The Advisory Board Company

Crimson Market Advantage - Liaison

Please tell us about your cross-platform and/or how you improved the successfulness of a product, service, experience, etc., through unifying an experience across platforms.: 

Market Advantage is a business intelligence software solution that helps hospitals understand their market’s referral patterns and pinpoint their best opportunities for near- and long-term growth. It allows hospitals to analyze physician behavior and the factors associated with physician loyalty. Our product has several different types of users, from executives, data analysts, business planners to physician liaisons. One of our biggest challenges is serving each different type of user while keeping the tool easy to use for all of them.

In analyzing the behavior patterns of these different groups of users, we noticed a steady increase in access to the application from mobile devices. After some investigation and interviewing, we discovered that these users were the physician liaisons: hospital employees that were on the road for the majority of their work, meeting with physicians to drive patient referrals back to their hospitals. We delved further into the application usage patterns of these users, and discovered how inconvenient it was for them to use the web application on a tablet; it often required several taps to get to the information or forms that they needed.

The web application in it’s current form was not making their job more efficient, so we wanted to step away from any restrictions that the web might be imposing on us and look at the problem from a different angle. We started from the ground up and looked at the project like an entirely new product. What did these users really need? What were their days like? How did they get the information that they needed to do their job? What environments were they in? How did they measure their success?

Overwhelmingly the liaisons were still using analog methods to research and document on-the-go. They would allot one day a week in the office to print pages of Excel spreadsheets (so that they could track which physicians they needed to meet with) and to digitize their stacks of notes, scribbled on yellow legal pad pages and the backs of business cards. If they were lucky, the hospital may have provided them a laptop, but with no internet connection from their car and no desire to whip out a clunky computer in the middle of a doctor’s office, even those liaisons were resigned to commit extra time at a nearby Starbucks or at home after a long day of travel.

It was clear that these users needed a way to perform their research and documentation in the moment. They needed physician information 30 seconds before walking into that doctor’s office. They needed to track those notes and physician complaints while they were still fresh in their minds. They needed ways to leverage the capabilities of mobile devices so that they could plan their daily route or create reminders for follow-ups. They wanted to spend more time with physicians, and less time in the office performing data entry, and a mobile solution could help them do that.

The web application was no longer serving the hospital liaisons in a way that accommodated their actual workflow. It was a burden for them and the only reason they continued to use it was due to a mandate by their superiors.

The Market Advantage mobile project started as a proof-of-concept towards solving these problems. We had limited resources with mobile application development, but we began dedicating their time towards this project. For many nuanced reasons, we decided that a native application would be the best solution for us, but overall the main driver was that we needed something that was more enjoyable to use in a tablet context.

We created a giant feature wish list. We interviewed users. We slashed superfluous items off the list. We tested our web application. We slashed even more off of the list. We produced workflows, user journeys and prototypes. We performed field observation with our current application and with competitor applications. This research phase was integral to helping us figure out what parts of the existing application were gratuitous for the liaisons. We took all of the remaining pieces and broke them down to their basics, experimenting with new ways to present the data, analysis and insights in a streamlined fashion.

The mobile project originally started as a proof-of-concept side project, and has turned into a market differentiator for our product. Our competitors currently have little-to-no support for mobile technologies, and therefore have a very limited ability to support the liaisons, who are a large part of the front-line offensive that hospitals use to increase their revenue growth potential. When hospitals see that we can better support those liaisons, we stand out from all of the other products that provide similar data.

Our web application has also benefited from the simplification of workflows. It was paramount that the tasks in the mobile app be as easy as possible to complete, and we have brought some of those ideas and insights back into the web. Because the needs of the liaisons will now be served through the mobile application, we can focus on streamlining the web for our other groups of users.

The impact of this potential is even beginning to grow beyond our single product. It has shed light on ways that the company - both in experience and engineering - can begin to modularize our current functionality to better serve different groups of users. It has increased awareness that, more and more, our users are accessing our products from mobile devices, and that we should push for a greater effort to support this use case. This has recently prompted our platform team - the group responsible for the framework that all of our products run on - to revisit that framework and make changes that will allow all of our products to become more mobile friendly.

Our small mobile team has also started a process that can be used as a basis for our other products to create their own native mobile solutions. Along the way we have created guidelines, solutions and libraries specific to our development environment that can be leveraged by our other products to bootstrap their own native mobile products.

