The Human Factor: BT’s Design Thinking and Business Design in the early 1990s

BT Group has had an interesting history in the UK. In 1912, the British General Post Office was given the monopoly to build the UK’s telecoms infrastructure. British Telecom was formed in 1980, and became independent from the Post office in 1981, and then was privatised in 1984, with 50% of the shares being sold to investors. The second half of British Telecom was sold in 1991 and 1993, which co-incided with me joining the group in 1992 as a psychologist in BT’s Human Factors Department, within it’s Research Department at BT Laboratories, under then head Peter Cochrane.

BT Phones

I have already written at length about the history of the smart phone and mobile internet in a previous article (A Brief (and Personal) History of Mobile Telephony 1992 – 2002) and so in this article I want to focus a little more on the design thinking and business design philosophy BT had in the early 1990s. BT is often much maligned by British people, but it was certainly responsible for much at the cutting edge of telecoms development, including introducing a much more organic design aesthetic into its consumer handsets starting from the early 1990s.

I began working on a number of what were called Network Services, such as Call Waiting, Call Forwarding and my main product, BT Chargecard. With this service, people could make a call from any phone, including a pay phone, but have the cost of the call charged to the home phone bill. Customers would dial a short code, and then would have to go through a number of voice prompts to enter their card number and PIN.

We had prototyping tools to create the dialogue flows, and we also had usability labs where members of the public would come in to be participants in trials of our new services. Actually, one of my highlights was meeting the woman who was employed by BT to record many of their voice services. She came in to record the Chargecard prompts, and I had to direct her. I know many people get frustrated with these types of system, but at BT we used to test different styles of intonation to help people understand if they were listening to prompts or a question.

speech recognition

In the early 1990s our team was also working closely with the Speech Recognition team to develop a new voice based answering service. Although one version of the service was created using ‘1’ for ‘yes’ and ‘2’ for ‘no’, another version allowed people to say ‘yes’ and ‘no’ for the voice prompts such as “Do you wish to hear that message again?” I was involved in a number of the usability trials, and it was interesting to see how even though people had exactly the same set of options, if they spoke to the service rather than typing ‘1’ or ‘2’ they attributed far more intelligence to it, with many people speaking to it in long sentences.

“Would you like to hear that message again?” “Oh yes, thank you very much.”

This used to play havoc with the speech recognition, and so we had to word prompts along the lines of “Answering ‘yes’ or ‘no’ would you like to hear that message again?”

Nowadays we almost take design thinking and business design for granted, even though these terms have only been introduced quite recently. Although if you think of product design and telecoms you tend to think of Apple, in fact much of the thinking came from this type of usability work in the 1990s. Design thinking was not common. The BT Human Factors team was one of the largest in Europe, if not the world, and unlike more academic teams based in universities, we worked extremely closely with our marketing colleagues, who were our internal clients.

For this reason a number of us published various papers about how a Human Factors team can work best with marketing. My colleague Mike Atyeo and myself published Delivering Competitive Edge in Human-Computer Interaction, Interact ’95, Chapman and Hall (1995). The following year the two of us and another colleague, Charanjit Sidhu published Working with Marketing (Conference Companion on Human Factors in Computing Systems). The theme of the conference on which the papers were based was “Common Ground” and this introduction provides an interesting snapshot of the design thinking at that time:

Scientific and engineering fields evolve based on common goals, paradigms, conceptual frameworks, methods, and theories. As they mature, they tend to increase their structure in terms of sub-fields, and the trend continues toward sub-dividing not only the field but also jobs, communities, and events. Through this evolution, some fields lose their identity, and thereby their common ground; in the end they often fall apart. Other, stronger fields experience paradigm shifts, changes of views, the emergence of new frameworks and theories and keep themselves alive by a constant effort to integrate new views into their own common ground.

Since its emergence, the field of “Human-Computer Interaction (HCI)” has evolved through such a dynamic, and the CHI conference is a mirror of that evolution. Sub-fields emerging from HCI, like “Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW)”, Participatory Design and “User Interface Software Technology (UIST)” now have their own platforms in addition to CHI. Some of these fields have voted for a radical paradigm shift in contrast to old paradigms which have played a major role in the common understanding of the field of HCI. From the technology corner, new sub-fields like Hypermedia, Multimedia and Virtual Reality are arising.

