With our newest software headend solution, AclaraONE™, we have brought a host of new capabilities to our customers, based on their requests and feedback to us. These include the abilities to collect data from all devices in the distributions network, to view and use data depending on their roles in the organization, and to quickly integrate third-party applications through application programming interfaces.
To accommodate these capabilities, we employed a new software development method called User-Centered Design in the development of AclaraONE.
We believe User-Centered Design (UCD) has become a necessity in software development. It is an iterative design approach focused on the users’ needs and satisfaction. Aclara chose a UCD approach when building the AclaraONE platform so a quick and effective product could be provided for our customers.
Prior to the UCD design method, Aclara software used a combination of a few other design methods. Depending on the stakeholders, type of software product, and/or the available resources (time and people), one of the methods below was used:
- System-Centered Design, an approach that focuses on what the system should do and what data is available to be displayed. It measures success by meeting functional requirements, but it largely ignores the people aspect of human-computer interaction.
- Self-Design, where designers determine what they think users want and then design to those requirements.
- Unintentional Design, where the software development team chooses to go with the solution that is easiest to implement because of time constraints
UCD, unlike other methods, involves in-depth usability testing in the form of BETA customers that run the software and give feedback on the product. This allows for software development based on the users, their tasks, and the environments in which they work. Putting the software in the hands of actual users is important with UCD because UCD is an ongoing learning process that creates a stronger understanding of clients and their needs. Ultimately, User-centered Design allows designers to build a better product and a better platform with the needs of the users at the forefront.
Focus on Initial Research
UCD revolves around users deciding which features are the most valuable, and that was the first step with AclaraONE. We worked closely with BETA customers to determine what features they needed the most in order to have an effective system. After building a prototype of the system, it was presented to the BETA customers and, after a trial period, we discussed what worked and what didn’t.
In some respects, we had exactly the right idea, and in other aspects, we were way off. It was enlightening (and a bit humbling) to learn of some of the “hacks” and workarounds our clients have used over the years to make our prototype software fit their needs. For example, one client wanted the ability to create specific groups of MTUs, such as “Large Meters,” in order to see charts and reports on all “Large Meters.”
Since the initial offering did not allow custom attributes for creating such a group, the customer worked around the issue by using an existing field, in this case the “phone number” field, to label their large meters.
As is customary in UCD, after the first trial run, it was back to the drawing board. The AclaraONE prototype was adjusted to include the changes that were recommended by the BETA client. We repeated this process several times, iterating on the product each time to make it better.
The prototype process allowed us to express ideas and intent to our BETA client quickly without the expensive upfront investment of engineering the entire application only to modify it based on customer feedback. The speed at which we were able to learn and iterate allowed us to start with a much stronger initial offering than we would have been able to provide if we only relied on our own internal knowledge of how our software is used.
Create Once, Revise Many Times
With feedback from the BETA customers in hand, the next step was to implement a prototype that included a core set of features known as the Minimum Viable Product (MVP). The MVP is the minimum core features that our clients wanted and basic AclaraONE structure for our initial launch. This product had customer research to back its design decisions which allowed development to move quickly.
Every two weeks, the team would publish the platform to an internal server, allowing us to mock up a real client environment. We would then present the current state of the application to the BETA client to get their feedback. Testing the product at this point with the client allowed us to find small issues with interaction or user flow that could be addressed pre-release instead of being part of a longer, hotfix plan after the product was released.
We also demonstrated the product internally every two weeks to our Customer Support staff and other stakeholders. This allowed us to familiarize other departments with the platform and to gather feedback internally. Our staff has interacted with many clients over the years, and their knowledge of client needs provides valuable input in shaping the AclaraONE platform.
Test, Test, Test
After building a working MVP, we needed to validate our design decisions with user testing. We saw an opportunity in the AclaraConnect conference to find eager customers who would be willing to test our software and give us honest feedback.
We conducted several on-site, moderated usability tests with client volunteers. We received a wealth of feedback and learned what worked and what didn’t from simply watching clients use our software. At the end of the testing session, we asked each participant to fill out a System Usability Scale (SUS) survey which allowed us to get a quick rank of our software’s usability. This survey is commonly used to evaluate usability across many industries and systems and allowed us to compare our score to those of other software platforms. Another advantage is that the SUS scores have a strong positive correlation to the Net Promoter Score, which is a key performance indicator used by our customer service department to evaluate performance.
We will continue to evolve and improve on the AclaraONE platform as we expand our feature set. Using the UCD process, we are confident the AclaraONE software platform will continue to provide an easy-to-use experience focused on the customer’s needs. The feedback we receive from our clients and customers will continue to be a critical component in building a world-class software platform that is not only easy to use but provides a deeply enjoyable user experience.