11. User Experience at InterSystems (Ksenia Samokhvalova)
In this episode, Ksenia Samokhvalova — UX designer at InterSystems — joins the podcast to talk about the user experience for InterSystems products and how her team strives to improve that experience through smart design.
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Derek Robinson 00:00:02 Welcome to Data Points, a podcast by InterSystems Learning Services.
Make sure to subscribe to the podcast on your favorite podcast app. Links can be found at datapoints.intersystems.com. I'm Derek Robinson. And on today's episode, I'll chat with Ksenia Samokhvalova, a User Experience Designer here at InterSystems, to talk about the user experience of InterSystems products.
Derek Robinson 00:00:39 Welcome to Episode 11 of Data Points by InterSystems Learning Services. On today's episode, as I mentioned in the intro, I'm joined by Ksenia Samokhvalova. Ksenia is on the UX team here at InterSystems. And the conversation with her is an interesting one for a few reasons. First, it's a bit different than most episodes of Data Points, where we cover a feature area or technology concept and learn about how that feature is used. Here we're talking about the approach to use your experience around those products and technologies.
Derek Robinson 00:01:12 All right. And welcome to the podcast Ksenia. Ksenia, how's it going?
Ksenia Samokhvalova 00:01:14 Hi, Derek. I'm great. How are you?
Derek Robinson 00:00: Good, good. We're glad to have you on the podcast for a different topic, I think. A lot of times we cover features and the basics of how to use it, or understanding what it is. And I think today is a little bit of a different flavor, so definitely going to be an exciting conversation to have and to share with our learners. So let's jump right in and first, tell us a little bit about yourself and your role at InterSystems.
Ksenia Samokhvalova 00:01:37 Absolutely. I am a User Experience Designer, and what I do is I
help our development teams develop applications that are easy to use, and that solve our users' problems and pain points. And I also help our developers to learn and understand their users better: learn about the user's workflows, pain points, struggles, goals, that sort of thing.
Derek Robinson 00:02:07 Nice. And so I think that kind of gives a high-level view of what
you're doing. What about your team — is this something that you run yourself? Do you have a team, and if there's a team, what is the approach, and what's your main goal and focus as a team?
Ksenia Samokhvalova 00:02:21 Yes. So we now have a UX team at InterSystems. We are relatively new here. We've been around for about two years. It's not a big team, but we do cover the suite of InterSystems products, from TrakCare and HealthShare to data platforms. And I am focusing on data platforms right now. We do the work of helping with creating intuitive interfaces and learning about our users.
Derek Robinson 00:02:54 And actually your answer is a good segue into the next question I was going to ask cause you intuitive interfaces. So when we're talking about UX/UI stuff, people often jump straight to the graphical user interface, right? The flashy, the pretty, you know, in my head, it pops in like Google Material Design and things like that. So is that really the main focus of what we're talking about, or is there more to it when it comes to the InterSystems- specific approach to UX?
Ksenia Samokhvalova 00:03:21 That's a great question. So a lot of people, like you mentioned, think of, when they say UI, they're saying GUI, so we're talking the forms and the screens
and the buttons. People think about making things pretty and making colors nice. But a lot of what we do is also API work. And so we developed APIs for our developer users, and those also need to be intuitive and easy to use. I think it's now becoming clear that you need to make the APIs also streamlined for the users. So it's no longer the case that it's cool and prestigious to know this obscure language that is hard to use, and you need to spend hours and months and years of your life figuring out. Now we have developers who just need to hit the ground running. So we've been working, for example, on making the first experience of IRIS easy to use, and making it easy to just start going with IRIS and start coding. So the usability of API is becoming more and more important, I think. And this is what I've been working on, in addition to working on the graphical user interfaces, is API usability.
Derek Robinson 00:04:51 Yes. I think that's a good way to look at it. And I think, to tie this
in with some of the other things we've covered on this podcast, I know that one topic that I've been involved in InterSystems that I think crosses over into your area when you talk about testing, or really assessing and evaluating the usability of an API, is IntegratedML, right? One of the new features of InterSystems IRIS. Can you talk a little bit about what your team has done in that area as far as like an example of working on the UX of an API versus a user interface?
