Cisco Focuses on User Experience in Collaboration Product Design

NEWS ANALYSIS: As more video content is delivered online and as enterprises engage in more video conferencing and online collaboration, demands on networks increase and Cisco Systems is responding by creating a new job title: the CTEO, or chief technology experience officer.

Technology product design needs to be about turning available technology into a product that performs a particular task, but also about delivering a positive experience to the end user.

Cisco Systems is combining those two concerns into a new job title it believes is an industry first: the CTEO, or chief technology experience officer.

“We made that up,” said Susie Wee, vice president and CTEO of Cisco’s Collaboration and Communication business unit. Wee presided over a kind of “un-news conference” with tech reporters and industry analysts at a Cisco office in Santa Clara, Calif., Sept. 25, at which no new products were unveiled and no broadsides were aimed at its competitors.

Instead, Wee was joined by Cisco product designers and researchers who shared their insights into how Cisco is enhancing its product design process with greater attention to the user experience.

The coupling of product design and user experience is being applied to a number of Cisco collaboration and communication products, including its high-end TelePresence video platform, its WebEx Web conferencing service and its contact center solutions, among other products.

The presentation was delivered via TelePresence, with one Cisco participant joining from Massachusetts, while others joined from different TelePresence studios in Santa Clara. To show off the system’s capabilities, one participant joined from an Apple iPad.

Cisco invented another acronym called the XQ or experience quotient, which Wee described as a measure of the quality of the user experience delivered by its products.

“It’s not just about smart designers, but also about how the whole organization moves forward and how it can really bring experience-centric thinking throughout our [organization],” she said.

In a reversal of the typical product development process, Cisco spoke to end users first in the creation of a new platform for contact centers. What it discovered is that contact centers were having issues with employee burnout, retention and inadequate training, said Alison Ruge, a lead user-experience researcher at Cisco. The poor quality of the user experience for contact center agents was to blame.

“The agent needs to be given the mental space to focus on the caller and not be switching applications, not be preoccupied with technology,” Ruge said.

An improved user interface makes it easier for the agent to find the solution to the customer’s problem more quickly without having to contact their supervisor or put the customer on hold. Also, agent feedback prompted Cisco to put the hold button on the opposite end of a console from the disconnect button because agents were inadvertently disconnecting some callers when they only wanted to put them on hold.

“They feel like they’re fighting with their desktop,” added Tod Famous, manager of product management for the customer collaboration unit, who joined the TelePresence conference from Boxborough, Mass.

Cisco has learned that it’s also important to provide as close to the same user experience as possible across devices and product lines, Kelly Muniz, an interactive designer, explained.

“We make our products brilliantly simple and transparent,” Muniz said. “We really want to hide away the technology as much as possible and really allow users to focus on the people that they’re talking to and the task that they are working on together.”

Cisco seeks to make its products “human and approachable,” she said, an approach that struck me as very Apple-like. But Cisco actually incorporates product design language from its Tandberg acquisition of 2010.

“Tandberg had this beautiful line of devices and they already had language for those designs. When you marry the hardware and the software, you really can do wonderful things,” which is also a core Apple philosophy, Muniz said.

Cisco’s collaboration products are based on its Jabber software application platform, from a company Cisco acquired in 2008. With Jabber, Cisco can develop collaboration tools that work across devices including TelePresence studios, desktop units, tablets and smartphones. Currently, Cisco’s collaboration applications work on Apple iOS and Google Android devices. Support for Microsoft Windows Phone devices will be added when and if Cisco sees demand for it in the marketplace, said Wee.

Demand for products designed to deliver a great user experience isn’t limited to Cisco. A few other Cisco employees made brief appearances from New York City; Reston, Va.; and Richardson, Texas, to show how Cisco interoperates with systems from Polycom, for instance, and systems running Microsoft Lync for unified communications (UC).

Demand for video networking is growing exponentially. Cisco produced data that forecasts that by 2015, every second, 1 million minutes of video content will traverse the network, whether it’s on corporate networks or the public Internet. There will be 15 billion connected devices in use globally, and business video conferencing activity will grow sixfold over that same time period. Eventually, video conferencing will replace audio conferencing as the default means of electronic communications, said Gina Clark, vice president and general manager for the TelePresence Cloud business unit.

That growth is being driven not just by the bring-your-own-device (BYOD) trend but by the bring-your-own-cloud (BYOC) phenomenon, in which employees are signing up for cloud services for communication and collaboration, Clark said. This makes BYOC yet another new acronym we’ll have to remember.

Editors Note: This story was corrected to state that Cisco's collaboration applications run on Google Android and Apple iOS mobile devices.