Ethnography and the User Experience

Slowly I turn….step by step…inch by inch!

There’s an old I love Lucy skit where that line is uttered at the beginning of a scene. It came to mind more than once during my first hours at this year’s SHRM conference. As I met with new entrants to the scene, recognizable companies and pretty much everyone in between, I realized that the field of Human Resources Technology is slowly turning, step by step, inch by inch. It may not seem recognizable at the time but it IS happening.

In the past, there have been murmurings about duplicate programming, the same speakers and frustration at the basic questions attendees would ask on occasion. But this is necessary to the evolution we’re seeing now. Here is one example of how HR is slowly changing:

I met with Patanjali Chary, who is redefining user experience over at Ultimate Software. As we started talking he said, “We want to make software simpler for the workforce.” I quickly interjected the point that nearly every vendor in the massive hall was saying the same thing. So what’s different about Ultimate’s recent approach to “change”? The approach. An enterprise software company hiring multiple ethnologists to really study user behavior is a big shift for HR.

After all, as Chary pointed out, automobile companies have been doing the same thing for years, and eye-tracking software, another Ultimate tool to study users, has been in use by advertising agencies forever.

“To understand user experience, one really has to understand more than the interface: not just fonts, colors, icons and screens. You have to understand what’s happening in that person’s life,” said Chary. Who is passing their cubicle at that moment? What does their work look like at their home office? What did they write on the sticky note that the software isn’t going to capture? THAT is user experience.”

It’s a viewpoint that is long overdue in human resources, where startup after startup utters the incomprehensible “Recruiting is just BROKEN…” and proceeds to make yet another app that woos the jobseeker but ignores usability by the ultimate users: the Talent Management professional that purchases, the HR Pro who implements and facilitates the software and the end-employee who has to input information or provide updates.  Ultimate is doing its level-best to create a simpler solution for the many complex problems that human resources professionals face every day.

“For too long, business software forced users to alter their working styles to adjust to the way the software worked,” said Chary. “Now we’re creating software that adjusts to the way the user works.”

According to Desiree Porcaro, social media strategist at Ultimate, the company goes to great lengths to test their potential workflows with the people who might use their software. Both Porcaro and Chary said they choose people who are NOT current Ultimate users to ensure the results aren’t skewed.

The lengths to which the company goes to create more innovative products is laudable. But will creating products that adapt to the user promote innovation or stifle it? I asked Chary about his apparent opposing viewpoint to another software icon, Steve Jobs, he pointed out that while most people are familiar with this quote by Steve Jobs,

You can't just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they'll want something new.

...most people forget that he also had ethnographists on staff and that design was at the center of his ethos.

What do you think? Should software companies be building around their customers? Or customers learning to work with new and different types of software?

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