In the past, we have built bridges, we have showcased and celebrated interdependence, and we have worked on the creation of a mosaic of creativity. It is time now to focus on defining our common ground.

The more our field matures, the more we need to understand its common ground. We need to understand that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Technological progress alone can not determine the maturity of the field.

Source: CHI ’96 Common Ground

Anyway, I thought out of historical interest I would republish our paper. The recommendations are as applicable now as they were back in the mid-90s when practitioners such as ourselves were encouraging our peers to get out of the laboratories and into the real world. The paper focusses on our work on BT’s Call Minder, which would later be rebranded as 1571, the short code customers dialled to reach it.

Working with Marketing

Mike Atyeo, Simon Robinson, Charanjit Sidhu

BT Laboratories, Martlesham Heath,
Ipswich, Suffolk, IP5 7RE, UK

This paper describes our experiences in BT working with Marketing on a number of recently released and forthcoming telecommunications products. We believe that usability professionals will find it increasingly important to work with marketing professionals, and we provide practical advice for those who do so.

Human Factors, Marketing, focus groups, telecommunications

As long ago as 1976 the relationship between human factors and marketing was characterised as ‘neglected’ [1]. As recently as 1995, the relationship was described as ‘distant and often chilly’ [2]. At BT, we have been integrating our work with marketing activities for some time [3, 5]. We believe that this not only provides a more cost-effective solution for our company, but overcomes many of the traditional problems with the role of usability professionals – for example, the frequently-voiced complaint that usability professionals are not involved early enough in the development process.

We also believe that usability professionals will find it increasingly important to understand and work with marketing. Winograd recently pointed out that software markets are becoming more consumer-like [4]. Consumer products also have an increasing software content, and many depend on integration with information and communications services. More importantly, information, entertainment and computing technologies and markets are converging rapidly, and usability professionals will find themselves working on consumer products and services more frequently. These radical market shifts also mean that traditional marketing research techniques are no longer sufficient for producing innovative products.

BT Call Minder 1571

On recent product developments, we have been able to contribute very early in the development cycle, either jointly or in parallel with marketing research. Most of the experiences reported here come from our work on Call Minder, the remainder are from products not yet launched. Call Minder is a residential voice messaging system. Launched in May 1995, it already has more than 100,000 customers, with over 1,000 new customers taking up the service every week.

Part of our ‘concept evaluation’ process is a rapid impact analysis, designed to provide a ‘first cut’ analysis of costs, timescales, and issues. On a recent development, we were able to highlight a significant number of end user issues from a high level concept outline. These issues were incorporated into six usage scenarios, whose primary purpose was to communicate the concept – including target market – to BT developers, and to external design agencies and manufacturers.

For Call Minder, marketing carried out initial concept testing with focus groups. They examined customers’ attitudes towards answering machines and existing network-based services, as well as their attitudes towards the proposed service, their price expectations, etc. The resulting information suggested necessary levels of customer acceptance needed for market success, and even highlighted some customer priorities, but provided little guidance for product specification or for design rationale.

We therefore prototyped a version of the proposed service, using an in-house dialogue design tool, and ran a series of focus groups with representatives of the target market. Unlike the earlier focus groups, we included task-based product interaction as well as discussion. This provided qualitative behavioural data in addition to subjective response, and sparked specific discussions in the groups. The results highlighted usability issues which would have had significant impact on the acceptability of the product. As a result, major parts of the user dialogue were re-designed.

We have found that our clients [1] obtain a clearer understanding of our techniques and skills if we involve them in our process. In the developments outlined here, we gained buy-in from team members during multidisciplinary scenario and storyboard generation. Key project board members were also invited to observe our focus groups. When they were unable to do this, we provided videos of edited highlights of our customer observations. Certain types of customer behaviour can only be fully communicated in this way. For example, customers’ hesitancy when faced with a speech system shows more in real-time behaviour than in their considered responses to survey questions.

For Call Minder, a field trial was carried out with the modified prototype service. Marketing and human factors carried out parallel research, coordinated to prevent duplication. We presented our results at the same project meetings. These presentations highlighted the contributions of both disciplines. Marketing were able to present general findings covering a broad range of market issues (price sensitivity, package options etc). Our work provided explanations for some of the findings, and elicited customers’ own views on how the service could be improved. In addition, we showed how verbal responses could sometimes have a tenuous relationship to actual customer behaviour.

