I serve as the director of product design at ECRS in Boone, NC where I have worked for over 14 years. For the first nine years I served as the director of marketing, and in 2008 I moved over to design when that department was created in an effort to move ECRS toward a more user-centric approach to product design.
As should be expected of any company that attempts to be more user centered in their approach to the technologies they create, I recently had an opportunity to reflect on the different methods our organization, and particularly our design team, uses to understand the needs of our users in order to inform more usable retail automation systems.
In preparation for speaking at our most recent user conference in Baltimore, MD the day before the Natural Products Expo East show, I decided to take an inventory of the ways my team members and I interface with our users/customers in order to gather, assess, and prioritize requested features.
Here’s the short list I came up with:
- Feature request tickets
- Ad hoc conversations
- User conferences
- Trade shows
- Prototype reviews
- Interviews with sales people, installers, and trainers
- Retail industry research
In the days leading up to our user conference I had been reading Robert Johnson’s
User-Centered Technology: A Rhetorical Theory for Computer and other Mundane Artifacts, which is where I got the idea for the name of this blog. I was also reading (and still am at the time of writing this blog) Genre Knowledge in Disciplinary Communication: Cognition/Culture/Power by Carol Berkenkotter and Thomas Huckin.
In order to frame up my motivations underpinning this blog, I want to jump back in time a bit to January of 2013. It was at this time small group of us at ECRS decided it would be a good idea to open an employee break room at our headquarters office in Boone, NC. The concept was that it would help us solve two outstanding problems simultaneously. First, it would provide on-site access to affordable, healthy snacks which from the KeHE (formerly Tree of Life) catalog. Secondly, it would give us a unique opportunity to use a product of our own making, a self-service vending kiosk, to process consumer transactions in an (mostly) authentic environment.
In February of 2013, we launched the aptly named “Food for Thought” break room concept, which included a cold storage cooler for drinks and perishables, as well as a dry-storage rack for (relatively) non-perishables.
QA trained our office manager how to use our system to place orders, receive product, print labels, and run reports. For the next seven months, she oversaw the break room operations from top to bottom, and did a bang up job managing the project through its infancy. In the process my team received a landslide of fantastic feedback from employees as they used the kiosk to purchase snacks and drinks, many of which we used to create new features, and others of which remain to be implemented.
Unfortunately for our company, our office manager’s husband landed a job off the mountain, so her rather large shoes needed to be filled. When I got the bad news, I immediately started racking my brain about who could/should be trained to take over the break room project. At the time I was a couple of chapters into Johnson’s User-Centered Technology, and it suddenly struck me that I should, at least for the short term, take over the project myself. What better way to take user-centeredness to the next level than to become a user myself. I’d used the front end of the system myself to buy break room goodies, but our office manager had been in charge of the back end.
And now it was my turn. I could think of no better way to achieve empathy with our users (customers) and innovate the product forward than to use our system in a real-world environment. I was about to see through the eyes of a retail buyer at a level that, until now, and been hidden from me through the subtle layers ambiguity that separated the respective domains of knowledge and practice in which I and our users did their work.
I was about to immerse myself in the local knowledge of a retailer.