a user-centered process that brings together all the different disciplines. Unlike other companies that focus solely on user-experience research or Web-site design, HannaHodge fuses the two components into a system built around understanding the user and resulting in a finished product.

For founders Parrish Hanna and Challis Hodge, user experience isn't a department or a special skill set that they've acquired. It's the founding principle of the company and involves all disciplines, from research to strategy to technology to design, at every step of the process. Applying this holistic approach to the pace of the Internet sets HannaHodge apart. With a staff of 35, the company competes with larger firms like Sapient and Scient, which only late last fall added user experience to its list of competencies. "I don't see anyone else out there building an entire company process and culture focused on user experience, but also delivering everything else," says Hodge.

A Holistic Approach

User experience has only recently come of age. As e-commerce markets became flooded, dot-com companies realized they needed a competitive advantage to keep afloat. Site designers began looking into gaining a better understanding of their sites' visitors so that their sites would be more buoyant. At the same time, the design community improved its understanding of user experience by incorporating the techniques of usability studies with ideas of interface and interaction design.

Hanna and Hodge began to arrive at their own understanding of user experience back in 1993 when the pair were involved in usability engineering at IBM. They measured how long it took for users to complete a task, and adjusted the interface to decrease the time spent on the task. But they both felt there was something more—that measuring time on task wasn't capturing the whole picture.

The problem, as they saw it, was how the different parts of the process were relating to one another. "Nobody was managing how all the pieces fit together," recalls Hanna. "Everybody was thinking that their part was the center of whatever made a good application, whether it was IT, brand, or usability." Both started to see the whole picture as an equal balance between all parts of the process, each affecting the user. At the same time, they realized it wasn't something they could pursue at IBM, given that at its heart, IBM was a huge IT company. It was then, in 1997, that they began focusing on user experience.

HannaHodge's angle stands between two user experience camps. On one end are the innovation companies like the Doblin Group and E-Lab, as well as individuals who came out of Chicago's Institute of Design. This group works on research and strategy, but doesn't build a finished product. On the other side are the large IT firms like Scient and Sapient, whose employees understand the Internet thoroughly and can deliver a finished site, but are having difficulty plugging user experience in to the process. Sapient purchased E-Lab in October 1999, but doesn't yet have a process that's completely centered around understanding the user.

The Experience Engine

Internally, the user-centered process translates well to all disciplines. "Everyone knows what the message is," claims Hanna. As in other design shops, project teams stick together throughout the development process and pool their skills. However, HannaHodge's philosophy is that team members are more effective when they possess specific knowledge about their users. For example, strategy research on a user profile might determine what kind of back-end technology is used, or how the designer thinks about color schemes from the outset of the project.

The key to HannaHodge's success has been this multidisciplinary approach. Team members are encouraged to think beyond their own skill sets. For this reason, the company has no problems finding good talent. Most of the people the firm hires specialize in a particular discipline, but have skills to contribute to the entire picture. The best example is Marc Rettig, a seasoned Web designer, who came on as chief experience officer (CXO) in late April.

With a background in linguistic anthropology, computer science, and artificial intelligence, Rettig says that user experience needs to be "deeply multidisciplinary or it won't happen." With such an ingrained understanding of the concept, Rettig fit in very naturally at HannaHodge. "There might be only five individuals in the world that could fill this position," says Hodge.

As CXO, Rettig is in charge of the inner workings of what HannaHodge refers to as the experience engine. He has to make sure that user experience continues to be at the heart of the company. In the immediate future, he's spearheading an initiative to design the new employee experience at HannaHodge. Externally, he's in charge of pointing the engine at strategic challenges and tactical goals, such as wireless projects, to keep the company looking forward. With Rettig in place, Hanna is directing his attention toward clients, ensuring that projects run smoothly, while Hodge continues to drive the company's growth.

An Iterative Process

Defining a user-centered process isn't easy. For HannaHodge, the process is cyclical, breaking the normal linear progression that dictates most consultant processes. Hanna and Hodge refer to it as an iterative process, or one that goes through several iterations before it's complete. Each iteration is put in front of users, garnering feedback and recommendations. Using a variety of observational methods to gauge user response, the project team will make further adjustments, continually improving the experience until its members reach a final version.

HannaHodge loosely refers to the first step as early analysis. During this phase, the firm gathers several pieces of information about the market, the users, the client, the competition, and the product. This information feeds into the kinds of research that will be done.

Project teams then identify patterns of use, using various quantitative and qualitative techniques. Some methods are more traditional to usability, like server log analysis and click-through studies. Others come from anthropology and sociology. One such technique, "video ethnography," involves videotaping users for hours on end while using and not using a Web site. HannaHodge also uses disposable camera studies, in which users are given a disposable camera to take pictures of their activities freely, as well as a method called shadowing, in which researchers follow users around during their day.

From these observations, the organization reaches conclusions and translates them into product ideas. Hanna calls this the critical point of translation, because everyone on the team pays lots of attention to the implications of an idea. As an example, HannaHodge did a study of metal workers for a site called During its observations, the company found a tremendous amount of networking and camaraderie among the workers, concluding that the Internet could be used more for networking and community purposes rather than solely to sell metal. This was then translated into message boards, a place to find work, and a general gathering point for the industry.

Once the group agrees upon an idea, the team creates a low-fidelity prototype and returns it to customers so they can test it out.

HannaHodge relies on techniques like card sorting (a technique in which the user maps out the site using cards) to get an indication of what users are thinking. This helps HannaHodge understand how to create the information architecture. Employing similar usability methods, the company can determine further design elements like spatial tension, colors, and the nomenclature of the site just by letting the user do it. Having the user constantly validate each element of the prototype helps HannaHodge progress to the higher-fidelity version. As the prototype becomes more refined, the team might create task-oriented metrics, such as the speed it takes someone to make a purchase and find out about other products, to gauge its success. In addition, appropriate functions and an appropriate brand might be identified.

After several iterations, the team begins to produce and assemble the final product. HannaHodge will perform rigorous system testing and produce several test-case scenarios using snapshots of different users before launching the site. Depending on the project, HannaHodge will then help train the client and have a post-launch discussion about what the company learned through the whole process.

A Global Seed

For HannaHodge, the next step is gearing the business model toward the global market. Hodge sees the company's process as a genetically engineered seed that he plans to plant around the globe. He says that user experience shifts with different cultures, and he'd like to form strategic partnerships in foreign markets, rather than just packaging and exporting what HannaHodge does for U.S. markets.

The user experience trio is also looking at partnerships for the imminent wireless world. Rettig sees this as a big challenge for practitioners of user experience, as wireless technology suddenly thrusts the user into an infinite number of possible experiences. For now, however, the company continues to point its experience engine at a handful of e-commerce clients who want the upper hand in oversaturated markets.

Lucas is associate editor for

Copyright © 2003 CMP Media LLC