Completed UX project: Desktop design tool for antenna engineers

“Awesomeness” was one of the project goals. User-centred design helped to deliver it.

As we use wi-fi networks, satellite TV, mobile phones, we don’t give a thought to the antennas that makes them work. But designing antennas is hard. It’s almost as much an art as a science, takes lots of knowledge, dedication and experience… and months.

Antenna Magus is a new piece of software which cuts weeks off the antenna design process. It represents a revolution in antenna design. (If you want to know what it actually does, your best bet is to watch their chuckle-provoking video).

Antenna Magus screenshots

The Magus team wanted the software to be useful and quick to use. They wanted it to be “awesome” (with tongues slightly in cheeks). Most of all, they wanted it to be exportable globally and generate significant revenue, in a shortish time frame. So they asked me to help get them there.

During 2008 and 2009 I consulted on version 1 of the Antenna Magus project, with Carien Fouche, their newly-appointed, in-house UX designer. CEO Sam Clarke had already done some initial context studies and concept work – it really helps when the CEO “gets” user-centred design. From there we did a full UCD process, including personas, scenarios, prototypes and usability testing. But there were a few things that made the project special.

Magus prototypes, from paper sketch to high-fidelity, clickable powerpoint
Paper and PowerPoint prototypes of Antennas Magus, for usability testing and discussion.

Challenge 1: I don’t understand antennas

As any user centred designer knows – this doesn’t actually matter much. User-centred design is really about trying to understand user goals and tasks, regardless of how much you may already know, or not, about the domain. Techniques like ethnography, personas, and usability testing are all about that. In fact, being quite clear that you don’t understand the domain can be an advantage: you’re not tempted to make personal assumptions about user needs.

Usability testing paper prototypes is still the quickest way to get feedback on a tricky subject
Usability testing paper prototype with Antenna engineers

Challenge 2: The users are far, far away

A lot of South African software projects suffer from this problem. They’re designing for global export, which means their target users are literally thousands of miles away.

Solutions:

  • Find some local users who are as similar to target users as possible. Antenna Magus had a group of local antenna engineers they could work with, locally.
  • Simulate target users with personas and mental models. Having well thought-through personas stuck on the wall always helps.
  • Be the users. Since there were several antenna engineers on the team, we had good insight on tap.
  • Piggy back user testing/research on other trips. Sales and investment meetings, and training sessions overseas can get one of your team members into the right countries. Then you just need to train them how to bring back new user insights.

Plotting personas on a matrix helped us summarise goals and behaviours
A 2×2 matrix of personas gave a quick summary of persona goals and behaviours

Mental models: Trying to understand how engineers want to work through the antenna design process
Mental models: Trying to understand how engineers want to work through the antenna design process

Challenge 3: Agile

Actually, agile projects are a joy, not a challenge. (At least, this one was, because it was a no-nonsense affair piloted by development manager Brian Woods). You acknowledge the fact that you can’t really perfect a complex user experience until you have working code to play with. You only design the detail of things you actually need, as you actually need them.

We started with a 2-day UCD training course for key project stakeholders
We started the project with a 2-day UCD training course for CEO, product manager, UX designer and lead developer.

But you need some solid concept design up front. The design team have to have a good understanding of the target users and their needs, a vision for a coherent product, and a good head start designing the navigation and interaction framework. On Magus, we had 3 months (!) of this “sprint zero” time, while the developers continued with back-end work. It was excellent.

Results

Antenna Magus is in release 1.0 and selling. Thousands of copies have been downloaded for evaluation.

Feedback on the software’s user experience has been good. We’ve seen a couple of small interaction bugs, and lots of new ideas for features. But the results are startlingly good for a 1.0 release.

The feedback that sums it all up for me actually was actually on a discussion forum in Russian. It refers to the minimalist user manual (just one page) supplied with the software:

A rather modest manual [...] as we have found opportunities in the program are not very many, and their use is almost obvious.

If Russians can use this first release in English and find it “almost obvious”, we must have done something right.

Credits. I got to work with a really impressive team that have a made a truly innovative product. CEO: Sam Clarke. Development manager: Brian Woods. User experience designer: Carien Fouche. Marketing (including the video): Robert Kellerman. Development: Sean Snyders, Christo Zeitsman and Leo Herselman. Plus a team of super-smart antenna engineers whose distilled expertise is what makes the product unique: Dan Barnard, Konrad Brand, Evan Knox-Davies, Neilen Marais and Thomas Sickle.

One thought on “Completed UX project: Desktop design tool for antenna engineers

  • July 23, 2009 at 2:54 pm
    Permalink

    So that is what you have been doing across from our old building?! Fascinating stuff.

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