Ksenia Samokhvalova 00:05:21 Right. So yes, we have worked on usability testing, IntegratedML
API, and I'm happy to report that we were able to see that indeed that core API, that we were hoping was intuitive — and it was designed to be intuitive — was in fact easy for users to understand. So they were able to, for example, read the code that they've never seen before and understand what the code was doing. And then they were able to use what they have figured out and apply it to a different problem, different data, and be able to use the API. We also found out by talking to them during the sessions that users really wanted to know a little more about what kind of model this cool IntegratedML has come up with. And so we're now
working on exposing more of that information in the interface, and that's something you would
learn from talking to people. It was really cool to observe people use this. And those were people who have never seen it before, but they were our target audience. So people who are SQL developers, but somebody who's not a machine learning expert. But they're curious about machine learning because it's a cool thing now and it can really help them in their work. So they were able to use this interface, and that was really good to see. And I think that was one of the first times we've done this kind of work at InterSystems, which was also really cool. And actually the team also was able to see the value of involving users early versus waiting for the feedback. One of the things that you find out is that if you wait for that feedback to come, sometimes you will never hear about usability issues. So users are not really forthcoming reporting usability issues. First of all, they're not experts on that. So they don't think about it. Secondly, they are reluctant to complain that they couldn't understand something because they tend to blame themselves and think, oh, I should have read that documentation. I should have spent more time on it. And I think it's our job and my job as a UX designer to help them and come up with the interface that is intuitive to use so they don't have to spend the time reading something for hours trying to comprehend it.
Derek Robinson 00:07:59 Yeah, exactly. Right. That's really interesting. And I think in the course of that answer, you sort of touched on another thing that I was going to be asking you is — I'll kind of roll two questions into one here — which is, you know, it sounds like the way by which you get this information is these user tests, right? Like you invite users to test something and walk them through different parts of what you're really assessing and see how they viewed the usability. So combined with, you can talk a little bit about that process, but also talk to the average person at InterSystems, right? You know, a developer or a support engineer or a product manager, they might think that they can just kind of do that testing themselves, right? Like I can look at this product and know whether this is usable or not. So talk a little bit about the process of bringing in users to test, and then also why that's different than people who are embedded around the product all the time, assessing it themselves.
Ksenia Samokhvalova 00:08:52 Right, absolutely. So the process that we use to see how usable this interface is…there several different methods that have we have in our toolbox. We can actually just heuristically evaluate the interface and assess it ourselves as user experience
professionals. And this could also be done by somebody who is not a UX person, given the set
of heuristics like do we rely too much on some concepts that are not in the interface, for example. You can assess this, the interface, as an expert, but usability testing specifically is the technique where you invite your target user in for a session and you give them a set of tasks. And I ask them as a facilitator to please try to do these tasks using the interface. And we observed them trying to complete those tasks. And generally we keep quiet. So we let them work, and we ask them to think aloud and tell us what they're thinking. So they might not be necessarily telling us, oh, this is hard to do, or this is hard to use, but by observing them do it, you can infer that this was really painful, even if they're literally saying nothing about it. So you can see that they're struggling by just watching them work, which is really a valuable thing, and something that is hard to do otherwise because we are not being shipped with our product, right? (laughs) So we can't be there and look over somebody's shoulder as they use it for the first time or for the hundredth time and try to understand what they're thinking. So we approximate that by inviting them in early and asking them to do it. So and for your second part of your question about us at InterSystems, as developers, parts of development team, can we do these assessments? So It's a great question. I think specifically for interfaces that are targeted at developers, sometimes people think, well I'm a developer too. Yes, I work here, but I know SQL, and I should be able to assess: how is this to use? So what I like to remind people, and this needs to get internalized, then eventually it does, is that we are not the users, but you can have the skills that the users have maybe. So they know SQL, you know SQL. Maybe you know it at the same level, but