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She brings this to her work at the University of Waterloo where she is both a professor of UX and also building Jamii, a global virtual incubator for entrepreneurs.
Jamii, which is not yet public, has been in development for three years and has pilot programs running in Kenya and Egypt. Designing an interface that is user-friendly despite the varying needs and cultural customs of users from different global networks has been a challenge.
But Schmidlin sees the common thread in all of this and works to weave it through everything she does, and that’s the human touch.
“I truly believe these interactions we have face to face and casually in the hallway, we need to translate that online,” she said. “My whole philosophy is technology is about people and how people interact and connect with each other. It has to be meaningful. It has to be authentic because today’s consumer sees straight through you. If you want to sell them something, they walk away. They want to have conversations.”
In a way, it’s a lot like building a relationship.
Step 1: Get to know them
Schmidlin approaches teaching just as she does UX. She essentially conducts user research on her students before class begins. She attempts to learn as much about them and their interests online as she can in order to make the learning experience more personal.
This is probably why as her classes wrapped for the semester, her Twitter feed was flooded with messages of gratitude from her students. When things are personal it resonates with people.
With Jamii, conducting user research on an international level was more challenging.
“I constantly had to justify [the user research] because people were like, why don’t you have anything to show for it? You haven’t built anything. I’m like, we’re dealing with entrepreneurs on a global scale. The needs of people in Kenya are different than the needs of those in Egypt or Scotland or Canada. This is different groups, different ecosystems, so we had to spend time to understand what do these people need the most because ultimately you want to build something useful, not just something cool that’s a good story to tell,” she said.
“Not everyone understands the need for user research. They want to see something right away.”
Step 2: Show your imperfections
In order to make something personal, not only do you need to know who that person on the other end is, but they also need to know that you’re human too.
“You can’t solve somebody else’s problem if you don’t know who they are because then it’s just an assumption and assumptions are quite often wrong because they come from our limited experience,” she said. “I don’t know what a Kenyan entrepreneur goes through. I have no idea.”
Once Schmidlin’s team had enough information from their pilot groups, they launched a prototype that was so “ugly” her team was afraid to release it.
“People said we can’t show this to the world, and I said you have to. You have to test your imperfect product because otherwise you’d never get proper feedback,” she said.
Step 3: Listen to the other person
The early feedback allowed them to overhaul the platform so it better suited the needs of the their users overseas. For example, part of the platform included creating a profile and adding a profile picture, something commonplace in North America. But for some of the women in the other markets, posting a photo of themselves online was uncomfortable.
“You want to connect with a human, but what do you do if a human doesn’t want to share a photograph? Is there a different way to present her personality? Now we’re thinking maybe people can choose an avatar, or can use a photo or an object to really make that global. We learned that by having a prototype running out in the world. This is the kind of learning you can only do once you start getting to know your customer,” she said.
“It’s much easier to go back to the drawing board when you just have a prototype versus a finished project online that costs a fortune to change.”
Step 4: Build trust
Schmidlin and her team took everything they learned and built what they thought was a useful platform, yet they weren’t getting much engagement from the entrepreneurs on the other side of the world. They started thinking about how they interacted with each other in the workplace and realized the good relationship building happens in those casual moments, like when you’re talking about your weekend.
On a whim, Schmidlin took a photo of the view from outside her window and sent it to the team in Kenya. It was the middle of winter in freezing Canada and everything was covered in a blanket of snow.
The entrepreneurs in Kenya loved this. They started sending Schmidlin’s team photos of their view in downtown Nairobi, of the hot weather and people dancing in the street. Before she knew it, a never-ending conversation had transpired.
They started to understand each other on a new level and Schmidlin used this information to better the platform.
“We started these conversations like we do in real life. It has nothing to do with building a startup, but it has to do with building trust. And I think that’s the key. You have to build trust with your users,” she said.
Step 5: Stay in touch
This applies even when developing user experiences for users in industries such as insurance or finance, areas where compliance issues may make personality more difficult to establish. However, Schmidlin says the same principals apply.
“Instead of ‘hello customer,’ use their name. Add one line of personalization and often that’s all it takes. Even in the most regulated industry, ultimately it comes down to do I want to trust this person to set up my finances? It’s very personal.”
Step 6: Stick together
All relationships have their ups and downs, but if you treat people right they will stick with you when things don’t go as planned.
“I think when people or customers realize that companies are made of people who are real it creates a relationship, and you don’t leave relationships easily,” she said. “If you have this trust and this relationship, people will not leave even if something goes wrong. The shipment doesn’t come, the product doesn’t work; you still have this relationship. You don’t walk away from it.”
But in order to do this effectively, you have to mean it.
“You really need to care about these people. You can’t fake it. It needs to be authentic,” she said.
Showing your imperfections, working with your users to make things better, and being human is not just good relationship building; it’s good business.
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