Given his role as The Hartford's property/casualty operations' director for user-centered design, Ben Hoffman probably would be hard-pressed to dispute the time-honored maxim that the customer is always right. And yet, Hoffman advocates another maxim: "Don't listen to what users say -- watch what they do."
Hoffman's work in maximizing the quality of a user's experience with The Hartford's (Hartford; $27.1 billion in revenue) customer interaction systems -- especially Web interfaces -- takes a quasi-anthropological approach, leaning on observation of the customer in his natural habitat, so to speak. According to research by The Standish Group, the No. 1 reason that IT projects succeed is end-user involvement, and so prerequisite to providing a high-quality experience is "getting a deep understanding of who the users are and understanding their tasks," Hoffman contends.
Profiling and segmentation is a key first step in understanding a customer's needs and likely interaction style, according to Hoffman. Within a given segment, The Hartford performs an "ethnographic" study to get a more precise understanding of that type of user's experience. "You are observing how they prefer to interact and what they actually do," Hoffman explains. Through the studies, he adds, "We understand the context within which they will be using the system, and we can take that back as we design."
During the design process The Hartford constantly seeks user feedback. "Our motto is to engage end users early and often," Hoffman says. In early stages of the design process, users are presented with simple "wire-frame" interface prototypes, he explains. "Those tend to be more informal, almost focus-group-type activities," Hoffman adds.
"We then do more-rigorous usability testing, which involves bringing in users to use the product as if it were the real system, in order to gauge usability in terms of effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction," Hoffman continues. "We videotape it, we record their voice and watch them use the system. That way we're able to record where they made errors, where they got confused and then build some knowledge not only about how this particular end-user group is going to use the system, but also about how use considerations might affect the insurance product as well."
Whatever other areas in which an insurer might seek to differentiate itself, far more often than not, what will end up driving business to a particular insurer is the customer experience, Hoffman asserts. But understanding and shaping that experience requires close observation. "I'm a strong believer in getting people to use one's products within context," he says. "That's a key component because people aren't very good at telling you what they think they're going to do."
Anthony O'Donnell has covered technology in the insurance industry since 2000, when he joined the editorial staff of Insurance & Technology. As an editor and reporter for I&T and the InformationWeek Financial Services of TechWeb he has written on all areas of information ... View Full Bio