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Ever pondered the origin of a seemingly useless feature on your smartphone or wondered how a product manual could be so convoluted? The answer may lie in the gap between research and use of technology in the real world.

With their vision naturally dominated by a technological perspective, researchers and software engineers typically do not make good product designers, and in many cases are not a typical end user of the targeted system.

Experience design bridges the gap by focusing on the quality of the user experience. In this way it can be used to leverage innovation to develop new business opportunities and  accelerate the commercialisation of disruptive technology.

The bridge between work practice and technology design

The study of work practices is a method of research that reveals opportunities for innovation - innovation that can be easily adopted by real end users. The studies provide:

  • Detail about how work is organized. This often includes information about the actual practice itself (legal, medical or another type of profession) that would be unknown to computer scientists in distant research laboratories.
  • Methods people adopt to achieve what they need to do. Studying these methods reveals a hidden reality: the exceptions, the turnarounds, the barriers, the undocumented work required so that processes run smoothly, at least on the surface level.

Selecting the problems experienced in the workplace and how to address them should be the result of collaboration between interaction and experience designers with computer scientists in multidisciplinary teams. Adding a filter based on “out of the box” thinking typical of designers can help to imagine the future. It can be checked for feasibility by the scientists while still being anchored to real world user problems.

But experience design is not risk free, and must be done carefully to avoid the creation of false expectations. A work practice study can have the drawback that, when exposed as input to computer scientists, it provides a large array of options for improvement. Information and Communication Technology is already far from ideal in the workplace for multiple reasons: organisational practices are not well designed to take into account the features of computer systems, or these systems have often been quite simply poorly designed, and so forth. Many of these problems can be solved through better technology design, whilst others could benefit from the latest technological advances. In our research, we are primarily interested in the latter, as it provides the largest potential and longer term benefit to the user.

Why we need designers in scientific research.

Beyond user-centred innovation, where design is based on user observation and requirements, there are situations where researchers need to link technologies to users. This is particularly true with disruptive technologies that can result in new work patterns. Industrial design can help create these links. The challenge is not about making proposals to users, but about imagining new functions or ways they can do their work. This is the sweet spot where industrial design can provide extraordinary insight into the benefits of a disruptive technology, helping users project themselves into a new working environment.

multi-touch device, intelligent help for classification

As an example, consider the case of text classification technology. This technology, based on machine learning methods, had been successfully applied for several years as part of document workflow tools, particularly in document imaging and scanning centres. Once scanned the document content is analysed and automatically classified for archiving, retrieval etc. In parallel, alternative paths were explored by research to see how the technology could be used by knowledge workers in completely different environments. Knowledge workers are subject matter experts who manipulate, analyse and understand information in environments where humans are central to the process. The classification technology can be used to support their work but not to fully automate their processes. When imagining a new way of providing the text classifier to such experts, our main insight was that we needed to deploy the technology in a tangible environment. This was realised through the choice of a multi-touch device to make the interaction fast and intuitive, hiding the technicalities of the underlying statistical algorithms. Turning this vision into reality could only happen by integrating industrial design. A team external to the project, with a fresh eye and different mind-set was required. Industrial designers brought aesthetic and communication skills to the table. Combined with R&D expertise, the team was able to creatively innovate upon the underlying technology realised in a unique jointly patented prototype system.

The user interface and system features of this prototype for paralegals in e-discovery can be viewed here.

Using design to promote commercialisation

After the user and the technology comes the third component of experience design - the business. This piece provides the market background and research and potentially the offering as well as the development of a final product.

A common challenge for R&D is to convey the value of what is being proposed. The visual part of experience design can help communicate ideas across organisations and businesses, especially when concepts are disruptive and theoretically complex to understand. Being able to walk the business through different scenarios with hands on experimental interaction with the prototype concept helps them to appropriate the technology. It may even generate new ideas for the offer or identify different market opportunities.

There is however an associated risk with this approach. Providing a well-shaped design proposal and working prototype can mislead the business into thinking it is developed and operational which is far from reality. Without a clear communication strategy false expectations may be generated over availability.


By definition research starts from a blank sheet which may be filled with multiple possibilities and many different paths relating to both a technology and business point of view. Experience design can help focus projects on the right sector to pursue based on user needs or user experience. Furthermore, experience design provides the tangible and visual support needed to facilitate the expansion and propagation of the original idea whilst often generating valuable intellectual property.

About the authors

Antonietta Grasso is a senior scientist and Area Manager of the Work Practice Technology Area at Xerox Research Centre Europe. She has studied for over twenty years how technology can best support collaboration and coordination at work.

Yves Hoppenot is in charge of the transfer of technologies in the domain of managed print services. He thrives on the everyday challenge aligning research technology with business needs.

Caroline Privault is a senior project leader and expert in machine learning at the Xerox Research Centre Europe. She transfers technologies from research to the business groups and in particular in the field of eDiscovery for litigation.