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I’ve been meaning to blog about this for about a month but this posting has repeatedly been overtaken by other events.  Finally, I have found time to sit down and think.

A few months ago, I concluded an agreement with Pelco, a leading maker of security systems, to conduct a series of trainings with their Solutions and Technology Office (STO).  STO is embarking on a program of customer visits aimed at better understanding customer needs and developing products that distinguish Pelco from competitors.  Director of User Experience/Design, Arjen de Klerk, and his colleague, Kirsten Medhurst, contacted me to see how I could contribute.  I’d met de Klerk, Medhurst and some of their user experience co-workers at the monthly Software Partnership meetings held at the Central Valley Business Incubator and we saw that we shared the same user-centered philosophy to product design.  When they contacted me this past spring, on the verge of a new customer visit program, the time was ripe for launching a collaboration.  As a result, in May and June, I gave a series of four sessions at Pelco, emphasizing both the principles behind user-centered design and some how-to instruction on using an ethnographic approach to customer visits.  Senior VP and CTO, Greg Millar, committed about 25 of his people and some from other departments to a total of 15 hours in my sessions – a fact that reflects just how serious Millar is about launching a high-quality, systematic program of customer visits.

On the level of principles, I emphasized the exploratory nature of the customer visit process and argued for an inductive approach, heavy on observation and open-ended questions and light on the kind of feature-listing that has marked previous efforts to collect product design insights from customers.  Pelco people have a good deal of knowledge about their customers, but they know that there are things they have missed – a good opportunity to conduct some in situ observations of users at work with Pelco products.

For practice, I worked with Kirsten Medhurst to develop a mock research project for the session participants.  Everyone went to area sandwich shops to observe the ordering process with an eye for improving the customer experience.  This gave participants a chance to practice naturalistic observations, record-keeping and some preliminary analysis.

Customer visit training session at Pelco, June 10, 2010. (Photo by Arjen de Klerk)

The engineers, marketers and programmers in the sessions took quickly to the idea that open-ended, exploratory research can turn up some unexpected insights into improving the user experience.  The most telling interaction came as we discussed some findings one of the teams made at a local Panera.  One team observed a woman who came in holding a bag, phone and keys.  To this, Panera added a receipt with order number, cup and straw.  The woman clearly needed a third, if not fourth and fifth arm to handle it all.  One of the engineers suggested that this was a “customer side problem,” not Panera’s.  Others in the room responded by pointing out that customers with full hands are a reality Panera needs to confront.  “Panera puts a lot of things in your hands,” someone pointed out.  The exchange revealed quite a bit about the way the participants have taken user-centered design to heart.  For this, I can clearly take only partial credit.  I believe the observation exercise was eye-opening, but I was clearly building on a the existing experience, expertise and brainpower of those in the room.

But Pelco faces some serious challenges in making user-centered design a reality.  Pelco products make it to users via a web of customers that include equipment dealers, installers and integrators.  Hence, Pelco’s customers are not its users, and customers do not always sell Pelco products based on their excellent design and usability.  Some dealers are stuck on a path of products with which they are comfortable, and may not perceive Pelco innovations as making their lives better or easier.  That said, Pelco is definitely on the right track long-term.  Over the next few months, Pelco researchers will be out in airports and casinos, observing end users at work, and the results will be better design and a unified user experience across product categories.  As word gets out, we hope, users will demand the best products Pelco has to offer, and dealers, installers and integrators will have to follow suit.

Thanks to Greg Millar, Arjen de Klerk, Kirsten Medhurst and their STO colleagues for a great series of sessions.

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