Interview with Adobe CC

One of the bloggers for Adobe Creative Cloud reached out and asked me if I would do an interview with her.  She was interested in hearing my perspective on how personas should evolve over time.  Here are the questions she sent me ahead of time:

  • You were one of the early pioneers embracing the term user experience back when you worked at SAP. What do you think the relationship between UX and Anthropology is?
  • How has it evolved? 
  • One of the reasons I’m interested in this topic is because I am intrigued by the development of people. Sometimes when we start using a product or service, we are at a stage in our lives that is crucial to that moment. As we grow, our needs change. I understand this presents a challenge for designers. Is this something you see in your work?  
  • What does the evolution of a user look like?
  • As user bases mature, how do designers attract new users and keep providing for the needs to existing users that may have changed in some way since first using the product?
  • What can a designer do to stay aligned with a user as the user’s needs change or grow?
  • What kind of ongoing research and development do you recommend?
  • At Anthrodesign, or in your own work, do you talk about this idea of maturing users? Do you think this conversation is important?

The interview was published in August 2017, and you can read the resulting article on the Adobe Creative Cloud blog.  A transcription of the full interview follows.

[this has been lightly edited; it was also published in early 2018 and post-dated]

Sheena: Well, I know anthrodesign just celebrated 15 years earlier this year. So I thought that would be a good position for us to get started with. And maybe you can start us off by telling a little bit about how it evolved and what it looks like today in it’s 15th year.

Natalie Well, it’s much bigger. In the beginning it was 20, and then 90, and … at the beginning almost everyone in anthrodesign was a social scientist because, I think, at the time, there was no way for other social scientists doing this work to talk to one another. I think there was just this desperate need to be able to share ideas and to talk about common challenges, and it was a really wonderful meeting ground for us to do that. And of course, EPIC spawned a couple of years later from that community. And so EPIC is the Ethnographic Practice and Industry Conference, and basically bringing together people that are practicing, using ethnography in the business context.

And the big thing that Ken and Tracey were trying to do … ken anderson from Intel and Tracey Lovejoy who was at Microsoft at the time. What they were trying to do is, basically, create a sustained body of work. And I wrote about it in that blog post about anthrodesign. But basically, they recognized, that part of the way the field was going to advance at this intersection of social sciences and design was if we started to have peer reviewed articles, if we started to have a body of work, we could refer to, so people weren’t reinventing the wheel. And so, EPIC was really … not just that it was wonderful to get together in person, because it was. In those early years of anthrodesign, I would go to the Society for Applied Anthropology meetings and I’d do a call for dinner and we’d have 25 people who wanted to have dinner together, and that was exciting. But it also got to the point where it wasn’t tenable, right? We couldn’t even find a restaurant that could support groups of that size in New York and in other places when we did that. So, EPIC was a way not only to connect with those people but also, obviously, to create this body of work that elevates the whole field.

Sheena: Wow.

Natalie:  The list has always had lots of designers that are mostly lurkers. And they know that. They acknowledge that. They’re there to learn. Most of them don’t get necessarily great methods training in school, but they recognize the need. And so I think what I had intended for the list to do was to get people to talk and work together across those disciplinary boundaries, because I felt that there was a lot of nuance in how do you talk to a researcher. How do you talk to a designer or an engineer, and that there would be a lot of conversations to be had. But I think there was such urgency to create dialogue within the social sciences community or within the ethnographer community, that some of the other reasons that I built the list never came to pass the way I would like. And so, I would say, if I look forward and sort of what I reflected on in that blog post is, I would like to see us deepening the conversation about the nature of our collaboration. And to say, what does it look like to work well across those disciplinary boundaries and how do we make those working relationships as effective as we can?

Sheena: Absolutely. So now, what does the user base look like? It’s expanded to include what other disciplines?

