History of the user experience:
The user experience issue emerged in the seventies with the spread of information technology to the masses. Until then, users were either experts, engineers or IT specialists.
In the early nineties, the user experience was given a theoretical basis by Don Norman, a professor of cognitive psychology at the University of San Diego, who instilled it in Apple’s DNA when he worked for the firm in Cupertino.
Today, we have entered the “customer experience era”. Everything is meant to be an experience, from phones that help us communicate while broadening our horizons, to cars that, in addition to being a vehicle, become one more vehicle for freedom. Creating the best product or the best service is no longer enough; now the experience of these products or services , and of the brand in general, must be unforgettable.
The user experience is therefore a key component of the customer experience. But what does it cover? How is it different from the customer experience?
What does “user experience” really mean?
Although there is no clear consensus on its definition, this experience is usually understood to be how a user feels about an interactive tool linked to a product or service. Therefore, it is more limited than the customer experience which includes the entire relationship between a customer and a brand, and not just a product or service.
This is how it is defined by the ISO 9241-210 standard: “person’s perceptions and responses resulting from the use and/or anticipated use of a product, system or service. User experience is a consequence of brand image, presentation, functionality, system performance, interactive behaviour and assistive capabilities of the interactive system. It is also a consequence of the user’s internal and physical state resulting from prior experiences, attitudes, skills and personality.”
This definition highlights that a user experience is the encounter of a user and an interface and that it depends as much on the characteristics of this interface as it does on the user’s personality. Thus, there are as many experiences as there are users. In addition, the experience of a given user can vary over time. For this reason, it is better to speak of a particular user experience than of the general user experience.
Why is this important?
For those companies, like Ivalua,that develop a software solution for the Procurement Departments of large groups, paying attention to the user experience means ensuring better adoption of our software and, in the end, an increased compliance with procurement policy for our customers. An optimal user experience has other benefits too, sometimes unexpected ones. Some of our customers report that having a modern interface and up-to-date user ergonomics helps them attract talent, most notably Generation Y technology adepts. In this period of talent shortage, highlighting access to tools on the cutting edge of the user experience can constitute a major recruitment advantage. Patrick Conquet, our Director of Product Research and Development, points out another strength by emphasising collaborative advantages. “Software effectiveness is based on data and technology, but the human element must not be forgotten. The tool must attract teams and unite them so they can work better together.”
But what are the characteristics of a user experience that maximises software adoption and brings teams together?
For Patrick Conquet, three aspects are essential: “It must be user-friendly and intuitive, as well as useful in a business context.”
Indeed, the term “user-friendly” corresponds to a feeling that is personal to each user. But individuals must have a positive feeling about the way they use the application and, above all, want to continue with it.
“Intuitive” is a notion that comes from our experience with B2C applications, whether on e-commerce sites or using mobile applications that supply content. Users are no longer willing to read a user guide or spend hours in training to master the use of software. Now, users want to start immediately on their software experience. They expect to be operational on the application quickly and figure it out by themselves so they can take advantage of the software’s benefits. Uber would have remained unknown if people had to take training to be able to call a driver with the app.
Finally, “useful” means that users are able to do more efficient work by automating certain tasks or by having access to information that enables them to make better decisions. For an experience to be truly useful, it must be adapted to the user’s context, as concerns both the user’s job and the way software is consumed. Expectations will be different for our procurement optimisation solutions and will depend on whether the user is an experienced buyer, an occasional requestor or a Procurement Director. The user experience will vary according to the user’s business profile. One of the strengths of the Ivalua solution is its ability to adapt the experience to the user’s profile, most notably through interfaces that can be differentiated and personalised. The experience may also vary according to users’ environments. If users are in an office or a factory or are often on the move, their application access constraints will not be the same. They will want their user experience to take this into account with a greater or lesser number of mobility options or a solution that adapts to different devices, such as a desktop PC or a laptop, as well as a smartphone or a tablet.
At Ivalua, we work on these three components of the user experience to make it the best one possible.
What means does Ivalua implement to create an optimal user experience?
As we saw at the beginning of this article, a user experience depends first of all on the characteristics of the proposed software solution. Therefore, we work on reinforcing this aspect by using the most modern internet technologies. Searching for data, for example, is a major component in the use of our solutions, so we have implemented Elasticsearch* for this. In addition, we ensure a more user-friendly and intuitive interface with Semantic UI*. The two technologies are the top performers for these types of functionalities.