On a subsequent product, we presented the marketing and usability data as an integrated whole, rather than in separate presentations.

Even at Call Minder concept generation stage, we were able to start to put in place approximate usability targets for critical parts of the proposed service – eg message access time, system response times – drawn from previous product work. These were used to direct and prioritise work as well as providing benchmarks against which we evaluated the prototypes. We refined the targets after the field trials, and were able to use Call Minder benchmarks on subsequent developments.

In the production of usability targets, marketing became aware that they had to develop a stronger understanding of the relationship between specific subjective and objective usability targets and likely market size, usage, and churn.

A recent development was built on an exchange platform which captures network transaction data for the production of traffic statistics. For a field trial, this meant that we were able to obtain detailed information from a large number of calls to the service within a few days. This helped us to see some problems early on, for example a high rate of ‘hang-up’, which might otherwise have required lengthy customer observation.

The platform also allowed us to selectively change parts of the prototype service during the field trial itself, and observe the results.

Marketing research, no less than usability engineering, can be conservative in relying on tried and tested techniques. More marketing people are beginning to realise that their traditional research techniques are weak in the face of rapidly moving technology and markets, where potential customers are unable to envisage future services. BT marketing have recognised the need to move from ‘asking’ to ‘observing’, and the necessity to provide as realistic an environment of use as possible for the observation. They are more frequently taking prototype services out into the marketplace for concept testing. Following on from our Call Minder work, marketing are considering adopting the dialogue prototyping tool as a marketing research aid.

Working closely with voice service engineers as well as marketing people, we were in a unique position to see, understand, and communicate the interdisciplinary issues. In effect, we were often able to act as translators between the two very different sets of people, and ensure that our own recommendations were sound from both a business and technical perspective.

Our recent work with marketing has illustrated how:

  • Usage and usability issues form a critical part of consumer product concepts
  • Behavioural observation can provide more detail to marketing data, helping to focus product design
  • Customer behaviour elucidates reasons behind marketing data
  • Observation of customer behaviour can show weaknesses in marketing data obtained by more traditional means

The main value of this learning has been that we can refine ideas while still at the concept stage. This saves the disproportionate amount of effort, time and cost which could have been necessary to re-work the products later in the development process.

We believe that usability professionals will increasingly need to integrate usability engineering with marketing activities, as they find themselves working more and more often with marketing. However, the payback is that usability engineering can establish a secure role at the earliest stages of product development, in generating and evaluating innovative product concepts.

Internal customers of our work, rather than product end-users.

Cannon, T. and Hasty, R. The Neglected Alliance: Human Factors and Market Research, in Proc. 6th Congress of the International Ergonomics Association. Santa Monica, USA 1976, pp. 113-117.
Nardi, B. Some Reflections on Scenarios, in Scenario-Based Design, Carroll, J. (Ed), Wiley 1995.
Atyeo, M. and Green, R. User-Friendly Weapons for the Competitive Fight, British Telecommunications Engineering Journal Vol. 13.3, 1994 pp. 201-205.
Winograd, T. From Programming Environments to Environments for Designing, Communications of the ACM Vol. 38 No 6 June 1995
Atyeo, M. and Robinson, S. Delivering Competitive Edge, in Proc. Interact ’95 (Lillehammer, Norway) pp. 384-385.

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A Brief (and Personal) History of Mobile Telephony 1992 – 2002

7 responses to “The Human Factor: BT’s Design Thinking and Business Design in the early 1990s

  1. Pingback: A Brief (and Personal) History of Mobile Telephony 1992 – 2002 | The Transition of Consciousness·

  2. Pingback: The Human Factor: BT’s Design Thinking and Business Design in the early 1990s | fred zimny's serve4impact·

  3. Pingback: Exploring Gadamer’s Truth and Method: Elements of a Theory of Hermeneutic Experience | The Transition of Consciousness·

  4. Pingback: BT’s OnePhone – Understanding the difference between the customer experience and design thinking | Transition Consciousness·

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  6. Pingback: Is Human Centred Design the same as Design Thinking? – Customer Experiences with Soul·

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