Natalie: Well I have not ever said that ethnography is owned by anthropologists. I think some … there are people that are very purist that say, really, only anthropologists that are trained, fully trained in the method and really can do that deep analysis, that only they should be using ethnographic methods. I think there are some people that really truly believe that and they’re absolutely entitled to their opinion. I think, again, just reflecting on, I was just at the Enterprise User Experience conference and we’re just reflecting on the fact that there will never be enough UX professionals to meet the demand if we get to the kind of staffing ratios that we really need, at least in tech.

And so I do think it’s important for others to be aware and sensitive. Can they practice at the same level as a PhD anthropologist who’s got 20 years of business experience? Of course not. But I don’t think that means we should be withholding knowledge and exposure from them. So it’s really anybody that believes in the value of ethnographic methods. And that can be designers, there are engineers, there are product managers on the list. So that includes people that maybe identify more as design researchers than as pure researchers, for example. And that’s, I think … one of the things I really like about what’s happening at EPIC, for example, is that that conference is looking for other presentation vehicles. So for example, instead of just the peer-reviewed paper that gets presented at the conference, there are PechaKuchas now, there are case studies, there are … other formats because the double-blind peer-reviewed paper privileges the academic perspective.

And so I think finding ways to make sure other voices can be heard is important. Now listservs are notoriously hard. You always have that 10% that participates and then there’s the long tail of people that say almost nothing.   In addition to the list, we now have the Slack channel and I think Slack hits a different demographic, the people that might not necessarily be active on the list might be more inclined to Slack for example.  Some of that is generational, some of it is just this working style.  But there is a sense of community and vibrancy that happens on Slack because people are there in real time having conversation and they’re … there are a whole bunch of channels for local meetups. So now there’s one for the Asia Pacific region, there’s one for Berlin, there’s one for Scandinavia, one for the Nordic region.

Sheena: Wow.

Natalie: Yeah. New York. So that technology has different affordances. And that’s allowing us to engage and allow people to engage with each other in different way than they could before.

Sheena: That’s really interesting.  And going back to where you said about how there will probably never be enough UX researchers to really fit this demand that is increasing right now. Do you see value then for user experience designers who maybe aren’t familiar with ethnographic practices to begin researching these and beginning to incorporate them into their practices?

Natalie: Yeah, but I am not actually convinced that ethnographic methods are the method of choice. Yes, in some cases that is absolutely the right method, but if you are tweaking a feature, do you really need to go do ethnographic research for that? Probably not. So I think it’s really important that designers understand the breadth of methods that are available and they know how to select or participate in the right method for the right moment in that product. I think one of the things for me personally for example is, when I came out of grad school, all I knew was ethnography, because that’s what I had learned in school. I didn’t learn about all these other research methods.  I learned them over time, over the course of my career when I realized that I couldn’t do ethnographic research for everything. And I think the same is true for any maturing designer.

Sheena: Yeah that’s actually … that’s a really good point. It’s like a tool that you can use in your camp, but it does have a time and a place, it’s not always necessary.

Natalie: And you do have to know enough about all of those tools to know what’s the right one. And some of that just comes with experience since there are different ways to get that.  I think in my case, ethnographic methods are my preferred method because  I’m an anthropologist. But I just … I love the richness of data that comes out of that kind of observation. But we don’t actually do it that often, because to me it’s a very strategic type of research and it’s not for everything. If you have a mature product in a mature market, unless you are worried about disruption and you need to find out who those disruptors might be, what other tools people are using or those kind of things, or if you need to do some kind of really rich artifact like a journey map, for your user base, that’s one thing. But most of us working on mature products, that’s just not the right method.

Sheena: Right. What kind of methods do you tend to use instead or as an alternative or companion to those methods?

Natalie: We do a fair amount of usability testing. We do concept testing, so early stage kind of formative research for new product ideas. And then we do usability testing for concepts that are mature that we want to make sure are polished before we start to build them. We do a lot of that. For new clients or new products depending on which side of the business we’re talking about, we do expert reviews (or heuristic reviews).  That’s just a really great way to help people understand what goes into user experience and how we look at problems. And so we do that kind of entry level work, we do a lot of usability testing.  I would say those are the big ones, but we’ve done other things as well.

