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Design-Led Software Engineering Improves User Experience

By December 31, 2012Article

Editor’s note: Focus on user experience now shows up in numerous surveys as a major determinant of success in software product sales. We interviewed the co-founders of software development provider Clarice Technologies: Sandeep Chawda, who is also CEO, and Shashank Deshpande, who is also president. Between them they have more than two decades of experience in user-centric design (especially at Symantec/VERITAS) and now lead Clarice Technologies in design-led innovation for Clarice’s software customers. Please explain what you mean by design-led innovation in software development. 
Shashank Deshpande: Design-led innovation is to understand users and their needs to come up with a design that is usable and consumable and then to apply technology innovation to translate it to a user-centric product. It is about providing an optimal balance of design and technology in the process of product development to ensure intuitive and high-performance products. More often than not we see that products are over-designed or over-engineered, and neither is good for consumers and end users. A product that really delights the customer has a good balance between design and technology. What causes developers to over-design or over-engineer? 
Sandeep Chawda: It’s caused by the lack of sensitivity of one aspect or the other. We seldom see companies with an ecosystem that has the right mix of designers and technology engineers. If the product is designed without considering various technology aspects, that will cause the product to be over-designed. There are several design studios where designers take a flight of fancy in the product design without really considering whether or not that can be meaningfully engineered.
And the same applies for the engineering side. Many technology companies try to build the product without having a meaningful information architecture in how product functionality is presented. This results in a product that won’t be exposed to the users properly and they won’t be aware of its key functionality, or they may be aware of it but will tend not to use it. What do you do differently in design-led engineering to avoid these problems? 
Shashank Deshpande: We do up-front design of the complete product without writing a single line of code. We come up with “product storyboard,” which is a pixel-level detailed mockup of the key screens of the product, and we tie them together so as to mimic the complete product. All this is done without writing a single line of code because changing pixels is an order of magnitude easier than changing code.
These mockups are then used by multiple stakeholders of the product in a very effective manner. Product Management can use it for validating the product functionality. Sales can use it for talking to customers about the product roadmap and what is going to come. And the storyboard acts as refined requirement specifications for the engineering group to go ahead and build the product.
We use this process iteratively when developing software products for our customers to ensure there is a heavy emphasis and high priority on the user-experience angle. Looking at the trend of shifting to design-led software development, have you seen in your revenue or the number of customers a change in the last year or two in the number of customers who are requesting this emphasis on the user experience when designing software? Has it been a dramatic change or is it still unusual? 
Sandeep Chawda: The trend we are seeing is that the value of user experience in the product roadmap is enormous. Earlier product companies would do user interfaces for the product just because every product had it. Now companies are thinking of user interfaces as the key differentiating element of their product.
We’ve seen a dramatic change. Earlier we needed to sell this concept of the importance of user experience. Now the importance is very well understood and it is truly embraced by all the product companies. People come to us looking for these capabilities around user experience.
The importance of design-led innovation is applicable to all sizes of companies. A startup wants to put their best foot forward through its product offering. And the companies that are already successful want to come up with new versions of their products that their customers will really like so as to improve the stickiness of their products. What has been the biggest driver of this change in emphasis on user experience? Is it Facebook and other social media platforms, or has it been the use of mobile technologies? 
Shashank Deshpande: Both of them are driving a lot of innovation for enterprise products. When people use consumer-oriented software, it is so easy to find and use. So that raises the bar of product experience. And then when they go to their IT and enterprise setups of products, they yearn for that kind of user experience. The other thing is the evolution of a completely new channel, which is the touch-screen-enabled smartphone and the tablet. Interacting with devices has brought a sea change. And the learning time is extremely short. If a company wants to shift to design-led process, how do they get started? 
Shashank Deshpande: It should start with the product champion in the company. Often that is the product manager, VP of engineering or the CTO. Please share an example of how your company helped a customer become more competitive through a design-led process. 
Sandeep Chawda: We helped a company that develops loan-management software for leading banks worldwide. The product had been very successful and was the market leader for the past decade, but the look and feel is now very outdated for the user expectations of the banks’ customers. Since the product had evolved over multiple years, a lot of functionality was “patched” onto the core functionality, resulting in a complex UI that required substantial personnel training for their customers.
We worked with this company and reengineered their product so that it met the needs and expectations of the banks’ customers. The resulting product not only helped the product company maintain its position as the market leader but also helped the banks be more competitive by providing innovative, user-centric experiences for their customers.
Similarly, we helped a leading anti-virus security company improve its product experience resulting in 40 percent reduction in support calls and a 50 percent increase in market penetration within one year of redesign and reengineering of the product.
Over the years we have provided a lot of breakthrough innovation in design and engineering for new products. We also help companies refine product positioning and specification that helps them provide the right focus for their intended target segment. Tell us a little bit about your company. When was it launched?
Sandeep Chawda: We launched Clarice Technologies about four years ago in India. Both of us co-founders had been serving in senior positions in mainstream companies like Symantec. We saw a need to combine design and technology together, but we couldn’t find companies that provided this combination. So this became the basis of what we now offer through Clarice. And over the past four years customers have embraced our value proposition.
We saw the need and we did it at the right time. iPhone was launched in 2007, which spearheaded the revolution of getting user experience at the forefront. We started Clarice a year later. So the timing helped us a lot. How do you find the right design and engineering talent in a highly competitive market?
Sandeep Chawda: One of the key reasons why Clarice has been so successful is because we’ve been able to very carefully attract and nurture the right talent pool, which is as equally sensitive to the design as well as the technology aspect. This combination is a unique value proposition.
To give you an example of how we’re different from most of the companies, the typical ratio of user experience designers to developers in any organization would be somewhere in the range of one designer for every 200 engineers. What we have at Clarice is almost two designers for every three engineers. Big contrast.
In our software ecosystem both parties see the importance and are able to enjoy each of the strengths. In other organizations where there is only one designer for several hundred engineers, the designer doesn’t feel very important to the company or the product. But at Clarice they know they are a significant part of the whole picture. And the designers and engineers at Clarice use each other as a sounding board to brainstorm and learn from each other. So the whole ecosystem is very important. We’ve been able to create this environment and it has become a core strength that we’re now building on.
Sandeep Chawda is co-founder and CEO of Clarice Technologies. Prior to founding Clarice he was senior director at Symantec (India) / VERITAS where he grew the Pune team to 220+ engineers. Prior to Symantec/VERITAS, he was responsible for offshore product and application development for TELCO’s software division, later spun off as Tata Technologies.
Shashank Deshpande is co-founder and president of Clarice Technologies. Prior to founding Clarice he managed 140 usability consultants at Human Factors International (HFI) and directed projects across product design, user-interface design and usability evaluation. Before HFI, Shashank institutionalized usability as a function in Symantec (then VERITAS). 

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