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'Sketch' the User Experience to Ensure an RFID Project's Success

RFID might involve changing the way workers do their jobs, or the manner in which customers interact with your company. Learn how sketching the user experience can increase the chances that a project that looks good on paper delivers the desired results.
By John Edwards
Aug 16, 2010—There are a lot of things that can go wrong with any deployment of a new technology, including radio frequency identification. Many companies test the hardware and software, work out the business case, and conduct pilots to determine if the expected benefits are realized. You can do all of these things, but if people don't use the new technology in expected ways, the entire project can fail.

That was something that concerned Keith Sheardown, the general manager of Bombardier Transportation's technology solutions unit, as he developed an RFID solution to protect subway track workers from speeding trains. Bombardier, a Montreal-based rail-transit system developer, envisioned an RFID-based system that it dubbed TrackSafe. The system would require track workers to wear vests containing RFID tags that automatically linked to readers installed approximately every 500 feet along the track. The readers would, in turn, connect to a warning light and speaker cluster designed to activate whenever a train approached a construction or maintenance area. Train conductors, alerted to the workers' presence, would instantly know that it was time to slow down and proceed with caution. And the speakers would alert workers to oncoming trains.

The team created a simulated rail environment in a parking lot.

The system sounded ideal in concept, Sheardown notes, and looked great on the drawing board. But would it work in practice? "We could design and build a system that would do exactly what we wanted it to do," he says. "But if track workers tossed the tags in the toilet because they didn't want to be monitored, it would all be for nothing."

To answer this crucial question, Bombardier's managers turned to a technique known as "sketching the user experience." Developed by Bill Buxton, a Microsoft principal researcher and technology visionary whose roots stretch back to the late 1970s and the legendary Xerox PARC design think tank, sketching offers a unique way to conduct research projects. The process is based on the idea that complex product and system designs can be more fully explored by developers and management without straining either budgets or schedules.

To help organizations develop products, services and systems that work as perfectly as possible, Buxton developed sketching as a way to obtain accurate answers to key operational and usability questions, and to incorporate customer and end-user needs and preferences into the final design. "To be able to explore multiple alternatives simultaneously, economically and still [be able to] finish the project, you need to have really lightweight, cheap ways to explore these ideas," Buxton explained during a Stanford University presentation. "Sketching is not putting pen to paper—it's the activity and the mindset you bring to it."

For most people, the word "sketching" conjures images of a series of intricate drawings, or perhaps a formal technical blueprint. But a sketch can be nearly anything—from a few scribbles on a cocktail napkin to a Lego model. Sketches should be developed quickly and contain only enough detail to communicate a design's operational elements.
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