Sheena: Perfect.

Natalie: Those I’ll say are the ones we lean on the most.

Sheena: Awesome, thank you. I guess kind of jumping into the heart of what I want to talk about today is, I was thinking about how when we come up with a products or a service for a user and I was thinking a lot about Facebook actually because I had my 10-year anniversary, and I was like, “Wow, I’ve been on this platform for 10 years, and I’ve developed so much as a person.” And I was thinking about the different things their team has implemented to keep their users engaged and to continually invite new users but also keep it interesting for those old ones. And when I saw all your work in anthropology, I thought you’d be such an interesting person to talk to about this. Because I was wondering if you’ve seen in your work, these examples where users as people are developing and changing and is there a challenge for designers to you to keep those users present and engaged?

Natalie: Yeah. This is a really meaty question, and I’m glad you sent it to me ahead of time so I had some time to reflect on it. So I think to me there are at least four dimensions to this and we can talk about them each in turn and unpack them a little bit but the four that came to mind for me is… And again Facebook is a very different thing than a piece of enterprise software, even a piece of design software. But just if we think across the breadth of all the types of software that are out there, there are four dimensions:

(1) They have their life as a whole person that may have nothing at all to do with your product. I’m a user of an ERP finance tool and I just had a baby. Is there any connection between those two things? Probably not. So is there an opportunity and a product perspective? Probably not. And then

(2) there’s their relationship with the product, like with an Adobe product from the first time use experience to the expert use experience. Those are really important, a lot of times we jump right in to, “What feature are we building?” or, “What are we building?” and we don’t think about those moments like the first time use experience, for example, or the first support experience or the first time you need help versus an expert user.  You have …  For people on my team, have been using Illustrator, they have 15 years of experience with Illustrator. [chuckle] They’ve obviously been in that tool a long, long time. And then

(3) a third dimension would be in their own career, for example coming back to the same UX managers on my team. As their career develops we’ve written a competency model that describes the skills and behaviors we expect at each level of professional development. And, one of the things that we acknowledge is that more senior people actually aren’t as hands-on with design work.  We use Azure and Adobe and by the nature of the work, the fact that they’re now leading teams, they’re just not as hands-on with the product.  Yes, they know what the product can do, yes, they can guide more junior people that might need to know how to use it. But at some point their ability to guide a junior person on the details of how to do something as the product matures, they may lose touch with that right if there’s a major release. And then finally there’s this whole idea that

(4) the field that we work in maybe be evolving around us. UX is a great example of that. There are new technologies all the time, there’s new expectations because other technologies that are in the world at large. You’ve heard the term ‘consumerization’. For us in the enterprise space in particular that’s a huge issue. That term I think was coined around 2004 to just say, “Look, we’re experiencing things now on our smartphones and on the web and we expect when we come to work that those work technologies will exhibit some of those same capabilities.”  Another great example of that is ERP, again coming back to my many years at SAP, that you have CRM and you have finance and you have HR. And all these systems that are phenomenal in terms of how they help organizations run their business. But at some point you say, “What’s the relationship between that and social? Could CRM be better if it was social?” For example you see Salesforce has chat capability integrated into CRM. They actually have a way for people in the Salesforce to chat with each other on the CRM platform. In the early days of CRM, nobody was thinking about social. So I think what the users expect or what they hope to see changes based on what’s going on in the world around them. Does that make sense?

Those are the four ways that I could think … and you have to think of all those things are moving. The employees … the life of that whole person is moving. That employee … their career is evolving, the product is changing and the technology context or the technology expectations, the technology capabilities in the market are also changing. All four of those things at once. And you have to be mindful of all four.

