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Q&A at the Oracle Table

Kathy Miedema

Author: Kathy Miedema, Oracle Applications User Experience
July 15, 2009

When you think about Oracle Applications, a delicious meal is unlikely to come to mind -- but perhaps it should. The way Oracle’s Patanjali Venkatacharya explains it, someone dining on fine French food and someone using an enterprise application have a lot in common. And here’s why: Everything that goes into rolling out a terrific meal from the creative place in a top chef’s mind also goes into creating and refining a top-shelf software application from Oracle. And the tools to create both are surprisingly similar.

Patanjali Venkatacharya
Patanjali Venkatacharya, User Experience Architect, Oracle

Patanjali, a trained chef as well as a user experience architect, first compared the two professions at the April 2009 Computer-Human Interaction conference in Boston in a panel called “What Can User Experience Learn from Food Design?” Joining him on the panel were Boston-area chefs Jody Adams, a James Beard award-winner, and Jason Santos, who has brought a neighborhood restaurant into the limelight with his funky, modern creations. A top interaction designer from Oracle, Daniel Schwartz, joined Patanjali in representing designers of software on the panel.

In this article, we sit down with the panelists and look at that idea from the customer’s place at the table. How do you, the “diner,” contribute to the success of the “meal”?

Q: First, set the stage for us. How are a chef and a user experience architect similar?

Daniel Schwartz
Daniel Schwartz,
Senior Interaction Designer, Oracle
Daniel Schwartz
Jody Adams, Rialto Chef/Owner
Daniel Schwartz
Jason Santos,
Gargoyles on the Square
Executive Chef

PATANJALI: Both are professionals trying to improve the experience of their clients. They use consistent processes so they can easily replicate their experiences across the entire product. Both have very user-centered design processes, putting the customer at the center of the design effort. And both chefs and user experience professionals have to routinely deal with demanding customers, who often expect more, in less time, and especially these days, for a lot less money!

DANIEL: The essence of both fields is that we are designers. We both care about form and function. Chefs strive to make dishes that taste good AND look good. UX designers strive to create software products that allow users to effectively perform tasks, but we also want the software to look good, and sometimes that improves the experience in general. We don’t want it to just work, we want the software experience to be the best for our target end users. We look at lot of factors. We’re looking at the entire experience, not just graphic design – and that’s big.

Q: What tools are important to the success of either the meal or the experience of using an Oracle Application?

PATANJALI: The user experience professional might choose to use various software tools to put the initial design together and get customer feedback.  The chef uses the tools available in the kitchen to put together the initial concept for a new dish or meal and, ultimately, will seek the feedback of customers, food connoisseurs and team members. So in the end, it all seems to come back to the user -- or dining customer. The customer should think they purchased a great product, even if some trade-offs were made because of design constraints or, in kitchen parlance, what ingredients were available. In user experience terms, it’s called: “Avoid sacrificing usability.”  In food design terms, it’s called: “Creating a kick-ass meal!”

Q: What sorts of tools do the rest of you use?

JASON: Aside from obvious tools like spoons and knives, I actually use a computer -- for everything from recipes to schedules. I even back it up twice a day every day. It’s got 13 years of recipes on it. Basically, it has my life’s work on it. This helps with consistency, making dishes taste good exactly the same way. When my cooks come in, they can say, “This is how to make it.”

JODY: The most important tools for me are the raw ingredients, such as vegetables, olive oil, cheese. We spend a lot of time visiting purveyors, seeing who makes the cheese we buy, visiting boats where the fish comes from, asking farmers how they handle their goats, or visiting the oyster farm where we buy our oysters.

DANIEL: You always see chefs with their knife sets – and one knife that’s their preferred tool. It’s really like a designer and his notebook. You need to brainstorm, jot down ideas, and experiment. Our notebook is our playground to whip up little creative dishes when inspiration comes. We also use tools like Visio, Photoshop, and Dreamweaver to prototype, refine and bring our design concepts to life to help us “refine our recipes.’’

Q: What does it mean to design holistically? Why would that be important to the customer?

PATANJALI: Designing holistically means you’re not just focused on one thing – that magic pill. It’s about asking a lot of questions and understanding the true wants and needs of your customer, and delivering something that exceeds their expectations. It requires looking at the entire experience. If they design one feature in an entire product brilliantly, but neglect to appropriately design the initial login experience, customers might just give up and decide the product is completely unusable. Ultimately, if the end-to-end experience doesn’t work for the customer, customers will avoid the product -- whether it‘s dinner at a great restaurant or an efficient software application.

DANIEL: Based on the feedback a chef might get at meal time, a chef will tweak or discontinue the dish. It would be too late for a software designer to do such changes at meal time, where the designs are already “baked.” Adding or removing some spices -- what software designers would call patches -- at that point may be feasible, but it’s too late for any new main ingredients or big changes to the dish, or major product features of the application.

JASON:  Many chefs become chefs because that’s the path they take, and they’re not necessarily college-educated. So they might not think about “designing holistically,” specifically. But with any job that takes creativity, the person would design this way – it’s all sort of relative. It’s a very similar process for all of us in a creative profession.

JODY: It’s absolutely important – it’s an organic process.

Q: Tell us more about the role the customer or user plays.

