Keeping People At The Center Of The Data Center

How do you keep the human element in tech?

Trying to prevent user problems is the primary job of user experience design teams at technology firms. Among the unsung heroes of tech, design teams are responsible for generating intuitive user interfaces. Lost in that purgatory between social and hard sciences, design teams balance observation and human needs with technology to realize that all important customer experience that contributes to product adoption and success.

Human error still accounts for the majority of unplanned outages in the data center. A Gartner study I cited in a recent blog post states that 80% of the outages impacting mission-critical services are expected to be caused by people and process issues.  

Good user design involves subject matter experts, site visits and contextual inquiries, and personas. While good design alone will not eliminate fat-fingering keys, it can minimize human errors. The fact that we are all now conditioned by our experiences with personal gadgets such as mobile devices cause expectations to run high for what we deem acceptable interfaces in the workplace.

Moving Towards Good User Design

Making data center management easier over time is a challenge because data centers use multiple products from multiple vendors. User experience design teams like the EMC user experience design (UXD) team, however, endeavor to understand how data center staff work and what tools they are likely to use to make the data center a better place.

Several ways that the EMC UXD team seeks to understand storage administrators, User Design Experience Processnetwork administrators, and operators include:

  • Leverage real-world experience: Subject matter experts or use-case architects are people with real-world experience and know what it is like to be storage or network administrators. Their job is to work closely with product managers to write clear use cases and to ensure the product managers, and interaction designers skilled in cognitive science, perception, and ethnography (i.e. the science of individual cultures and societies), understand user tasks and point of views. Use-case architects are particularly valuable at the beginning of the design process when they conduct research to make sure that they understand the users, including their goals and tasks.  They might research how other products in the same domain operate or they might simply already know, based on their own experiences. They create step-by-step use cases from the requirements supplied by product management, and then review these use cases with customers.  They also work with the interaction designers to create task flows that the order of operations makes sense for the users. Lastly, use-case architects work closely with interaction designers and developers to iterate (revise) user interfaces based on user feedback.
  • Conduct site visits and contextual inquires: Customer site visits in the context of real-world use contribute invaluable information to the design process. Interestingly, the EMC UXD team finds it useful to photograph real users in their work environments.  Photographs help to reinforce that the users are real people with lives and interests outside of their jobs, which they would probably prefer to spend their leisure time on instead of dealing with an outage or other unplanned event. The EMC UXD team recently had the opportunity to observe several EMC ProSphere storage management software implementations, for example.  By observing the installation and set-up process, the team was able to identify several ways to improve the user interface to make it easier for customers to deploy ProSphere. 
  • Create and use personas: Personas are fictional characters based on interviews with real users.  Alan Cooper, a noted design expert, popularized the use of personas in his book “The Inmates are Running the Asylum”.  Using personas to keep a design focused on users is now a common best practice across the software industry.  Personas provide several benefits. First, personas help the whole team, from product managers to QA, focus on who is going to use the product; the customer is no longer a faceless user. Second, it helps software developers like EMC keep the same level of usability throughout products. Personas remain at the same experience level because the target audience is a fictional person. Third, it adds a bit of fun to the development process. The user experience design team uses the persona through the design process when working on user interface specifications and mock-ups and when writing usability test task scenarios.

Real-Life by Design

User experience design team members bring in their different skill sets to optimize product usability, that the overall data center management gets easier with each product release. Case in point: the rule-set editor in EMC automated analysis and alerting software Data Protection Advisor was designed in such a way that users did not know how to start a rule, which components followed which, and when creation of a rule was completed.  As a result of users’ feedback, the engineering team worked with the EMC user experience design (UXD) team to re-design the rule-set editor for the next release. In the process, the UXD team created and refined several designs with input from users, including usability test results, to achieve the new rule-set editor. The re-designed editor now has 3 parts making it more apparent to users where to start and end rule definition, and whether the rule is complete.

Though just one example, user experience design teams like the EMC UXD team work to make is easy for users to move from using one product to another. The EMC UXD team worked, for example, to create a customizable dashboard, now standard in EMC ProSphere, EMC Data Protection Advisor, and EMC Smarts data center management software.  Because these products get used together often, it is beneficial to users to have a common look and feel across these EMC management products.

Where’s the Love

Though maybe somewhat underappreciated, user experience design teams keep customers at the forefront in the often impersonal software development process. These organizations, like the EMC UXD team, are the advocates for making products such as EMC infrastructure management software, more usable. Cloud computing and the concept of the software-defined data center have turned IT on its side in recent years, increasing the demand for cross-domain software tools that do a lot but are still intuitive and easy to use. Be kind to your user experience design personnel; they are working hard to make life much easier.

Thank you to Mary Beth Raven, director of user experience design at EMC, for sharing her knowledge about assuring the human element in effective software design for this post.

About the Author: Mark Prahl