• Invention and user-centric design

Invention and user-centric design

Will people want your invention? These methods predict success, and point the way to improvement.

Of course people will beat a path to your door if you invent a better mousetrap. A little inspiration, and you’re halfway there.

“Inspiration is wonderful when it happens,” composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein once said, “but the writer must develop an approach for the rest of the time. The wait is simply too long.”

The same holds true for researchers in hotbeds of innovation like Silicon Valley, upstate New York and the French Alps. Inspiration happens a lot – but it’s not always spot-on, nor does it always happen when you need it most. Ethnography is the researcher’s approach for “the rest of time.” That’s why Xerox uses ethnographers in our research labs. Their job is to understand how people do their work and live their lives, then translate these insights into new and innovative products.

This interview series explains the concept of “user-centric design.” Meet four Xerox ethnographers who study our everyday lives and tease out inspiration for a new generation of products and services.


She gives users a voice in designing the products they use.

Jennifer Englert is a senior cognitive engineer at PARC, a Xerox company, in Webster, New York. Jennifer tells us that surveys and focus groups take you only so far.

In this interview, Jennifer describes how ethnographers engage their subjects in activities, such as by constructing “prototypes” of a product from paper. As their models progress, researchers end up asking the types of questions that wouldn’t have occurred to them before. Her anecdotes describe how these kinds of exercises uncover the needs and requirements that people have, but wouldn’t surface in a conventional interview.

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Mary Ann

She makes innovation happen by watching people work.

Mary Ann Sprague discusses how we know which needs to focus on so that we can create technology that people want. A research ethnographer at PARC in Webster, Mary Ann points out that user-centric design isn’t limited to “as-yet un-invented products.”

She describes how studies of people in the field using specific products shows us how these products and solutions can be improved. The goal is to assure they fit into the way people work.

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He gets under the skin of companies to make change happen.

Tommaso Colombino is a senior scientist in the Work Practice Technology group at the Xerox Research Centre Europe in Grenoble, France. In this interview, he describes his group’s field work: Go on-site for a few days or a few weeks. Sit down with people. Observe their work. Follow them around as they perform tasks. When necessary, capture notes or audio and video recordings.

From these types of activities, Tommaso points out, his team uncovers broken processes or ways to make it easier for people to get the information they need to do their jobs better.

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He uses probe methodologies to figure out the value of products – that don't exist.

Mike Kuniavsky says user-centric design is a risk-reduction strategy. A principal in the Innovation Services Group at PARC in Palo Alto, California, Mike discusses how his team of forward-thinking designers envisions not only the interfaces on a product, but the entire environment that the product or app might be used in.

He describes how his team uses a “quick and dirty probe methodology” in order to find value in particular technological artifacts, which range from fans to trams to apps and more. His team helps their clients understand the kind of value people will find in a physical thing without having to build it. The key, Mike points out, is step back from your assumptions about what the final result will look like, and make clear hypotheses about why you think your “artifact” will be valuable.

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Learn more about user-centric design

In addition to these podcasts, you can learn more about user-centric design on Simplify Work, a Xerox blog that shares ideas about how to make it easier to get work done so that you can delight your customers. You may also learn more about Xerox innovation at www.xerox.com/innovation.