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Experience Design at Rackspace


Introduction

At Rackspace, we are committed to imbuing our core values into the entire range of experiences around our products and services. In providing customers with exceptional customer service, branded Fanatical Support®, we take into consideration a much broader range of issues than the typical software design principle of user experience. We design the experience for a complete ecosystem of people who interact with our products, and importantly, with each other. The experience a developer, DevOps engineer, support technician, operations manager, or any other Rackspace employee has is just as important as the customer’s experience, because ultimately, it helps make the customer’s experience even better. Our systems need to be user-friendly for everyone. We’re enthusiastic about the design of our products and services, and we work diligently to make sure they work as a coherent whole. We have embarked on a journey to instill our core values into every aspect of the Rackspace experience, inside and out. To achieve this, Rackspace uses a discipline called experience design.

What Is Experience Design?

Experience design helps designers not only create the right products, but also design them right. Designers use a broad set of information so that they can create something that has a better chance of making users happy. That information incorporates roles, people, and usage categories, not only in terms of the user experience, but also across systems, services, and interactions. It accounts for all the various stakeholders and constituents and their experiences, no matter how they come into contact with a product or service. Unlike other design disciplines, experience design does not try to eliminate the virtuosity of a unique asset or person because these touches may be what make a product or service truly excellent.

Experience design is synthesized from many time-tested design practices, ranging from user-centered design to the architectural principles of wayfinding. Experience design evolved from traditional principles of human-computer interaction, as well as business process and service design. It examines the ways people come into contact with processes, services, and interfaces, whether physical or virtual, with the goal of creating products and services of high utility.

Experience Design Is Not (Just) User Experience

It is tempting to confuse experience design with user experience (UX), a significant quality factor in software design. But user experience is one small part of experience design. UX focuses on the user’s interaction with software. Experience design is about interaction coherency—not just consistency—across the experience of a product or service, regardless of who’s interacting with it. That includes developers, support staff, executives, operations staff, and, of course, users.

We have incorporated experience design into our own practices to drive our core values into everything we produce.

Rackspace Core Values

To become the service leader in cloud computing, Rackspace operates around the following core values:

Fanatical Support in All We Do
We strive to create software, systems, and interaction models that echo the exceptional customer service ethos and empower our customers by providing the information they need to accomplish their tasks and objectives—producing outcomes that matter.

Results First: Substance over Flash
Rackers (Rackspace employees) would rather see smooth functioning code that gets the job done efficiently than a flashy user interface. If you need to move a filesystem into the cloud, code that makes it fast and easy is more important than a pretty, but less efficient, interface.

Committed to Greatness 
The Rackspace design process addresses each key moment as a value-for-value exchange. While few people can describe what’s distinctive about the Rackspace experience, the design team looks at key experience moments to make sure what’s special about Rackspace surfaces through every interaction.

Full Disclosure and Transparency 
We work big and we work visual. The early part of the design process involves exposing our thinking to get early feedback. From there, creating a minimally working version lets us get insights and supports the core value of full disclosure and transparency. Rather than waiting for something to be perfect, the sooner we internally circulate a working version for feedback, the more transparency we get into the development process.

Passion for Our Work 
The result of user research and usability testing is information, not quality. When we get feedback in the form of suggestions, complaints, questions, or confusion, we assume positive intent and take it to heart. What we do with that information results in quality.

Treat Fellow Rackers Like Friends and Family 
Building awesome products for our customers is simply not enough. The experience our customers have with our products is only part of the relationship our customers have with Rackspace. As a result, we see the customer-facing part of the design process as only half of the equation. Focusing how to deliver value-for-value exchanges means that we design employee-facing systems that perform well.

Why Did Rackspace Deploy Experience Design?

Rackspace’s purpose is to make cloud computing simple for business. Experience design was introduced so that the Rackspace experience would incorporate the company’s core values into the product development process as deeply as possible.

Rackspace has historically been a managed hosting company that provided a secure, offsite location for companies to run hardware and software. The experience of running these assets offsite didn’t have to be substantially different from doing so in one’s own facilities. We could design familiar interfaces because customers were used to managing their infrastructure, and the relationship between the physical hardware, operating systems, and applications.

