Larry Pelty, UXMC
User Experience & Design Leader

Improving the mobile sales app of a major global semiconductor distributor

Making a more useful sales tool for all global users

A mobile sales application that not all sales teams could use

The idea for this project really began a year ago as I was working on a new set of features for a major global semiconductor distributor's custom-built internal sales application. As that web-based system is a complex application for a specialized domain covering sales, purchasing and general logistics, several weeks had been spent on research for the design and development of those new features.

During that project, I had discovered that the structure of the sales teams in the Asia Pacific region had evolved, leading to a significant realization that the company's mobile sales application, originally released in 2018, has never been able to be fully utilized by all of them.

Executive summary

  • The global sales team structures of a major global semiconductor distributor have evolved significantly over the last several years while the mobile application, that has not been frequently updated, did not change accordingly.

  • Participants were screened and recruited from the global sales personnel for remote interviews across six countries in four time zones.

  • Qualitative and quantitative research was captured and evaluated for key insights, pain points and opportunities.

  • Designs were created from low to high fidelity to provide potential solutions.

  • A technical evaluation was conducted early in the process to identify any potential challenges

  • An initial visual prototype was tested remotely with three office locations.

  • Results were documented from the first round of tests and evaluated for next steps.

Background
Multiple sales and operations facilities worldwide

Multiple sales and operations facilities worldwide

A company with a global reach

With approximately $2B in sales each year plus a diverse business culture, this major global semiconductor distributor relies on its presence across 16 cities located in the Americas, Europe and Asia Pacific regions. Currently, there are more than 160 salespeople worldwide, with approximately 40% of them located in the 8 offices within the Asia Pacific region.

The company's first version released in 2018

The company's first version released in 2018

A mobile app with few changes

First released in 2018, the mobile application, released for both iOS and Android platforms, was a clear and quick response to the salespeople's need for a tool to enter and access data while on the go. However, while the primary desktop sales application has received numerous bug fixes and major new feature updates over the last three years, the mobile sales app has had very few.

Different sales team structures between the West and the East

Different sales team structures between the West and the East

Different sales team structures

Historically over the last couple of decades, the general understanding of how the global sales teams were structured were multiple groups of independent sales representatives reporting to sales managers, all entering data for themselves. While a small number of administrators in the company's sales maintenance team has existed for many years, they typically handled higher level master data management along with addressing sales order or system data issues.

However, I discovered that the sales teams in the Asia Pacific region had evolved to incorporate a sales assistant role that handled day-to-day transaction entry. And yet, the rest of company still worked as it always had. Unfortunately, the company's systems, especially the mobile app, didn’t change in a meaningful way with it.

The problem
The sales platforms should be customized to the unique processes of Smith’s Asian users to allow for their greater success.

The sales platforms should be customized to the unique processes of Smith’s Asian users to allow for their greater success.

A problem long in the making

What was intriguing about this problem was that the sales structure had changed slowly, leading to numerous, small and specific requests for system changes being sent to the IT department. On their own, each would not have told a story, but cumulatively - and in hindsight - a major transition was occurring.

Earlier this year, as business has grown tremendously, I began to hear more from the offices in Asia that they wanted to be able to do more with the mobile application, which I believed was indicative of a greater need in that region. I also realized that the mobile application could not be used by assistants or fully used by managers.

‟We need to be able to do more with the mobile sales application.”
Salespeople in Asia Pacific offices

As I began to look into this very broad request further, I realized that the core problem can be defined more specifically:

Salespeople in the company's eight Asia Pacific offices need to be able to sell to their customers while using multiple devices, managing differing business requirements, and using regional workflows that are not utilized in the U.S. or European locations.

The eight-week project plan

The eight-week project plan

The project plan

Prior to starting the project, I created an eight-week plan in Monday.com that accounted for research, design, prototyping, and testing with the intent to work with the company's internal development team, at a later time, to begin implementation.

As there were significant challenges in scheduling overseas interviews in such a busy time for the company, I modified it at different points of the project, adjusting tasks and timelines accordingly.

Process

Design thinking and the path forward

As the project began, I started off with a design thinking approach: first, conducting research, then evaluating it to better understand the users, generating ideas based on what I learned, and ultimately creating a prototype that I could test, eventually leading toward implementation.

Empathizing with the users

The screening survey and results

I first began by designing a survey that would be used for both screening participants and also gaining useful insights.

By using branching logic in SurveyMonkey, I collected information regarding the frequency of use of the current mobile application, usage drivers either for or against its use and the frequency of use of core application functions. Additionally, general demographic information was collected in regards to the global region in which the participants work, their tenure and sales related role. As I knew that certain types of sales roles were not capable of using the mobile application, I added an additional question regarding their manner of use of the desktop sales application.

English and Chinese versions of the surveys along with the results

English and Chinese versions of the surveys along with the results

Prior to its distribution, I also worked with the internal marketing team to have the survey and instructions translated into Chinese to encourage a greater response rate from the offices in China.

