Now Reading: Designing Products for a Unique User Base

Design // May 9, 2018

Designing Products for a Unique User Base

Passionate about The Climate Corporation’s Mission and Impact

Like many others, I have an overwhelming desire to do good in the world. I want to work for a company with a mission that will leave a positive lasting imprint. Sometimes that is easier said than done, as many businesses have conflicting ideals. Companies want to make money and rightfully so but to do that, they engage in activities that may sacrifice consumer satisfaction. An example of this would be advertisements. Typically, ads are used to generate revenue for free applications and when compared to paid applications, the tradeoff is often one of user experience.

The Climate Corporation’s commitment to its mission is a strong reason in my decision to pursue a career “in the field” (pun intended). The Climate Corporation’s mission is “To help all the world’s farmers sustainably increase their productivity with digital tools.” Today, we go to our local grocery store and pick up produce for the pasta dish we’re going to make tonight, pay at the cash register, and bring our produce home. We forget that these tomatoes and green beans come from the hard-working hands of a farmer. Agriculture has been one of the last industries to become digitized; but very quickly the novel insights we are developing and the applications coming to the farm are beginning to change the industry. At Climate, this is what we are all about - helping farmers sustainably increase their productivity with digital tools.

I first joined Climate as a Product Design Intern, taking on a project to design a system to improve the user on-boarding experience. I then transitioned to a full-time Product Designer position to continue my passion in helping Climate work towards its mission in the digital agriculture space.

Designing a Product for Farmers (and other niche user groups)

Everyone, in their own capacity, is a designer. By nature, we solve problems in our everyday lives by designing solutions - like when we use our house keys to open cardboard boxes when we can’t find the scissors. We design solutions. As Don Norman writes:

“We are all designers. We manipulate the environment, to better to serve our needs. We select what items to own, which to have around us. We build, buy, rearrange, and restructure: all this is a form of design.”1

However, designing solutions for ourselves and those like us is a more natural and instinctive process than designing for those who we can’t easily identify with.

The typical adult spends an average of nine hours per day on digital devices - eight of those hours being for personal use rather than for work.2 In contrast, farmers spend the majority of their day managing their fields and farms - whether that be planning for the upcoming crop season, planting, or harvesting. While farmers do have a surprising amount of technology on their farms, it is more hardware-based. Therefore, we have found a wide range of familiarity with digital tools. Data analytics has come relatively late to the farming industry; many farmers are still more familiar with physical documentation or excel spreadsheets and USB flash drives rather than applications that manage their farm and field data. That’s why we are focused on making our Climate FieldView™ platform simple, easy to navigate and most importantly, a tool that delivers clear value to their operation.

So how do we go about designing for this distinct user base to ensure we are meeting their needs and wants?

Function Trumps Personal Aesthetic

One of the most important things to remember when designing for a user base that is not familiar with the newest design practices is to cast aside our own personal preferences and focus on the function of what we create. As designers, we each have our own style preferences, but we can’t let those dictate our creations because our ultimate goal is to build an amazing experience for our users — not ourselves.

For example, the Comic Sans MS typeface has polarizing opinions tied to its usage which goes to show that every person has their own preferences and opinions about one thing or another. Although some individuals (and some designers) love the typeface, the legibility and readability is poor at small sizes and in large bodies of text due to bad kerning. As a result, this typeface is not the ideal choice when designing for digital environments.

Immerse Yourself in the User and the Space

Building a strong foundation is paramount when designing for any user base. With users whose daily lives are much different than ours, it’s crucial to empathize and immerse ourselves in their space to be able to understand them to the best of our ability.

Dive into research about the space these users live in and try to learn about their day-to-day, how they think, the tools they use, and the designs they are comfortable using. Conduct user interviews and talk to industry professionals to get a more holistic view of the space. Cast away any assumptions and biases to be able to absorb all this information and accurately identify their needs, motivations, end goals, and pain points. It’s important to learn about emotional and physical obstacles associated with their line of work as well as their environment and how that affects their ability to interact with your product.

For example, farmers are often outdoors surrounded by loud machinery and sunlight. By understanding this, we can then build experiences that do not use sound to communicate as well as prioritize high contrast screens to increase visibility. Understanding the ins and outs of the user is what allows for the most practical and efficient designs to be created.

Define and Ideate

To help direct the ideation phase, leverage the foundation built through research and interviews to define the problems that need to be tackled. This definition should prioritize the users’ needs over what the business wants to keep ideation as limitless and unrestrained as possible.

In the beginning of the ideation phase, we want unfiltered mass idea generation. Even if some ideas seem ridiculous, it’s important to include them because they contribute to divergent thinking and more innovative solutions. If it’s difficult to come up with ideas, utilize ideation techniques like mash-up, worst possible idea, and SCAMPER to help kick things off.

After obtaining a large quantity of ideas, narrow down the volume and focus on the quality of ideas. At this point in the ideation phase, the goals and desires of the business are brought back in. To help narrow down the pool, utilize a three-circle Venn diagram in which the three circles represent three characteristics: feasibility, desirability, or viability. Each idea is then mapped on the diagram based on which characteristics it offers. Ideas that fall into more than one category are prioritized since they bring more to the table.

Rapid Prototyping and Internal Review

After selecting a few ideas to prioritize, it’s time to move into rapid prototyping which involves creating flows, low-fidelity mockups, and simple prototypes to communicate the intention of each idea. Show these mockups to designers, engineers, and product managers to generate feedback and buy-in earlier on in the design process. This reduces the amount of changes needed further down the line, saving time and resources for all parties involved.

Throughout this process, there will be a natural elimination of some ideas and validation of others, and this usually results in a cohesive and well-rounded concept. At this point in the process, the concept should be translated into higher fidelity mockups and prototypes in preparation for the next step: user testing.

Bring it to the User, Iterate, then Bring it Back Again

Since we’re designing for such a niche group of users, we are largely limited in our ability to accurately anticipate what they need, want, and are comfortable interacting with. With this limitation, it is crucial that we test these prototypes with our users to validate that what we are building fits their needs and delivers them value. Formulate questions that target how they imagine they would use the feature or tool and conduct usability tests to identify areas of confusion and missed opportunities.

After conducting several of these user sessions, the feedback should be consolidated and the concept should be further refined through iterations. The newest iterations should then be tested with users again — rinse and repeat until an optimal version is reached.

Implement but don’t forget

Once there have been several rounds of feedback and we’ve arrived at a design that meets the needs of the users and the company, it’s time for our designs to be implemented! This is an exciting time where we are able to see our designs come to life in code.

Just as people must tend to their lawns after the initial landscaping is designed and installed, we need to tend to our creations in the same manner. Implementation is not where design ends - design is never truly finished. We need to monitor our designs and constantly learn from our observations, because just like us, our users’ behaviors, mentalities, and tendencies are always evolving and we want the product to keep pace.

The work we do at Climate has the potential to revolutionize the entire agriculture industry to help feed the projected 9.7 billion people there will be by 2050.3 Although contributions in the digital agriculture industry and other underserved industries are rarely seen, they can make a huge impact on many lives around the globe. Making this type of impact is one of the most fulfilling and impactful things I’ve experienced in my career thus far.

About the Author
Karen Liang is a Product Designer at The Climate Corporation where she focuses on improving user onboarding and engagement. Before graduating from UC Berkeley in 2017 with a BA in Integrative Biology, she was an intern at The Climate Corporation and Zynga.

1 https://www.jnd.org/dn.mss/CH-Epilog.pdf
2 https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/most-adults-spend-more-time-on-their-digital-devices-than-they-think/
3 http://www.un.org/en/development/desa/news/population/2015-report.html