Once Rackspace began offering cloud-computing services, we recognized that the experience would need to be different. Because, with the cloud, the architecture is different. And there is less of a direct correlation between the dedicated computing configurations a customer historically needed and the kind of cloud infrastructure required to solve the same kinds of business problems. Cloud products, by their nature, are abstracted away from all of their constituent parts. Now we’re building products on top of a cloud-computing platform that requires its own way of thinking and relies on different assumptions. Yet the products need to be familiar and intuitive so that people can understand them and derive a high level of utility from them.

Rackspace has built a new service organization to create new products on top of a cloud-computing platform. While this includes new assumptions about product design, one fundamental assumption won’t change: business is people, and technology is here to serve people. That’s why Rackspace has an experience designer to build and lead the Experience Design organization and to create and develop products that are both useful and useable—for everyone who touches them.

Experience Design In Action At Rackspace

Fundamentally, we believe that:

  • It’s not good enough to just design great products. Products need to reflect the values embodied by our employees—simple and intuitive.
  • User interfaces (not just technology, but all touch points) need to be consistent with the Rackspace brand. This is about fundamental experiences, not just appearance. Before we worry too much about look and feel, we must consider whether we’re designing the right product and how well it is designed.
  • Interactions with employees and the product need to be part of a coherent experience. In other words, the interactions themselves need to be perceived as supportive.
  • When we design systems, we must think of them not just as pieces of software, but also as a whole chain of cause and effect moments that makes up an experience, which can include user, employee, and electronic (automated) actions.

Each of our Core Values is embodied in one or more mottos. Here are a few examples.

"Documentation Is Defect"

Fundamentally, we believe design should be intuitive. That’s why, when a developer designs a product feature that needs documentation to explain how it works, we consider that a defect, and we send them back to the drawing board with a specification for a redesign. We aim to create user interfaces so intuitive that they don’t need documentation. If and when we document, we want it to answer questions, add insight, and deliver real value to an audience such as software developers, who need information that goes beyond what the user interface can deliver.

“Nothing is a No-Brainer”

Just because we’re designing an intuitive experience, that doesn’t mean we operate on gut instinct to put our ideas in motion. Quite the opposite. “Nothing is a no-brainer” means every stage of design receives a thorough review. We look for patterns, and once we find them, we can codify some methodologies. This still leaves room for creativity, problem solving, and unique design solutions.

“Coherence Over Consistency” – When Core Values Conflict

Consistency cannot interfere with high-utility design and value delivery. It’s far more important that the experience be coherent than consistent. Designing the right thing, and designing it right, means that sometimes a product needs to be different to deliver the highest value. In those cases, we let it be different.

For example, Rackspace recently set out to create a consolidated knowledge base for the support team. We discovered that four of the five preexisting knowledge bases had similar architectures, but the fifth, aimed at email and applications support, was anomalous. Its search capability, and relevance ranking differed significantly from its peers, and much of its value would have been lost if it were folded into the macro-architecture.

In defense of coherence, we halted shipment of the unified knowledge base, instead shipping the four similar knowledge bases together as planned, alongside the fifth product, which retained its architecture. We added a feedback channel into all the knowledge bases so that customers could tell us what was working.

Experience design was applied in this situation because the defensible motivation of passion in all we do was potentially conflicting with the core promise. It wouldn’t be right, in the name of consistency, to release a product that was a step backward in terms of finding information to solve mission-critical problems.

The story has a happy ending. In the next release, the unified knowledge base incorporated the superior information architecture, interaction model, and functionality of the fifth knowledge base across all of the others.

Customer Feedback and Experience Design

Rackspace collects an enormous amount of customer feedback in order to provide the best possible experience.

For quantitative, and high-level anecdotal data, Rackspace makes extensive use of the Net Promoter® Score to calibrate the experience. Net Promoter works best as a trailing indicator of customer satisfaction for features and is not as effective as a leading indicator, so we don’t use it as a predictive model. However, its ability to communicate direct customer anecdotes and comments to the team is highly developed.

In the near future, we will be adding in a higher-fidelity model that follows a real-time closed-loop feedback model, which will collect unstructured data and better help bring the voice of the customer directly into the design and development process.

For example, we’re currently redesigning our control panel, with faster OpenStack®-based APIs that will allow shorter turnaround times for adding and deleting servers, or resizing storage capacity. However, we realize that even if the APIs are faster, it doesn’t matter unless the customer perceives them as faster. Creating that perception requires a more holistic take on design than simply upgrading the underlying technology.

