Anne: Hello Torben, thank you for finding the time to join the Industrial Perspectives session. What are your experiences in academia and industry?
Torben: Hi Anne, thanks for inviting me to this interview at the MobileHCI. For us, as a sponsor today, it is a great opportunity to give something back to the scientific community. I studied computer science at the University of Oldenburg, Germany. My main interest was media informatics and human-machine interaction. In this context I was able to work in a project group with fellow students under Prof. Susanne Boll-Westermann during my studies in 2008. The group contributed to the EU funded project InterMedia. The goal was to put the user in the center of multimedia experiences and to offer personalized user interfaces and content.
With the successful completion of my studies in 2009, I founded my own business with my fellow student Adrian Macha in order to enter the emerging smartphone market with a unique mobile app idea. As a reminder, the world looked very different: The market for mobile devices was dominated by Windows Mobile and Nokia Feature Phones. The iPhone app store and Google's first Android device had just become available in mid or end of 2008.
Today, 10 years later, our start-up has become a successful and well-known established company for software development in our region. We are completely independent and with more than 40 employees we offer individual software solutions for medium-sized companies. Although we grew up with mobile app development, today this is still only a small part of our service portfolio which also includes web, cloud and e-commerce developments. Our academic background helps us, to enrich the classical requirements engeering by applying a user centered design process. For us, a good user experience is crucial for the success of software.
Anne: What are the differences and similarities you have noticed when working in both environments?
Torben: Our first mobile app was about photo creation, photo editing and photo finishing, and we developed it in a very academic and user-centered way. Mainly, we determined the needs of our target group by qualitative surveys as well as thinking-aloud techniques using either mockups or even runnable prototypes. For this purpose, we sometimes evaluated up to 5 working prototypes in a row, just for a single feature, until we were satisfied. This was at a time when we were still a classic start-up. But today we earn our money with generic software development for industry partners.
*Accordingly, we barely can do this today - because most of our customers don't want to pay such burden approach. Mostly we’re having a hard time to convince our customers of the benefits of a full user centered design process. We always have to identify various stakeholders and their needs. That is why we regularly go back to the requirements analysis. This process often takes longer than a customer imagines. But this is worth it and it always *reveals new insights, for us and the customer.
Anne: What are the cultural differences between academia and industry related to the perception and value of HCI, UX and research practices?
Torben: I would not generalize the differences, because this depends too much on the industrial partner. I would like to illustrate this with two symbolic types of customers.
Our industrial partners which provide software applications for end customers and which need to earn money with them. They require that users do not jump off. These industrial partners also have an understanding of user experience and also plan a budget for it. To put it in a nutshell: the larger the user base and the more short-lived and the lower the added value of the software product, the more important a good user experience is.
In contrast to that we have industry partners which have niche applications that are only used by a few specialists. For me, the academic approach and evaluation of the user experience is hardly applicable. You can only make qualitative interviews with a few non-representative domain experts and you will get just individual preferences, wishes and competencies without ever gaining a bigger picture. Here, the technical domain is simply the main focus. Later, if more people will use this software, the solution is often to compensate by applying trainings. And of course, the industrial partner can force his employees to use the software anyway.
Anne: What are the differences in expectations of researchers and practitioners in the industry versus academia?
Torben: In our services, the topics of usability and user experience are always present - but usually not in a leading role. When a large mid-sized company decides to tackle these topics, it looks around for approved specialists for usability. But we are also generalists and therefore most likely out of scope. As a result, we don't have full-time usability experts or user experience designers. Today, this is a teamwork between the project managers who collect the requirements, colleagues trained in user experience and our media designers or artists which are all involved in each iteration.
Anne: How does the product lifecycle and milestones impact the work?
Torben: There are different types of projects, which depends solely on the kind of the industrial partner. In projects with a fixed budget and a corresponding time schedule, there is usually no room for usability research. The most important thing is that it works technically. There are also projects where the industry partner basically has his vision already in mind, for example by delivering his own scribbles. Then, there is also no room for us to work on the usability.
Anne: What are the differences in collaborators in academia and industry?
Torben: I see, that if the academic background is missing, mainly technical user interfaces are created. It is typical that colleagues without knowledge in user experience design, create user interfaces in their first drafts that look like nicely painted Excel files. The same applies to CRUD functionalities that are transferred 1-to-1 into forms and consequently, a designer cannot make it better. Well, such forms are still very flexible, and users can use it, to get their job done, especially after the appropriate training.
In contrast to that we have industry partners which have niche applications that are only used by a few specialists. For me, the academic approach and evaluation of the user experience is hardly applicable. You can only make qualitative interviews with a few non-representative domain experts and you will get just individual preferences, wishes and competencies without ever gaining a bigger picture.
Actually, for all of our industry partners we offer our support and also help them developing business hypotheses. Though we define and sharpen the target group, for example in the form of personas and the calculation of the sales funnel. Later, in the implementation, A/B tests play the most important role, which we usually evaluate with different tracking frameworks.
Anne: What are the differences in practices between the low and high UX maturity organizations?
Torben: My impression is, that according to the maturity scale from Jacob Nielsen, the classification of a high UX maturity organization is much more complicated in practice. This is especially true for companies that are divided into different departments that work more or less independently.
But I can see that industry partners, which now apply a user experience design, have already lost money in the past due to building software with a poor usability on their own. These industry partners are also those ones, where most A/B testing takes place. But we also met companies which do not believe in the effect at all and are still hostile towards usability. Also, these companies often do not care much about the software and see it only as a pure cost factor.
Anne: What skills and practices are needed in both - academia and industry - environments?
Torben: Well, the user experience engineer or the developer has to perform independent work and needs a good self-organization. Before anything else, we need interviews with the domain experts, as part of the requirement analysis. Here we define the target groups and create an awareness of the sales funnel. Afterwards we create clickable mockups, usually with Adobe Experience Designer and discuss them with the customer as well as pick up some first feedback from real users.
Just as the last part, we start the implementation of a production ready software and apply a scalable software architecture. We always work in short sprints and deliver working versions early. This helps us to validate the design early and ensures that we did not miss a thing.
And one should not forget the psychological competence. When optimizing internal processes, actors quickly feel threatened. These people must be picked up and get integrated in time. But sometimes there is simply nothing you can do.