Sometimes all a complex problem needs is a better metaphor.
This higher-ed consultancy, client of ours, has been struggling for years with transfers of large data files to and from their clients. Statistical analysis works best on large data sets, and in this case, the files reach in the dozens of megs, and they usually are burnt on CDs and sent in the mail.
Some more courageous institutions had been uploading files through a web interface, but that was fraught with problems, mostly with dropped connections and uploads. Also, there was a lot of back-and-forth on the phone with clients, trying to determine which uploaded file was which, which was outdated, which had changed.
We had finally come up with a semi-reliable way to allow web upload, and decided to revisit the whole user experience before we implemented it. The developers had a clear vision of an online file manager, but I insisted we look at the actors, context, and goals.
It turns out that these files are always exchanged in the context of customer service, always accompanied with conversation and clarifications. And there is a better metaphor for this kind of file exchange: Email attachments.
I proposed a prototype of “Safe Mail”, a new set of pages on the extranet where clients can check their mailbox for messages and announcements, send messages with secure multi-meg attachments, and keep track of the entire process. I made sure to include thumbnail photos of the client’s consultants with their email, and to demo an announcement from the big boss, to highlight the customer service, marketing and sales value of this relational tool.
The client loved it. The entire office has been abuzz about it since the demo, and the developers are working hard to make it real. It’s going to simplify a whole lot of things around here, and everybody’s very busy trying to find the right photo to use on their profile.
I love it when looking at context and personal goals allows for a complete mind-shift into a better metaphor. We’ve done more than solve an issue here; we’ve changed the nature and tenor of customer service, making it both more rational and more personal.