Design Tools to Support Execution Flexibility

Rackspace has instituted a set of design tools to help align the various parts of the company involved in product design, yet we leave room for flexibility when it comes to executing the designs. These design tools include:

  • Desired Outcomes: A thinking framework that creates a compelling description of the target design in a way that makes the concept easily digestible and understandable for product managers, engineers, and designers, without the need for a prototype. 
  • Mental Models: Mental models are visual maps of how a person thinks. They showcase the gaps between how people think about what they want to accomplish and what the designs actually support. At Rackspace, we have an Indi Young-style mental model 40 feet long and 4 feet high of our latest control panel design. 
  • Experience Moments: Experience moments map a desired outcome against a sequence series of points in time. It’s a technique for “threading the needle” of requirements that will meet or exceed the user’s expectations, that is, the sum of their needs and wants in a given context. 
  • Behavioral Personas: Behavioral personas create representative users, based not on their demographics and attitudes, but on their goals, objectives, and actual task-based behaviors. They embody behaviors that are common across a segment of the system. Behaviors can refer to actions undertaken by people or computer systems. 

Driving Organizational Development

We’re big believers in empathy at Rackspace. Our version of the Golden Rule is “Treat fellow Rackers like friends and family.” We believe that the only way to offer excellent customer experiences is to make sure our own employees are having a great experience. We also believe in the old adage of “walking a mile in another man’s shoes.” Those beliefs apply to several key aspects of experience design and find their way into our practices, such as:

  • Embedding Practitioners in Business Units: Experience designers need to be in the field with their product lines. This makes them the best representatives for the needs of a product and the design of the product for use in different customer segments. At Rackspace, each product line has a design leader. This person is a single point of contact and helps the product line be successful from an experience design point of view, encouraging thinking about the system holistically.
  • Assuming Positive Intent: Designing great products and providing exceptional customer support isn’t always easy. Humans are vulnerable to misunderstandings. We employ the maxim “assume positive intent.” In other words, Rackers assume that whomever they are interacting with had the best intentions, but may not have had all the information they needed. This promotes respect and productivity. 
  • Hiring customers to get their view: Sometimes our customers have such great, detailed ideas, we listen to them. They really bring the customer perspective.
  • Optimizing the Racker® Software Experience: We apply experience design to every aspect of the Racker experience. We ask questions, such as “who is affected by an interface or a process, and how?” We take the same care we do when designing customer interfaces, streamlining the number of steps to do a task.
  • Giving Priority to the Racker Point of View: We don’t let executive priorities override the employees’ perception when making design choices about products they will use. We recently launched a pilot to study employee experiences and perceptions when interacting with the products.

Crafting the User Experience

We believe that how you say it is just as important as what you say. That’s why we are always working to improve our dialogue with users, no matter how they encounter us—in person, over the phone or through an electronic interface with one of our products.

  • Voicing: Rackspace does a good deal of modeling to achieve consistency in the language we use, both in electronic and human interfaces, which we call voicing. The goal is not to be robotic, but respectful of context and respond in a way consistent with the brand. 
  • Word choice, tone, and clarity are all important. When we’re trying to help, we try to distinguish when it is best to ask questions and when to give directions. When things break, neither computer nor human should make rude comments. 
  • Diagramming: Currently Rackspace is diagramming all its error and informational messages to improve them, striking a balance between informative and informal.

Conclusion

At Rackspace, we introduced Experience Design to support a design philosophy that is comprehensive and coherent, and which pervades our efforts to provide the best possible experience for everyone who builds and uses our products and services, whether they’re prospects, customers, developers, or Rackers.

The cloud has unleashed a new, more abstract paradigm in the way that people interact with computer hardware and software, and it demands a responsive collection of products that reflect that reality. But even as computing becomes more abstract, the concrete human values of transparency, respect, and empathy are more important than ever to our mission. When our employees and customers tangibly perceive our core values in every interaction they have with Rackspace, we take that as evidence that this experiment is working.

Harry Max is Vice President of Experience Design for Rackspace. Harry’s role includes responsibility for everything experience: from product design to customer service tools to the employee experience.

Before joining Rackspace, Harry worked with executives, UX management, software and Internet technologists, startup founders, and visionaries. Clients included Google, SAP, Skype, Adobe, Symantec, PayPal, and others.

Prior to this, Harry was on the forefront of Internet-based application design and development. In 1994, as a cofounder of Virtual Vineyards (wine.com), Harry designed all of the user interaction concepts behind the first secure Web shopping cart.







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