PATANJALI: The customer is the target audience.  If the customer is not satisfied, they won’t dine at the restaurant again, or buy another software product from Oracle.  And if you compare fine dining at a premium price and Oracle software, people’s expectations are even greater. People expect to get tremendous value from the product. As any chef will tell you, a customer who walks away almost never comes back. They are lost forever. So chefs will jump through hoops to satisfy a disgruntled customer, just to ensure that they don’t leave with a bad experience. It’s a very tough job – balancing all the needs of customers, while trying to create a world-class final product. User experience designers and food designers share a common bond when it comes to juggling these demands and being successful. 

Q: Chefs, how far will you go to make sure your customer is happy?

JODY: As far as it takes. If someone doesn’t like something, I want to know immediately. We’ll always make an adjustment, or find something on the menu that the customer will like. We can adjust any dish as we are preparing it -- maybe we won’t add garlic with bluefish, for example.

JASON: I’m huge into the job, huge into what customers think. I’m a perfectionist, and I go as far as it takes to make a customer happy. If we come up with a dish, serve it to 500 people, and 20 steaks come back with comments that it‘s salty, there’s a really good chance it’s true. And when 25 people say a dish is phenomenal, that’s probably the case. Good or bad, there’s instant gratification in being a chef. I can walk around and ask people, “How is it?” This is my reputation at stake, so I feel like I go pretty far to make sure things are as perfect as possible.

Q: How is that different from the way a UX architect might work?

DANIEL: Based on the feedback a chef might get at meal time, a chef will tweak or discontinue the dish. It would be too late for a software designer to do such changes at meal time, where the designs are already “baked.” Adding or removing some spices -- what software designers would call patches -- at that point may be feasible, but it’s too late for new ingredients or big changes in the recipe, or product features of the application.

Q: Where do UX architects and designers get their inspiration?

PATANJALI: When it comes to a user-centered design approach for developing user experiences, there is no question that observing customers doing their jobs, in their own environments, by far provides the most inspiration for creating great products.

DANIEL: Understanding a user’s needs is like uncovering puzzle pieces – that tells me what I need to deliver for them. Once I get a concept of what they need, it’s time to go to the sketchbook and start putting the pieces together. But we draw inspiration from a lot of different disciplines: our peers in the industry, colleagues, and also from other software out there that may not necessarily be in the same domain space. There‘s also random inspiration – that creative element that inspires anyone in a creative profession. The principle of simplicity is also a big inspiration for me. Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication, Leonardo da Vinci said.

Q: Where do chefs find inspiration?

JODY: Design can come from a lot of places -- travel, physical aesthetic, something I’ve seen, even the ingredients of the dish. Our focus and mission is to use local, seasonal ingredients. We don’t use fish from New Zealand, for example. We’re lucky to be where we are. We can get oysters, scallops, fish -- so many things to create with. The content of a dish also inspires me. What are the ingredients, flavors, and textures? How should I balance acid with sugar, or balance the salt? I also consider what’s fresh. If bluefish is in season, I ask, “What can I do with that?” and then develop a dish so that there’s something beautiful about the ingredients themselves and what season it is.

JASON: I get inspiration from all different places -- from a great dinner out, a good cookbook or a show, colors. For me, personally, I’m inspired by pictures. I buy cookbooks for pictures. I don’t even read the recipes. Presentation and pictures in cookbooks get my attention -- colors and textures inspire me.

I do a lot of different things. I may use liquid nitrogen, or modern methods, that I can turn into food. People come here to eat funky, modern stuff. That’s what we’re known for.  I put goat cheese in liquid nitrogen and froze it, then served what looked like a pile of snow with strawberry and balsamic.

Q: Chefs, when you were part of the panel, how did it feel to face a roomful of software designers who were looking at your job in their terms? What do you think they learned from you? Did you learn anything from them?

JODY: It was curious and an interesting juxtaposition. It‘s the kind of thing I really like to do, and it shows that none of us are in a vacuum. Design is design, the customer is the customer, service is service. You can apply so much of what we do, and there are a lot of similarities in the creative process. I hope they learned how much of what we do is not just about food, that there’s depth to what we do.

The number of people who were there said something about their interest in what we had to say, and their openness to incorporating my ideas into their own. Food is incredibly important to people; it’s an important part of what allows social networking to evolve. Food always brings people to together.

JASON: It was pretty cool to be on the CHI panel. They have no idea what I do, and I have no idea what they do. It’s kind of unique to compare two very different occupations like this, and funny how things compare. There’s a lot more to it than I would have thought. Everyone has their niche, and in a creative job, everyone has sort of the same process. For both of us, what we do, the most important thing is the customer. The same things need to be done. The same focus is to make the customer happy.

Q: What can Oracle’s designers take back to their own “kitchens?”

DANIEL: I was inspired to do more testing in our kitchen before releasing our designs. The chefs talked a lot about playing with ingredients in the kitchen, experimenting, and that’s really important for us too – there are lots of ways to create a solution, and we need to take time to sketch, to come up with an idea, try out different ideas (or ingredients and combinations) and have time to iterate on that. That experimentation phase is very important – sometimes innovation comes out that.

We share many more similarities than differences. The chefs talk a lot about establishing food relationships with suppliers. It’s good for designers to have good relationships as well with the strategy team, engineers -- we need that to push forward our designs, build that trust.

PATANJALI: If you look at both types of design, you will quickly see that people are at the center of it.  People inspire chefs to innovate in the same way that end-users inspire user experience professionals to design unique solutions to complex problems.  |  About Oracle  |  Careers  |  Contact Us  |  Legal Notices  |  Terms of Use  |  Your Privacy Rights