User-Centered Design Drives Development of New Support Tool

IT support agents at Intel have access to a large number of data sources, but they lacked a centralized way to access them. So, in 2012, Intel IT support personnel and IT engineers built a web-based portal called SupportIT. The portal displays information about an employee’s device and enables support agents to quickly identify and resolve issues.

Being a small project (only two full-time developers), I was architect, project manager, and developer. Most of the requirements were based on our personal experience correlated with requirements from IT support teams.

Our first release used a client executable to gather device information (model, installed apps, drivers, etc.) and return it to a database. All well and good—except that it took 30 to 60 seconds (depending on network speed) for the process to complete. IT support agents perceived that response time as far too slow.

When talking about UX, in many cases, people imagine nice user interfaces facing the general population, while internal tools and IT employee-facing tools are often overlooked and developed without much consideration for usability. However, we take user feedback seriously at Intel IT, so we got creative. We modified the portal so that it displays offline, stores machine data immediately and asynchronously from multiple sources, and at the same time sends the executable to the device. As the real-time info comes back, it replaces the offline data (which can be 24 to 48 hours old). Now support agents start seeing machine data in less than 10 seconds. Of course, the executable is still taking 30 to 60 seconds to return data, but the user perception is a lightning-fast application.

Another user-centered design decision focused on the portal’s GUI. Typical web apps have a toolbar on the top or side, and an area for content in the middle. But this layout tends to bury information, requires lots of scrolling, and doesn’t easily support constant changes in data sources. We wanted to provide a GUI that could display current content and adjust to any future changes.

Was there another design choice? Yes, but anytime you deviate from users’ expectations, you run the risk of user resistance. We decided to take the plunge and design a GUI that looks more like a desktop application, with multiple windows. You can move and resize windows, minimize and maximize them, and pin them. Support agents can customize their profiles to show more or fewer windows, and have windows open with a certain size and position.

For this project we assumed that a great UX will also improve the level of support. I believe that our assumption has now been proved true. Because we listened carefully to user feedback, we were able to create a customizable tool that pleased the support agents using it, could be adjusted to constant IT changes with minimal effort or drastic GUI changes, and ultimately improved support for the customers calling in.

Creating the best user experience for users of the applications I develop is one of my passions. For a detailed description of the SupportIT project, read the paper. Also please weigh in with your approaches for improving the UX for internal IT-to-IT applications.

- Vlad