User Research at the Forefront of Technology

Editor’s note: For posterity’s sake, I’m reposting some content that we created during our time at Oracle. These statements and views are those of the author and do not reflect those of Oracle’s current user experience organization.

What do you do when you don’t have users yet?

Oracle’s approach to researching emerging technologies isn’t really about the technology; it’s about the users: observing, listening, empathizing, and learning about our users and what matters to them.

These insights allow us to build applications that address their needs and to design the best user experiences.

But doing the research for emerging technology can sometimes be difficult. What if you don’t have any users yet because the technology is too new, or what if it’s so new that you can’t even get your hands on the technology yourself?

As part of the AppsLab, the Oracle Applications User Experience (OAUX) emerging technology team, we approach research with two general questions:

1. Who is the user? Answering this leads us to the most important user tasks and workflows to improve upon and the pain points that need solving. We work to understand users holistically, focusing on functionality that would be most beneficial and designing solutions suited to our users’ goals, natural instincts and behavior, and situational context.

2. How can a new technology help this user? We want to create indispensable applications with exceptional user experiences, not just make something for the sake of using an emerging technology. As technology advances, we look at how to improve our applications with that new technology or trend. We study new devices, gadgets, and trends to understand their capabilities as well as how they could benefit our users. There’s no point in making an Apple Watch app for a task that users would rather do on their smartphones.

Users are invited to try out different technologies during lab tours at Oracle headquarters. This man is using a Sphero headset that reads his brain waves as he tries to move an app-enabled robotic ball through a maze.

Knowledge of our users combined with insights into emerging technologies allows us to anticipate our users’ needs and how they expect to interact with technology.

But getting back to those inherent challenges:

There may be no users yet. If there are users, chances are they’re early adopters, who are unlikely to be representative of the general and future user population.

Rather than be discouraged by potential pitfalls, we focus on what we can do and learn as much as we can. We observe and speak to the users (whomever they may be), learn what attracted them to the technology, learn why and how they are using it, and discuss their expectations, frustrations, and satisfaction with the experience.

We combine the findings with our core knowledge of our users and then infer possible areas of product improvement, leveraging or extending the new technology we’re investigating.

There may be no product yet. Commonly, emerging technologies are not readily available and might be expensive. Consequently, few people have direct, hands-on experience to speak about, and we have a hard time finding users to study.

Instead, we bring the new technology to the users, which allow us to gather their first impressions and see their early interactions, learning in the process about any discoverability or learnability issues with that technology. We converse with them about product desirability and potential value, brainstorm potential use cases, and identify barriers to adoption.

Exploring new approaches

We try different research methods to study users and emerging technologies and use the data we gather to guide our design and development direction.

In contrast to standard usability testing, which comprises much of enterprise user research, we have been expanding our research methodologies to best answer our questions about emerging technologies. The standard methods work well for iterating on existing products, but exploring new technologies requires other approaches.

With this new research push, we’ve chosen to focus on four methodological characteristics:

  • Natural: How do users interact with technology in their normal lives as opposed to in a lab?
  • Quick: Gathering data to form insights in a timely manner, appropriate to the pace of innovation.
  • Volume: Having more data allows for broader conclusions and deeper insights.
  • Longitudinal: Following users to learn how their interactions with technologies change over time.

There are many research methods to choose from, ranging from qualitative to quantitative, attitudinal to behavioral. But the key is to constantly ask questions about the user and the technology.

For example, we’ve been conducting what we call guerrilla usability studies, in which we bring a cool new gadget or technology to an Oracle user conference and spontaneously recruit people to play with it in exchange for answering some of our questions. With this tactic, we often can talk to 25-40 users during the course of two or three days at a conference. These kinds of studies are a great way to quickly get a much higher volume of participants than usual.

Guido Schauer, a member of the AppsLab team, demonstrates how to wear this virtual reality headset.

At the Oracle Modern Supply Chain Experience in San Jose, Calif., in early 2016, we took the Samsung Gear VR headset and gathered impressions of and use cases for virtual reality in the enterprise.

Another technique we’ve used recently is a journal study, in which we interviewed and collected daily survey data from Apple Watch users so that we could get a better sense of how they use their devices in real life, how it helps them with their work, and what they want to be able to do with a smartwatch. This kind of study captures natural usage patterns longitudinally — over the course of a month, we can see how things are changing instead of getting a single snapshot in time.

We also use Oracle’s Social Relationship Management (SRM) tool to follow trends and emerging technologies across social media, blogs, and other Internet content.

With SRM, we’re able to capture the pulse of attitudes around the globe.

Focusing in the right place

Foremost, we focus on the users, not the technologies. Direct, primary research with end users is invaluable and indispensable in producing good user experiences.

Our range of research activities informs our knowledge of the user, enables the entire product team to understand and empathize with the user, and fuels our creativity to produce novel solutions with the latest technologies to serve the user.

This image shows a collection of Apple Watch faces shared by participants in a recent study, which gave a glimpse into how they use smartwatches in the real world.

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