At Vulcan, we create products and technologies to help frontline workers do their work more efficiently and effectively. Our user base is small, but they’re doing important work in challenging settings. Learning about these unique challenges, which create new twists on several User Experience (UX) best practices, is key to producing tools that work in their real world.
It’s about 10 AM local time at a wildlife reserve in Malawi, and I’m up in a tree. On the ground, a team of rangers is attempting to coax a rhino out of the brush. If he needs that much coaxing, I’m thinking, maybe it’s best that he stay where he is. This morning I’ve learned that these rangers can track animals by noticing the subtlest of shifts in the dirt, finding almost imperceptible tracks. I’ve learned that rhinos have poor eyesight but a keen sense of smell and are prone to charging at perceived threats. They also don’t climb trees. This last bit I could have guessed, though now I’m wondering how I’m going to get down, as the nearest limb to the ground is at least eight feet up. I’d needed a boost to get up here. The rhino proves to be shy, and it’s decided we’ll move on. After a less than graceful dismount, I take a small sip of what’s left of the very warm water I’d been rationing all morning. The rangers log the rhino sighting and we go off in search of others.
The phrase “you are not your user” has been on a repeating loop in my head all morning, when we started this patrol 3 hours earlier in at least 90-degree heat. It’s a lesson I continually find opportunities to relearn, but shadowing the ranger team on this patrol has proven to be the starkest example of this UX mantra I’ve encountered to date. We walk, silent and single file between two armed rangers. There are two of us from Vulcan, tagging along to learn about the day-to-day workflow of the people who manage the protected areas who will be using the software— EarthRangerTM
—we’re creating. As we walk, I can’t help but contrast this hot, dusty, remote setting to our climate-controlled, modern offices back in Seattle. My giant monitor, the Starbucks downstairs. Not to mention reliable electricity and Wi-Fi.
These days, so many of us are increasingly reliant on digital products in our day-to-day lives. In Seattle, it’s possible to leave home armed with nothing but a smartphone and hail a ride, shop for groceries, read a book, check your email, and keep up with everything going on in the world. It’s easy to forget from our smart homes and sterile office settings about unique challenges that we need to consider when designing for our end users. So when preparing for this trip, I appreciated reminders about what a lack of connectivity really meant. Several key pieces of advice served me well not just on this trip, but on a regular basis as we do work of a targeted nature on a global scale.
- Don’t depend on robust internet connections. Have paper backups. This goes not just for work we want to share with our overseas partners, but copies of travel documents and passports. As someone who’s used taking notes digitally, I needed a reminder to bring a notebook and pen. Anything critical that exists only on a laptop, phone, or tablet, will be inaccessible if the devices lose power. And it’s best to assume this will happen on any trip to a remote area.
- Related, remember that other countries pay for connectivity in different ways. A lot of us likely don’t pay attention anymore to how much data we download on a daily basis. But we are not our users, and it’s not just that making our users download extra data will slow things down, it’s likely to cost them more money. Sometimes this means turning off video during Skype or Zoom calls. It also means it’s best to be judicious as we design so that we’re creating lean software. We can help our users by making deliberate choices to minimize page loads, such as using system fonts instead of a web font that needs to be downloaded, and avoiding the use of unnecessary data and imagery.
- Test and retest any digital collaboration tools, both in advance and directly before a remote meeting. Can we share the correct screen with our remote attendees as well as with the people in the room? Do interactions work, and smoothly? What’s the lag time? Are there windows from our meeting software that are covering up key elements of the UI our users need to access? Troubleshooting ahead of time, while it won’t necessarily mean a remote user test or interview is glitch-free, minimizes problems and wastes less of our attendees’ time.
- Plan ahead, be patient, and have a plan B. Connecting with people across continents and time zones is a special challenge. It requires planning well in advance, as the people we’re trying to connect with are often traveling or out of the office for significant stretches of time. When we do get a meeting on the calendar, it’s not unusual for us to sit multi-tasking or chatting, waiting for our attendee to call in, only to get request to reschedule for another day. Sometimes they haven’t been able to get a connection, and more than once they’ve needed to deal with a park or wildlife emergency. We’ll eventually connect, but more often than not, it will be days or weeks after the initial call was scheduled.
- Be aware of your surroundings, in a couple of key ways. First, we have an opportunity to immerse ourselves in our users’ workplaces. Take advantage of this in order to understand their day-to-day workflow and working environments. With permission, we photograph offices and paperwork, and take videos as they carry out tasks and interact with colleagues. Second, and a novelty to those of working in offices without wildlife nearby, it’s critical to be aware that we’re among endangered and dangerous animals. I have waited patiently for locals to gently nudge rhinos and elephants out of the way before making my way out of or into a building or tent. Needless to say, we don’t venture outside alone after dark.
It’s been a few years since the Africa research trip, but my experience on that patrol stays with me. The heat. The dust. The number of times I had to stop myself from making chit chat and remain silent. The odd sensation that came from walking between men with guns. Remembering that morning is a powerful reminder that the people using the products I work on are often in vastly different environments. And tapping in to that experience helps me imagine related but distinctly different scenarios. Instead of a hot, dusty dirt path, I can picture a small boat in distant waters. Glaring sun, salt water, a lack of Wi-Fi. Or a dense jungle, drenched with pouring rain and dozens of kilometers from anything. Our user base is small, but they’re doing important work in challenging settings. Understanding their unique challenges is key to creating tools that work in their real world.