your goal as the developer at InterSystems is to develop the software that InterSystems sells, right? But the goal of our users is not that. Their goal is to build their application. In our case, for data platforms, they could have their own users and customers. And so their goal is not to write software. Their goal is to solve their user's problems. And so that distinction and the goal, and then the mindset, is very important, it turns out because we live and breathe our technology here, but our users might not, and that doesn't make them bad users or, you know, they are not incompetent. They're very competent at what they're doing, but their goal is to not use our software day in, day out. Just like you and I don't show up to work every morning and think, oh, I'm going to use some clients today. That will be fun. You know, but we use it and we're proficient at it because we need to get our work done and that application helps us. So it's similar, similar for us and IRIS and our technology. Our users have their own problems to solve, and we need to understand what they are, and they are different from our problems and pain points. So that understanding is really important. And being able to know what the struggles are, or what they're trying to do, is something you really get by talking to them. And it could be used during usability tests, but there's also interviews that we do, where we talk to people about what they're doing, what their use cases are. They can walk us through the workflow. They can show us in the tool what exactly they are doing, which is usually worth a thousand words. We can kind of walk with them through their day-to-day life, using our tools, and that's super valuable.
Derek Robinson 00:13:53 Yeah. That's interesting. I think. And so you drew a lot of good
comparisons about even with the same skill set, two different people have vastly different
approaches and main goals for using the software. And I think you explained a lot about what the process is for getting these users' feedback and everything. Now for the people listening, how can they give their own feedback? How can they get involved in this process, if they are an InterSystems user who has feedback about UX, or would like to participate in these types of research-gathering studies and sessions and things like that, how can they learn more?
Ksenia Samokhvalova 00:14:25 Yes. great question. So we are running these sessions all the time now, which is really great. And in the description for this podcast, there's going to be a link to go and fill out a short survey so that we can get in touch with you when we are looking for people to interview and participate in those sessions. And yeah, like I said, there are the usability sessions where we ask you to actually try something we're working on. We say it's usability testing, or user testing, but one thing I can't stress enough, we wouldn't be testing you — your abilities, your knowledge — in any way. We would be testing the design of our software. So any and all feedback would be really valuable. It's nothing to be scared of. There's no grade, you can't fail, and it's fun. And you get to see something that we're working on and talk to us. And a lot of people I think have had fun doing that. We also are doing interviews. So that's another thing that we have going on. So you can sign up, and we'll get in touch with you when we have an appropriate project. Also, if you're a member of our Developer Community, keep an eye out for announcements that we post. We post both in the Developer Community and Global Masters. Sometimes there are challenges, and you can sign up. Usually there's some kind of survey just trying to see, does your skill set match what's we are looking for, but generally speaking, there are lots of opportunities to participate. And I hope you do, because we really do want to hear from you, and nothing replaces talking to actual users. You know, we've been thinking about usability a lot. We can be the most powerful database on the market and be easy and intuitive to use. Those things are not mutually exclusive, so we can do it. And that's why UX team is now at InterSystems, and we're trying to make this happen.
Derek Robinson 00:16:42 Absolutely. So hopefully people will follow that link and give you feedback on that. So Ksenia, thank you so much for joining us. We'll see you next time.
Ksenia Samokhvalova 00:16:47 Thank you so much, Derek! It's been fun.
Derek Robinson 00:16:53 Thanks again to Ksenia for joining us. What's interesting about this discussion to me is how it breaks into a new category of UX in my mind, beyond what we typically think of, which entails graphical interfaces and visual items. InterSystems products don't always have a lot of graphical user interfaces, and it's not really necessarily an end-user consumer product. It's mostly used by developers, building applications for their clients. And so the user experience is much different than what we often think of with user experiences for web design or mobile apps or different end-user products. So I thought it was interesting. And as Ksenia mentioned, you can follow the links in the podcast description to get involved in the UX process yourself and have your voice heard by the UX team. So that'll do it for Episode 11. We'll see you next time on Data Points.
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