Business Tech: UI/UX Part IV: Kansei Engineering

If you had to define Kansei engineering in one sentence, it would be, "You should put the cup holder where the hand wants to go when the person is thirsty." It is, like Feng Shui, a philosophy which drives design decisions. The difference is that Feng Shui is driven by the positions of the heavens, but Kansei is driven by empathy.

When we design that next desktop GUI, mobile app, web page, or even green screen, we need to consider what philosophies drive our design decisions.

True Story

Recently, I had the chance to do what I rarely get to do: redesign something from the ground up. My last several passes on this project were a gradual transformation of what the last programmer/analyst/designer did. His view was based on negotiations with the same people I was working with, so that was the prudent course.

Compliance, changing needs, and new demands on the process, all worked together to create the opportunity to create something better. I chose to look at things through the lens of Kansei. Everything was on the table. I gave myself permission to blow up the status quo. If you've ever had the chance, I suspect you know what comes next: very little changed in a big way; everything changed in small ways.

The new project had to serve the same people who approved the old project. Kansei is about empathy. Knowing what they already like and knowing what they will already accept had to inform each decision.

Your Story

Imagine that you are tasked with writing a new billing system. Traditionally, we look at the database (MultiValue or not) and start by feeding those tables. If we need six things to create a customer in the CUSTOMER table, let's ask those six questions. That's not the Kansei approach.

We need to ask ourselves, "Who knows the answers?" "When will they know them?" The database needs six answers, but three come from Sales when the customer is a prospect, two come from Finance when the deal is about to be offered, one comes after the customer is officially a customer. That means that while you might have a screen (or page, or applet) with those six questions in one place — for adding-in existing customers or for editing customers — you will also spread those questions out based on "who" and "when."

All this isn't new. Kansei has been around since the seventies. It grew out of QFD (Quality Functional Deployment) and other related approaches. The word most people hear that relates is ergonomics . Since that's the science of fitting objects to people, you can see the connection. Even before all of that, we have, instinctively, done things in this mode. Think through your career and you'll find your own examples. The difference here is that I'm advocating that we do it consciously and with intention. Empathy as a design approach is surprisingly effective.

Near Miss

I once wrote an application using a 4GL. It allowed my users, previous green screen only, to use the mouse, to have context-sensitive help, and to see colors which highlighted the subsections of the page. It was more concise than the old screens (plural) which it replaced. I thought I had done a good thing. Then I went back and spoke with one of the operators I'd worked with while I was developing it. Her take was a little different: "I already have the phone, the keyboard, and a pen. Which hand did you think I'd be using for the mouse?"

From a strictly computer standpoint, I had achieved an empathetic design. Things were clearer, cleaner, better organized based on how they would be used. From a larger perspective, I had added a step (the mouse) which was non-empathetic. It was fixed by adding keyboard shortcuts. You could still use the mouse, but it became optional, used for edits and corrections after the phone had been hung up. The keyboard was within reach, using it differently was within their comfort zone. Kansei favored the keys. While I should have seen that sooner, at least it was seen in time. The version we launched worked as they needed it to work.

And Another Thing

Another time I was in a meeting on automation. The obvious Kansei answer was to reduce the human steps to zero and make everything work in the background. We chatted back and forth excitedly, the department head and I. Then a co-worker stopped in and looked at our brilliant idea. "You know, the human is the only point of security in this process, right? Can't cut them out or we will be open to database corruption."

So, empathy is not the whole equation. We need to service the user of the process, whatever form or method of process it is, but we also need to serve the business function, the database requirements, the law, and every other need. Kansei isn't about ignoring the rest, it is about focusing on the user experience while supporting and accomplishing the rest.

A Dash Of

You might also get the idea that Kansei is just about organizing inputs. Ask this here, that there. There's more. Consider dashboards. When is the car dashboard, or a BI (Business Intelligence) dashboard useful? When it shows you what you need to know when you need to know it.

Showing someone their hotel bill on the same page where they approve the purchase, that's Kansei. Any process where you put facts at their fingertips, as the saying goes, is part of it.

Showing the theater manager a dashboard with next week's schedule and this period's earnings helps them plan hours as a function of expenses. Adding a chart of upcoming movies would create a more complete view. Thinking about what the user needs is core to this philosophy.

The Secret Ingredient

There's one word that I've left out in this discussion. Some of us in tech aren't so good with it, but it belongs in the definition of Kansei: Feelings. This is why the word empathy comes up in this article. While we tend to think of business and computers as analytic, cold things, Kansei is warm. It is about making the user feel specific things. We have to go beyond not-frustrating and marginally-better, and try to make people actually like the results.

Words like "satisfied" or "happy" need to be in your approach. This is about making something with the marketing built-in. I often talk about games in this column because games make you want to use them. They make you want to press here, slide there, tap-tap-tap in rapid succession. While most people won't get the same rush from keying a thousand phone orders that they'd get from beating that last wave of aliens, we can aspire in that direction.

When executives talk about changing out a computer system, or a website, or any tech, you hear feelings in the conversation. They talk about ease-of-use, speed, modernization - but those are often based on emotional responses. When someone sells a new system, they usually do it by appealing to emotions. Kansei makes what you do appealing.

The Takeaway

It is common in the MultiValue world to bash SQL for being too computer-centric and not human-centric. Kansei is the next logical step in making software more human-centric. Shifting our thinking can lead to a more positive work experience; for the users and for you.


Charles Barouch is the CTO of HDWP, Inc. He is also a regular contributor to International Spectrum Magazine, a former Associate Editor for both Database Trends and for Gateways Magazine, a former distance learning Instructor for CALC. He is presently the Past President of the U2UG. Mr. Barouch has presented technology and business topics in front of hundreds of companies, in a wide range of product and service categories. He is available for on-site speaking and consulting engagements in and out of the United States.

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