Refining through multi-layered user research
Emporia’s approach to user-centred design is multi-layered. Albert Fellner, founder, began by providing mobile devices accessible to the elderly and others excluded by the technological complexity. Starting with a strong personal motivation provides an advantage but also a danger: how do you ensure, as the company grows, it remains open to truly user-centred innovation, not just the vision of the founder?
The diversity of customer segments Emporia now targets is testament to the breadth of their user research process. The company has grown from a single product specifically designed for the elderly and physically constrained, to a range which reflects the diversity of knowledge, capability, aesthetic preferences and lifestyle of their customers, both old and young.
Some of their techniques include training sessions, where they turn lessons on mobile communications into two way discussions to generate insights for their design process. Fellner also stressed the importance he places on ensuring all of his staff are actively engaged in observing and feeding back user research from their daily lives.
By his own admission, they frequently get it wrong, finding the features they’ve created in the lab simply don’t work in the user’s real environment. Emporia seek to learn from these failures, iterating each time and then taking the next version back to the users. As an example, one of their recent products went through 20 different versions of a single button before they decided they’d found the best example.
This diverse pool of user research is combined with expert insight from Cambridge University’s Engineering Design Centre, were Emporia work closely with the inclusive design programme. Ian Hosking of Cambridge explained how they provide an additional filter of usability testing, including simulating user environments and physical capabilities so the design team can experience first hand the challenges faced by their users.
Recently they sent a design back to Emporia for re-consideration because the initial concept called for two functions to be integrated into a single button (power and ending a call). The Cambridge team have found this to be easily misunderstood by elderly users and Emporia duly altered the design, providing separate keys for both.
Empathy, and crucially deriving design insight from empathy, is a difficult skill to master. Indeed, Hosking, an experienced practitioner in this field, confided he’d only truly grasped some of the issues after a recent biking injury caused him to experience for real some of of the physical constraints they simulate in the lab. Crucially, he started to understand how pain and lack of confidence can effect users, something which can’t be replicated even with the most sophisticated tools for simulating reduced physical capability.
User observations can be helpful too. Hosking shared the story of a subject they followed who always carried their paper phone manual with them, augmented with additional handwritten notes, so they didn’t forget how to make a call.
Another design consideration is meeting the needs of multiple users of the same product. For instance, family and friends can add their numbers to an Emporia address phone book by texting them in a special format. The process eliminates the need for the elderly end user to learn how to manage entries, ensuring the numbers they need to call just appear on the device.
Identifying that the owner of a product may not be the only or even the primary user is the first step towards understanding how you can design for the needs of all constituents. It is something we’ve been exploring in MEX Pathway #5 on the user experience of healthcare for some time now.
There is also judging the balance of how you address user needs between software and hardware innovations. Mapping a specific function to a specific hardware control is an effective way to simplify an interface, but real estate on any product is finite, limiting the number of instances where this is viable.
Fellner explained how they use software intelligence to enhance the simplicity of their hardware. For instance, activating the hardware button to set ‘Silent’ mode raises a software prompt asking if the user would like the mode de-activated after a certain period of time. This helped Emporia overcome a behavioural trend where users were simply keeping their devices switched off rather than toggling silent mode, because they would frequently forget to re-activate it and therefore not hear incoming calls.
Emporia’s commitment to serving the needs of their customers, and courage in building products which prioritise usability over the latest aesthetic trends, provides a useful case study for user experience practitioners. The lessons learned have a significance beyond this specific target markets and cross over into many other areas of digital experience design.
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