Sheena: Thank you so much, I’m glad you prepared that because all those things you brought up … [laughter] I hadn’t even really considered the idea of mature user, in terms of a user who is an expert and battling that with the onboarding of a new user who has never used that platform or that program before. And related to all of that, in your experience, what are designers … What are some tactics they can do when they start to notice these different kinds of users and how can we keep them … I want to say “engaged” but that’s not necessarily the right word, but how do we keep them active on these platforms when you’re dealing with people of different experience levels?

Natalie: Yeah, so I think this is where to me, when you asked a little about research methods and even to come in to research artifacts, I think there’s a lot of interest now around the idea of journey maps and I think for good reason, because it does relate to this idea of time that you’re asking about. How do we consider what we’re doing, as … And actually, by the way, another great talk you might really enjoy is Elizabeth Churchill’s opening keynote at Enterprise UX. She talks a lot about time as well. And a journey map would be very interesting to look at that and say, “Is it the journey map as they mature with the product? Or with their career?” And I think it’s a very different thing. So with the product it’s all contained in … to me … again I’m referencing, I’m thinking about something like Adobe, an Adobe product like Photoshop or Illustrator, which we use all the time, but it’d be true for other products as well.

So with a product for example, you go from knowing how to make simple outcomes in Illustrator or Photoshop. In the beginning of Photoshop just learning how to do minor color corrections or cropping, super super basic things.  Over time an individual can do way way more sophisticated stuff that’s probably even beyond my imagination because I used Photoshop 1.0 and now I hardly at all because I don’t have an occasion to be in there. So there’s this journey in the the relationship to the product and that requires I think things like teaching about new features, having good in context help, providing ways for people to learn about those new capabilities that they might be able to incorporate. But then from a career perspective, I could see that there’s a whole different set of constellation of services that you need.

So for example, the idea of community may take on a different importance. So I’ll come to the Axure example. For us, we use Axure for prototyping and all of our design standards are built in Axure. So when a new person joins our team, they right and away know how to design within standards because the standards are incorporated into the tool in the libraries that we provide to them. But as you become a manager and you’re not in those details anymore, you might need a community to think about, “How do I create a design system. How do I use … ” So one of the questions we get related to our design system, we get a lot of questions about, “How do you make it to code? What are the business benefits so that I can go talk to my executive team about the need to invest in this?” And so you need a community, but you need a different kind of community when you’re at a management level than you do when you’re early in your career where you just go to the Adobe forms and you say, “How do I do X, Y, Z?”

That’s one kind of question that’s very practical feature-based question or task-based. And with career it might be as you mature, it might be very different kind of questions that don’t fit neatly into a feature or a scenario or a task bucket. It’s like, “How do I … ” It’s more around executive conversations and alignment and ROI and the perceived value and those kinds of things. So the services that you offer … even like, imagine a good community of practice model, which has multiple ways that you engage with the community. So if you have a monthly call, the kind of monthly call you’d have to roll our new features to a designer with five to seven years of experience versus the community you’d provide for someone with 12 to 15 to 20 years of experience would be very different. And what would draw them in would be very different as well.

Sheena: Interesting, and just to make sure we are on the same page, how do you define a mature user?

Natalie: Well, again I’m thinking … I’m coming back to the framework we have, this competency model we have developed for our … Right now, I’m just thinking of our designers as the users because we’re talking about in the context of Adobe, but we can talk about other examples as well. So our entry level designers have one to three years of experience. So yes, they’ve used Adobe in school, but maybe they’ve never used the design system. They may not have even been exposed to that. It’s probably not even being taught in school yet. So that’s sort of one level, and then the people that have 15 plus years of experience, they’re using Axure combined with Illustrator combined with … we have tools that we use for annotating, automatically annotating our drawings. They’re using a constellation of tools to get to that outcome.

