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UX RESEARCH CASE STUDY:
MOLESKINE SMART WRITING SET
Moleskine is an Italian stationery brand known for its luxury notebooks. In 2016, they ventured into the realm of digital innovation by releasing its Smart Writing Set ($279), which combines a traditional notebook with a smart pen to allow users to create instant digital copies of their notes and drawings. Working in a team of three on a speculative design sprint, I lead our research strategy to improve the Smart Writing Set user experience.
MY ROLE: UX researcher
MY TEAM: Project manager, interaction designer
TIMELINE: 3 weeks
MY CONTRIBUTIONS: Secondary research, competitive analysis, feature inventory, heuristic evaluation, user interviews, affinity mapping, proto-personas, journey mapping
THE ORIGINAL SMART WRITING SET
IS COMPRISED OF 3 PARTS:
THE SMART NOTEBOOK looks and feels just like a traditional notebook. But its pages feature Ncode technology: a minuscule code printed onto the paper that tracks the exact location of any given point within the page.
THE SMART PEN captures the data of what is written on the notebook, and syncs it to the product's accompanying mobile/tablet app
THE APP saves and displays a live digital copy of the page. It also allows users to:
edit their notes/sketches
transcribe their handwriting
share their pages to their email or drive
CREATING A RESEARCH PLAN
We had no access to the Smart Writing Set. This was a speculative brief and the $279 luxury product wasn't within our budget. This had some important impacts:
Product Research: We needed to build extra time into our schedule to become experts on the Smart Writing Set via secondary research. Studying the user manual, reading online FAQ pages, browsing through customer reviews, and watching video tutorials were key resources in this respect.
User Research: The product's price point would limit our access to direct users, which meant our research would need to be based on target users. Through some preliminary research, we determined them to be writers, designers/illustrators, architects, and avid notetakers.
Interpreting an ambiguous brief. "Improve the Smart Writing Set experience" gave us a lot of room to determine our own research scope and objectives.
Ultimately, it was our constraints that gave us a sense of direction. We considered: "What can we best learn from target users that can directly inform us about the product's functionality?"
OUR DEFINED OBJECTIVE
Conduct our own round of foundational, generative user research around the most important goals, behaviors, and pain points in the process of creating & sharing hand-written/hand-drawn work.
We would then use this research to identify any unmet user needs or opportunities for enhancement of the Smart Writing set experience.
Our strategy was built around
3 core research components.
To contend with our time constraints, we worked on these components simultaneously over five days via an agile approach.
As the research lead, I valued inviting my team into various stages of the research process. Beyond allowing us to scale up the volume of our research, this also helped to:
Promote team alignment
Center user empathy throughout the product design cycle, including beyond the foundational research phase
Filter raw data through multiple perspectives, which would help challenge researcher biases and assumptions
COMPETITIVE ANALYSIS & PRODUCT ASSESSMENT
Defining our competitors. The Smart Writing Set was an amalgamation of three products (an Ncoded notebook, a smart pen, and an accompanying note editing app), all brought together under the umbrella of a smart notebook experience.
Even among products marketed as "smart notebooks," we found a high variability in the technical interpretations of the concept, so it wasn't immediately obvious which could serve as the most useful competitive examples for our market analysis. Smart pens, digital tablets, and some apps were also solid competitors for us to consider, but we needed to refine the scope of our analysis.
We ruled out smart pens, as doing UX research on hardware felt beyond our scope. But otherwise, we embraced the variety of competing product experiences and did a deep dive on three of them:
A feature-rich iPad app allowing users to create notes and illustrations, as well as annotate documents.
A reusable notebook that allows users to digitize their pages by scanning them via a a mobile app.
REMARKABLE TABLET, $299
A digital tablet that uses eInk technology (like the Amazon Kindle) and a textured surface to look and feel like paper.
During this secondary research and market analysis phase, we conducted a:
Feature inventory to detail feature distinctions and overlaps between direct & indirect competitors (pictured on the right)
Heuristic evaluation of the Smart Writing Set to assess potential usability issues
SWOT analysis to synthesize our findings and assess the strengths and weaknesses of our product relative to our competitors
SEcondary RESEARCH INSIGHTS
Through our new preliminary understanding of the user experience, we outlined some notable weaknesses and potential opportunities for our product. To validate or invalidate the importance of these observations, we would need to consult our user research.
Smart Pen Sync Issues
Customer reviews reported issues in data loss and missing pages in the smart-pen-to-app syncing process
Expand on the limited file editing and customization tools available on the app
Obscure Touchscreen Gestures
Key tasks over-relied on touch screen gestures such as press-and-hold that lacked discoverability
Create new ways in which the coded paper surface of the notebook can emulate digital functionality
The app's file organization feature, through which users could store and organize their digital pages, suffered from hidden and unclear navigation tools
Explore how this unique analog-to-digital technology might address accessibility needs
We conducted 12 remote qualitative interviews with target users who regularly use a digital tablet or handwritten notes in their work. This included 4 illustrators/designers, 3 architects, 3 avid notetakers, and 2 writers. We wanted to understand their process and objectives when creating and sharing handwritten work.
Can you tell me about the last time you drew or sketched?
What materials did you use?
How did you choose these materials?
Have you always done it this way?
What happened to the sketches after you were done?
Have you revisited these sketches? Why?
Have you ever performed this task digitally? Why?
Can you tell me about the last time you shared this type of work with someone?
We created affinity maps as a team, with the objective of getting multiple perspectives on our raw data. From the patterns that emerged, we identified some important commonalities between our participants:
Handwritten work is often an early step of a project or idea that is later developed on digital.
On paper, users want to create fluidly, have the freedom to experiment, and the flexibility to create wherever they want.
On digital, they want more control over their work, to enhance its fidelity, and to share it with others.
We created a proto-persona and a journey map to put these insights into action through the lens of our typical user while sketching, viewing, and editing notes on the Smart Writing Set.
The lowest points of John's experience happened in the transition between his "ideate" and "refine" stages — in other words, when the transition between the Smart Notebook and the app took place.
John needs a way to easily transfer his sketches from his notebook to his digital devices, because he wants to advance the design without interrupting the fluidity of his thought process.
Create a Moleskine desktop app.
When notes or sketches are transferred to digital, desktop is usually the final destination.
This pattern was evident from our user research, so a desktop app eliminate the extra step of users needing to log onto their mobile or tablet apps in order to email their digital pages to their desktop.
Addresses the redundancy of having both a physical and digital notebook.
Our research showed that users turned to digital platforms when they wanted the power of control and customization over their designs. Desktop provides users with more powerful and plentiful affordances to meet these goals than touch screen devices do.
SHORT TERM/ LIMITED SCOPE
Feature prioritization to guide the scope of a more fleshed out MVP prototype
Tree testing to validate proposed iterations of key secondary navigation menus
LONG TERM/ LARGER SCOPE
Contextual inquiry with real users of the Smart Notebook for a second round of generative research
Sequential research: conducting user interviews and secondary research simultaneously was a missed opportunity to refine our scope. Although this approach was a result of our time constraints, conducting secondary research first could have helped us choose a more specific problem area to explore, or at the very least informed the specificity of our interview questions. For example, we could have been better informed about opportunities for accessible design in the product and geared our research in that direction.
Interview transcriptions: I felt that transcribing our interviews could create a robust, thorough record of our raw user research data that our team could easily revisit to reframe or refine our synthesis. But in a week-long timeframe, the benefits of transcription were outweighed by the time and labor it took away from the design process. Saving audio recordings could suffice for future projects with similar timelines.
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