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User-Centric Concept Development

Project Overview

The first generation of HTML email editors were designed for use on desktop computers, with early smartphones too small and primitive to serve as realistic tools for crafting large scale email campaigns.  As smartphone technology has advanced, however, marketers are increasingly relying on their smartphones to conduct business. 

Internal product stakeholders sought to address this shift in user behavior by developing a mobile application that would fulfill the needs our users encounter while away from their desktop computers.  Since the application was yet undeveloped, I had the opportunity to bring direct user feedback into the ongoing concept development effort.  My goal in this early stage of the project was to gather information about how our user base might wish to use smartphones to support their marketing activity. 

Girl pointing finger on screen smartphon


Identifying and prioritizing user needs can be a difficult task, in part because people are notoriously unreliable when asked to predict how much they will use a hypothetical product, feature or service.  This difficulty does not, however, diminish the importance of user input in the early stages of concept development.  In this case, I sought to cast the widest possible net in soliciting user ideas so that our product team would have a broad spectrum of potential functionality to consider for future development.  To that end, I settled on a series of focus groups and the performance of a "wants and needs" analysis. 

Bar Graph Analysis Strategy Business Con
Brainstorming session with post it notes

This research project consisted of three focus groups, each containing between 8-12 participants, all of whom were current users of our email marketing software and people who self-identified as frequently using their smartphones for business.  

After an initial warm-up discussion, we initiated a group brainstorming activity where all participants were encouraged to think up as many ways as possible they might use an ideal email marketing mobile app in support of their business.  To maximize the number and diversity of ideas generated, I encouraged the participants to be as creative as possible in their brainstorming and not limit their ideas to currently available functionality or feel bound by perceived technological constraints.  As moderator, I wrote these ideas down on a white board for all to see.

When the group had finished brainstorming possible ideas, the focus shifted to an individual prioritization exercise.  With all possible ideas listed on my whiteboard, I asked the participants to individually and privately identify the top five features or ideas that would be most useful to them as marketers, and rank them in priority order.  I viewed the private nature of this prioritization task as important protection against the risk of "group think".



Completion of the prioritization exercise marked the end of each focus group session.  When all three focus group sessions had concluded, I compiled and analyzed the individual prioritized lists, seeking common themes and ideas.  

Handwriting priorities on white paper no

Outcome & Reflection

This concept development exercise was one piece of a larger user-centered design initiative underpinning the eventual development of a mobile email marketing application.  Several of the ideas generated in this series of focus groups ultimately made their way into the current mobile application, ranging from the most fundamental idea of mobile HTML email editing to the more creative idea of using the smartphone camera to scan business cards and store contact information in client email lists.

The focus group format itself has certain pitfalls that any researcher must take into account.  The "wants and needs" analysis attempts to avoid the risk of group-think by casting such a wide net, and forcing the prioritization task to take place privately.  That said, there is still the risk that less outgoing individuals might be less forthcoming with ideas and that the most extroverted might dominate the initial brainstorming activity.  Focus groups have the advantage of generating large amounts of qualitative data in a relatively short amount of time, but they can only ever act as one piece of the concept development puzzle.  


Screenshot 1: Current production mobile email editing interface.

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