In this way, we optimise the experience of a user who would like, for instance, to purchase a pair of safety boots from a set of items that are available from catalogues negotiated by the Procurement Department. The powerful search engine we have implemented, which we call Search 360, enables you to find available items from various catalogues (hosted, punch-out, or froman external platform), displaying them in real time and quickly comparing their characteristics without the user having to worry about which channel they correspond to. In addition, the search engine automatically fills in the blanks (if the user types in “sho,” the engine suggests “shoes”) and corrects possible typos (if the user types in “shos,” the engine suggests “shoes”). Reinforced ergonomics coupled with powerful functionalities contribute to making the experience as optimal as possible for users.
But, as we have seen, the user experience depends just as much on the intrinsic characteristics of the solution as on the users themselves. This is why we pay as much attention to this second aspect of things; that is, what users feel.
We start by organising user groups with participants from both procurement and suppliers, and we bring them together regularly to validate our hypotheses or to innovate on the basis of user ergonomics. We pay special attention to the user experience on the supplier side because it has too often been neglected by procurement solutions on the market. According to a study carried out by Forrester in April 2019 (The Keys to Effective Procurement Transformation), the leading factor behind the failure of a procurement solution is a low level of adhesion by suppliers (30%). Next come adoption issues concerning internal users (27%) and issues with implementation (25%).
To maximise the results of these user groups, we adopt a rigorous methodology. We first determine the scenario we want to work on, generally one part of the procurement process. Next, we create two user experience prototypes that are proposed to the group, either as a video or as a test environment for our solution. Our experts make sure to measure how users feel about each of the proposed options. The final result is not based exclusively on either option but is a summary of the best features of each and represents a sort of third option.
In addition to this qualitative study of a detailed list of contents tested on a limited number of users, we also carry out more quantitative studies including all of our customers. Twice a year, we survey them to determine their level of user satisfaction and collect new ideas for improvement. This also allows us to check hypotheses stemming from the user groups.
However, the user experience evolves rapidly, in accordance with sociological transformations and newly created applications, in particular B2C ones. For this reason, we make every effort to keep abreast of user expectations. We have a dedicated team of user experience experts who track these developments and analyse new practices. On the one hand, this is done through pure research, especially on software ergonomics, and on the other, through an analysis of what the new applications propose. In this way, we can identify current and future trends.
One of the leading trends, and one that will continue to develop, is a more fully integrated multi-device experience. Today, everyone is focused on mobility because smartphones have become a predominant device for everyday use, at least as concerns consumers. However, mobility is not the only factor. The stakes are broader. The idea is to offer a holistic experience. Procurement solution users could start the purchasing process from their desktop PC, follow the approval steps on a smartphone and confirm delivery on a warehouse terminal, with the same level of satisfaction from start to finish.
If we reflect further on the integration of devices and consider any object as a potential connected device, we enter the domain of the Internet of Things. This second trend drastically modifies the way everyday objects are used because they are connected together via internet. In the sphere of professional procurement, powerful but as yet unknown applications could be implemented to cut costs and reduce delivery time. We can imagine a series of servers at a major hosting company that would be tied together through a smart system. This company would always know stock status and could define configurations that would automatically send an order to a preferred supplier when stocks drop below a certain level. When the order from the connected servers arrives, it wouldn’t be necessary to confirm delivery, since the connected servers would automatically update stocks, connect to the supplier’s invoicing system and trigger the automatic emission of an invoice.
Furthermore, we can imagine smart electric consumption meters that would enable procurement teams to know detailed needs in real time, enabling optimisation of the associated consumption and cost. Human intervention at certain steps in the procurement process would thus be totally modified, necessarily shaking up the user’s experience with the software solution. The human-machine interface would no longer operate through the same points of encounter.
Another trend could also make interfaces evolve in a radical manner. Here again, it comes from the new ways of consuming and placing orders that abound on the B2C market. This trend is voice control. Propelled by the multiplication of smart domestic devices like Google Home or Amazon’s Alexa, this practice is beginning to influence the way in which consumers think of their future purchases. The growth of voice control is reflected in the emergence of chatbots and more sophisticated communication interfaces that are able to take into account entire spoken sentences, not just written texts and spoken keywords, and transform them into machine actions. The user experience corresponding to a procurement solution that relies on a mouse click to trigger an action would be disrupted.
Finally, the use of virtual assistants based on artificial intelligence technologies would reduce the human-machine interface to the assistant. Ergonomics that are currently based on physical and tactile interfaces would move up to another level. Why continue to build intuitive interfaces if AI is able to understand destructured messages and send a structured answer?
Ivalua is investing in responding to these market changes and is developing a smart virtual assistant named IVA that can interact with users and guide them in the procurement processes implemented by the Procurement Department of a company.