A conversation with Andy Hovey, Head of Design at Xero

Andy, perhaps you could tell us a little bit about yourself
I started as a graphic designer. I went to design school and was very passionate about design and typography. I didn’t really like the web at all. I was a bit of a typography nerd and I wanted to make beautiful books. So I left design school as a very passionate typographer and I got a job at a digital company – my first project was slicing images for a CD-ROM. I worked on another CD-ROM project that was helping kids improve their reading, spelling and writing.

Andy Hovey Xero
Image kindly supplied by Andy Hovey

I immediately flipped when I realised I was making a tool. It was something someone else used to get something done in their life.

I guess every couple of years things on the web got a little bit better and I moved from websites into creating products and applications. Now, that’s where my passion lies.

Xero – solving complex issues for small business owners
Xero is a cloud based accounting software service for small businesses and their advisors. If we wind the clock back to eight or nine years ago the state of small business accounting was essentially that a small business would have a pile of receipts, a few spreadsheets and maybe some desktop software.

Business owners very rarely had an up to date view of their cashflow. This was because to get a current view you had to do a bank reconciliation. This is where you match all the transactions in your bank accounts with the transactions in your accounting system. It was a horrible and hard process.

Because of this they would only go through this process once, twice or maybe three times a year. It was at these infrequent points in time where people really understood where their business was at. Sometimes you could reconcile everything and then realise your business was quite broke.

Xero changed this by automatically importing bank transactions and categorising them for you – the bank reconciliation process is taken care of. As a result we’re seeing nearly half of our customers doing it weekly. It has given business owners a much better view of their cashflow.

Xero mobile

Image kindly supplied by Andy Hovey

The next issue was that your accountant would have their own software and their own set of the books. As a business owner you would visit your accountant at the end of the year and perhaps at various points during the year. It was a mish-mash process trying to keep these books in sync. There was an awful amount of work and pain involved!

So what Xero did was make sure there was one version of the books – a single ledger in the cloud. As a customer you log in to Xero and see what your accountant sees, which means you can have a much more cohesive conversation about your financial position right throughout the year.

In March 2015 we just tipped over 475,000 paying customers and three years prior there were approximately 75,000 customers.

Organisational considerations: Centralised and decentralised product development
We are separated into small cross-functional teams, which includes front-end development, back-end development, testing, design, a product owner and sometimes a business analyst. As in many large companies there’s a natural tension between more centralised design, which helps to maintain a cohesive experience and decentralised design which gives greater autonomy to these individual teams. I am a fan of the decentralised approach, I like it when design and development are very close.

User research – building a service based on identifying and understanding customer pain points
At the very beginning of Xero there were some people who designed things and there were some who wrote code. One of them was the very smart Co-Founder Philip Fierlinger. His process was: let’s go out and follow a few people and see what they are doing in their day to day life and understand the relationship they have with their business finances. So Philip was doing this user research work as part of the design process.

They were trying to understand how people were carrying out their accounting. They had this sort of epiphany that their “accounting” was to do with this bank reconciliation process, which was only done a few times a year. There was one participant they were working with who came in and said “I would rather have root canal surgery with no anesthetic than do a bank reconciliation.”

They realised this was quite a consistent feeling among the people they were spending time with. Of all the things they could build early on they honed in on this reconciliation process. From those sorts of conservations they started to identify other areas of pain customers were experiencing.

Once they imagined how the future of bank reconciliation could work they started to test the current experience against the new Xero experience using wireframes. Customers would roll their eyes and want to leave when testing the current experience. When they tested it against the new Xero process – the difference in expression on people’s faces and how they felt about the process was the first ‘a-ha’ moment.

I get really interested in how people are using Xero now to solve their problems and what sort of hacks, workarounds and workflows they’re using. I am very interested in identifying how we can better support customers’ workflows and make Xero a little bit easier, faster or give customers a little more financial insight.

The growth of user research at Xero
User research has grown at Xero. We now have a dedicated user research team, and it’s part of the work multi-disciplinary product designers carry out. There is a large group of product designers and sometimes their work involves talking to people, designing, analysis, writing, user testing, coding, and probably other things I’m forgetting!

User research – the Xero community and Customer Experience Team
User research happens all over Xero – not just with the researchers and product designers. Product owners, analysts, developers and others all read information from our customers.

The Xero community, LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook are all areas where customers discuss Xero and their businesses. We read these communities to gather insights into their working lives.

Another crucial part is the questions the Customer Support Team (called customer experience) answers. They neatly categorise every question that comes in from a customer. We use this information all of the time. It helps us find hotspots and areas of pain.

Each of the product designers spends time with the customer experience team – we try and do half a day every six weeks. It helps designers feel the pain and it’s a good opportunity to dig into areas and share some ideas with the customer experience team.

Observation hours – spending time with customers
There was an article by Jared Spool a little while ago. He’s been on fire at the moment, writing some fantastic articles. He wrote that there are basically no ‘silver bullets’ to improving your user experience, which is true as far as I can tell. But if there’s anything as close to a ‘silver bullet’ it is spending hours observing your customers use your software. It’s kind of that basic – you are better off watching someone for two hours than five people for a short period of time each. Spreading the observation hours with customers across the people that actually build the software is eye opening and crucial.

We have just completed a 30 day diary study with 12 people in various locations across the United States and that qualitative research was matched up with quantitative research. From this key recommendations emerged for a team to work on. The team building the solution was part of the diary study research process – collecting the research each day with the researcher. This has created a good camaraderie and user centred approach in that team.

User research Xero
Image kindly supplied by Andy Hovey

What are some of the challenges of carrying out user research?
Dedicated user researchers are new to Xero. So, like many challenges of a growing business, integrating them into the day to day project workflow takes a wee while. But now they’re entrenched we’re seeing a huge thirst for the insights they bring to projects.

The challenges of user research themselves are not too dissimilar from anywhere else I think. Recruiting is a pain. Learning from the right participants and synthesising the right insights is the hard part.

You can find out more about Andy Hovey on his LinkedIn profile or follow Andy on Twitter and for Xero please visit their website or follow @Xero

If you would like to take part in this series of interviews please contact Richard Linington.

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