The end outcome of this mobile application is that these liaisons should never have to go into the web app again. They should be able to consume and create everything that they need to do their job from a tablet, right when they need to, wherever they are. Rather than force them to do things our way, we investigated, designed, and refined to give them something that matched the way that they are actually performing their tasks out in the wild.

What can others learn from the successes and failures of the design of your cross-platform ecosystem of products and services?: 

1. Don’t be afraid to dream big, but be realistic about what you can deliver. Undoubtedly you will start with a long, long list of features that would make up the perfect cross-platform experience. Conversely, your external stakeholders are going to be pushing for speed to market. Identify items in your wish list that provide the most value to users with the least amount of time required to get to the first release (but don’t sacrifice the overall experience).

2. Research, research, research. Know your use cases, know your users and know the environment in which they’ll be using each platform. User observation in their natural environment is invaluable when working on non-desktop platforms. The data (quantitative and qualitative) collected will help you make decisions both short term and long term (e.g. ‘Is a cross-platform solution right for our product?’ ‘Which platforms should we support?’).

3. Set the right expectations with external stakeholders. Even if you’re creating an additional platform experience from an existing product, it takes time to research, design and build for each new platform. The best experiences take advantage of the capabilities and standard interaction patterns of the platform they are on, and you’ll need time to explore platform best practices and how they fit into your new product experience. Make sure that product management, marketing, and executives understand that a better cross-platform user experience means better adoption/retention/ROI.

What factors, information, research, etc. weighed in the decision to design your experience to be cross-platform, and how did they affect the decision-making process?: 

Data was our biggest ally in the decision-making process. All stakeholders had ideas about what the users wanted and needed, but the designers were able to position ourselves as the subject matter experts by using quantitative and qualitative data to reinforce use cases and support our decisions. Looking at our current device usage analytics, we could see that we had an increasing number of users accessing our product from mobile devices. However, after some user interview and observation sessions, we could see that the users were frustrated with the usability of the web application on a tablet device. They wanted to use our product while on the road, but they only needed a subset of information from the web application. Combining the usage analytics with quotes and videos from user observation sessions - as well as including various stakeholders in those sessions - provided the justification we needed to convince them that going across platforms would be the right decision. In addition to helping you justify that you "do" need a cross-platform solution (and which ones), data can also be a diffuser in situations where stakeholders feel that a cross-platform solution is a good idea because it is “cool” or “cutting edge”. Not all products translate well across platforms; data can help you be sure that your team wants to develop a cross-platform solution for the right reasons.

How did you ensure the unique capabilities, constraints, and modes of interaction of each platform were considered during the design process without losing cohesiveness?: 

Luckily our web application is already built on a fairly well established visual design and structure, so the challenge was in translating that visual language into a mode that respected the new platform’s established visual and interaction patterns (e.g. website header navigation doesn’t translate well into the standard native iOS patterns). We felt that is was important to respect the platform because users come to expect certain behaviors, capabilities and information architecture from products on specialized platforms. To translate the information architecture and interactions into another platform, we carefully analyzed the user’s workflow: which critical pieces the web application was supporting (and also where it was failing) and where the mobile platform could provide the most value and even exceed the web application in convenience. Our web application as a whole does not fit well within mobile constraints, but a large piece of the workflow can be accommodated much better in the mobile space than on the web. For example, using GPS we can surface information that’s valuable to the user depending on their location. We can also take advantage of a platform’s expected behaviors to reduce parts of the workflow to just a few taps (e.g. swiping a list item for shortcuts to actions). Although much of the information across the web and mobile apps remain the same (it’s pulling in the same data, after all), the workflow of the mobile app is tailored to it’s users.

What value for users did your cross-platform approach add to the experience that couldn’t have otherwise been achieved?: 

Although users are able to access our web application on a tablet device, it lacks much of the ‘just-in-time’ information that is expected on mobile devices. For example, they can’t answer a question like, “I have some extra time today, who’s in my area that I can visit with?” because the maps in our web app aren’t prominent and don’t take advantage of location services. The information architecture of our web application is more focused on giving the users the ability do in-depth analysis and to make strategic, long-term decisions. While this is absolutely what some of our users need, the mobile application is focused on the users that are often making tactical, in-the-moment decisions. Because these users are often having to do this several times a day, our goal is to surface the information that helps them make those decisions quickly and easily.