And then if I think about a manager in a business. So I manage managers in my current role. And so in the beginning of my career, I had one team and I would be responsible for all of the compensation, HR reviews, all of the processes to oversee that one group of six to seven people or whatever it was. And I had a certain way of working and a certain set of processes that I use to ensure that the reviews and the compensation, everything were fair for that small team. Well now I have 20 people and we soon will be bigger than that. And so then the question is I can’t review in the same level of detail.  And I have managers that are doing that now, so my role becomes different and the processes and the tools that we’re putting in place in order for me to be able to be an effective leader are different. I have to sit with my teams and say, “Okay. How did everyone’s ratings turned out? Any concerns? What are the highlights of the qualitative feedback?”

But I’m doing it in a different way because the tool doesn’t actually (at least our current HR tool) doesn’t enable me to get into that level of detail. And in fact, I shouldn’t be in that level of detail. I should trust my managers to do that, but the point is that as my career evolves, the tools that I need to support the work are different.  Of course I’m much better off having done what my managers are doing now, because I know how to guide them. I’m more effective now having done the work myself. But nonetheless, the tools and the way that I work has to change pretty substantially in order for it to scale.

Sheena: Absolutely. And I guess the other layer to all of this is not just the designer’s level of experience but also the users of products that they may be designing for or services that they may be designing for. And do you feel it’s the same thing we do, the same research and practices need to be in place like these journey maps? Like when you’re talking to the actual users of the product, is this really where the research comes into play?

Natalie Can you ask the question again so I make sure I understand it?

Sheena: Yes. Sorry. I don’t think I was very clear there. I’m just trying to highlight the other component of all of this which is the actual end users who are using products that designers are designing for, or engaging with interfaces that designers have designed for. And going back to what I was talking about, from a user standpoint with Facebook’s journey throughout the past decade. So when a designer is working on a product and it’s the users who have different levels of experiences, what are some things they should be keeping in mind about the evolution of a user?

Natalie: Well, yeah, I think the first thing is this is … and this is one of those risks with personas, right? Because personas give you the idea … so there are mixed feelings about the value of personas. There are a lot of anthropologists that don’t favor them exactly for this reason because they’re static, right?

Sheena: Right.

Natalie: And they’re not evolving, right? And so this is where I think, is persona by itself good or bad? No, it depends how you look at it. But that is why I said something like a journey. So for example in our company here we do a lot of work in healthcare, and we do a lot of work on patient journey that shows their relationship to their condition and their health over time. So again this aspect of time becomes so important, making sure that you have a way of thinking about your users that isn’t frozen.  That’s hugely important because the person who started as an entry-level designer two years ago when that feature was brand new, what does it mean for them now? And so I think, yes, you need to have some kind of segmentation, whether it’s by experience or maybe some generational aspects or technology savvy. There are all these different ways you can slice. If you do good user research, you should have good personas. But those personas, they should not be collecting dust. And again, one interesting thing would be this, say, okay, what if you do the persona at the beginning of the patient journey and a persona at the end of the patient journey? It’s a very different person that comes out the other side of that journey, right?

Sheena: Yes.

Natalie: And making sure that you don’t lose sight of that and that you’re thinking about that element of time. And I think when we’re in a rush to get a feature out the door or we do gather some quick usability feedback, we may not take the time to reflect in that way. And so I think it’s important to think about what artifacts are you creating and making available that make sure that people don’t lose sight of that. And I don’t think there’s any magic bullet.

Sheena: Right. And I love how you worded that, “To make sure that personas aren’t collecting dust.”

Natalie: Yes, exactly.

Sheena: In such a very visual way. Because I know even some designers I spoke with who have literal personas printed out and hung over their desk for years upon years to always reference. Yes.

Natalie: And it’s great because, again, coming back to Enterprise UX – I was just there last week so it’s at top of mind.  One of the things that you need in order for design to be successful is that you need scale, right? And so you can’t … there are never gonna be enough designers to fill all of the demand that we have in the market for design. And so personas are a great way to impart some understanding of the users to people that might not have participated in research. So it isn’t … they’re important artifacts.  And you hear these great stories about people and they’re talking about … they’re planning a sprint and they’re talking about Betty or Joe.  Those personas become integral to how the team thinks about the product, and there are great things in that. But then the job of that researcher or that design researcher, whoever it is, to say, “Hey, Betty just retired.”

Sheena: Right.

Natalie: And here is Joe who’s 25 and we’re back at the beginning of this journey again, what are we gonna do differently for this feature? Or something like that. And so I think it’s our … again that dimension of time I think is a great one, a really important one. And we need to bring it to our teams as well but it has to be careful how we do that because they got to internalize some of the basics for us like, we have users and that those users have needs that are not the same as theirs.  And you have got to get those basics. Again, people are in all the different stages of maturity in terms of understanding user-centered design. This idea, this dimension of time may be something that is needed by more sophisticated teams. And that teams that are just in the beginning of this change journey, that might be too complex.

Sheena: Yes. That’s a really good point, that’s really interesting kind of layer of this onion of user persona that we’re discussing. We’re at our half hour mark so I’ll wrap it up now, but was there anything about the topic that you were thinking about that maybe didn’t come up in our conversation that you’d like to add?

Natalie: There was one other thing Sheena that came up just in my notes; two comments regarding your last two questions. You had asked, “What kind of ongoing research and development do you recommend?” I wrote a blog post on what I’m proposing a new UX maturity model and you might enjoy looking at that. Over the years I’ve collected many different maturity models, I had an earlier blog post where I collected maybe 10 or 15 different ones that I’ve collected over the course of my career. In my post I explain that those haven’t really met my needs for various reasons, because I’m trying to have conversation with an executive level audience.

So I wrote this new maturity model, it’s a very simple-executive friendly one, and it basically talks about four stages: One is that you have no knowledge or you’re not thinking about the users at all, kind of unconscious design, your BAs are doing design work or whatever is happening. And then you have a beginning understanding of design where you’re thinking about design as being about appearance or styling. And then you have what I call … what user experience to me is really about is about measurable business impact, so you’re delivering an experience that has some kind of a business outcome.  And then the fourth, the last stage is end-to-end experience.

There are a lot of parallels between that and the career of a designer too. In the beginning you design a single screen, and then you design a set of coherent screens, and then you design a set of screens with a business context and business outcomes in mind, and eventually you become interested how that set of screens fit sinto the broader experience of that user.  That’s the natural progression, I think. And the point of all that is to say that the research that you need depends on not only where you are in that maturity model but where your business is, or your customer is in that maturity model. Do you need usability testing or an expert review? Do you need a competitive assessment? Do you need ethnography to look at end-to-end experience? The method you need is different depending on what you’re trying to accomplish based on the product life cycle and the maturity of the context you’re in as a designer.

Sheena: Right.

Natalie: So that’s one. And then the other comment was, you know, this idea of maturing users. Yes, I think it’s a great idea, it’s an important one, however I would also say it’s super complicated and it’s I think much easier to … I’ve pulled all these different examples for you about my own team, about the work we do in consulting, about work I’ve done at other points in my career. So I think to get specific recommendations and guidance, if that’s something that’s important for you in the writing of this piece, that it’s much easier to have this conversation in the context of a specific product, or a specific go-to-market strategy, or a specific something so we could say “For Photoshop, for the experienced user market, what do we do?” In one of the UX teams I lead, we work on a suite of products we call Javelin. For Javelin, for an experienced sales rep working in oncology, do the following.  But talking generally about it is where it starts to get really overwhelming, because there are so many dimensions that you have to consider.  It’s easier to talk about the specifics if you focus on one particular scenario or solution.

Sheena: That’s excellent advice. [laughter] I’m glad that you brought that point up too, because it is a hard topic to discuss generally, but at the same time I do feel like you’ve covered so much ground and the information you’ve given me today that I really think that this is gonna be quite an important piece for people to start thinking about this idea.

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