The survey was sent to all sales related users company-wide in English and Chinese with a follow-up reminder sent approximately one week later. Responses were also captured and exported into Google Sheets to better evaluate each respondent for potential interviews. Based on the allotted project time, several key results were highlighted and evaluated based on the relative similarity to the research targets, maintaining as diverse a mix of participants as possible.

Ultimately, I selected 13 employees to contact with a total of 11 interviews scheduled over a three-week period.

Key survey metrics

  • 9 total questions using branching logic using a mix of multiple choice, matrix and open-ended questions

  • 68 responses received

  • 13 people contacted to request interviews

  • 11 remote interviews scheduled across 6 countries and 4 time zones

Global interviews

Prior to the interviews, I documented an interview plan and guide including my research objectives, ideal participants, process, an interview script, and questions with potential follow-ups. Over the next few weeks, I was able to complete 11 remote interviews in multiple countries through Zoom and Microsoft Teams - mostly late at night to accommodate each participant’s schedule. However, while all employees are expected to be fluent in English, communication was at times difficult with the offices in mainland China.

Additionally, two distinct qualitative interview approaches were used:

1. Sales team organization, interaction and process discovery:

The higher-level organizational discovery incorporated several guiding questions:

  • How are sales teams structured in the Asia Pacific region?

  • What are the different roles and their responsibilities?

  • How are business opportunities handled within an individual sales team?

  • How is the need for dedicated assistants determined?

2. Individual process, decision-making and application usage discovery:

The more individual-specific discovery also utilized the following guiding questions:

  • What are the daily tasks that are completed in each role?

  • Which application functions are most important for each role?

  • Who is relied upon to help complete the tasks?

  • When are business opportunities discussed with others, such as managers?

  • What tasks are difficult to complete within the sales systems (either mobile or desktop) and why?

Multiple types of research data informed the overall process

Multiple types of research data informed the overall process

Adding quantitative data

In addition to the survey and remote interviews, I also compiled a little more than three years of usage data as well as gathered sales team organizational charts from the company's internal education team as they too - independently - had been working to better understand the sales processes in Asia.

Numerous insights, opportunities and pain points captured in Airtable from 11 interviews

Numerous insights, opportunities and pain points captured in Airtable from 11 interviews

Defining the problem

Capturing and organizing the data

I continued by using Otter.ai to transcribe all of the videos and I set up an integration between Airtable and Mural, using Zapier, so that I could make the process of capturing insights more efficient by automating the creation of "sticky notes" as I added new information in Airtable. Gathering the sales usage data was a bit more challenging, requiring VPN (Virtual Private Network) access to the appropriate database, and I used Excel for exporting, compiling and evaluating the usage data.

As the captured insights automatically imported into Mural from each successive interview, I continually updated and expanded the board I created.

Over 300 insights were captured from the 11 interviews

Over 300 insights were captured from the 11 interviews

Ultimately, from my initial research, I recorded over 300 key insights, opportunities and pain points with a significant percentage of repetition throughout all interviews. These insights, organized through an ongoing affinity-mapping process, covered a variety of themes including organization, communication, business processes, as well as feedback about both the desktop and mobile applications.

Key interview metrics

  • 201 key insights

  • 47 opportunities

  • 65 pain points

Creating personas and user types

From the compiled research data, I created six personas, first in Mural, followed by finalized versions in Sketch for Mac representing the combined global sales structure at the company: western sales managers and sales representatives following the more traditional structure and eastern teams consisting of sales managers, senior and junior sales representatives and sales assistants. These personas defined the multiple goals, tasks and frustrations of each role.

I also learned that sales assistants share most of the system permissions as members of the sales maintenance team located in the U.S. offices, and also that those team members will, sometimes, enter data for salespeople in the Americas when needed. This was an important insight in that the global sales assistant persona would also generally apply to the sales maintenance team members as well.

The same process, different actors

The same process, different actors

Next, I documented and evaluated a typical sales flow from beginning to end, and I noticed that there were similarities between the western sales roles and their eastern counterparts, but that with the addition of junior sales representative and assistant roles, the individuals who completed each task varied. This swimlane task analysis, combined with the user personas, provided me the necessary information to write several key user scenarios that would help others to relate to the needs of each persona.

As I continued, I discovered that I could distill the needs and tasks of all six personas to three distinct user types: a sales manager, sales representative and sales assistant.

The sales manager user type represents a salesperson who must also manage and monitor a team of salespeople and their activities. The sales representative is an individual who sells to customers and may work independently or on a team. Finally, the sales assistant is a data-entry specialist who manages communication and order processes.

Ideation on a complex process

Initial sketches

Once I began the design process, I was able to pull from the many discovered opportunities and pain points to sketch 16 basic visual ideas using a Crazy 8s process. These quick initial sketches allowed me to rapidly create several core ideas that could be explored in greater detail later. Also, as hand processes were a part of my foundational design education, I used this opportunity to use one of my favorite physical design tools: the ReMarkable tablet.

Soon after, I met with the company's Director of IT and two of the mobile application developers for a technical review of those ideas, ultimately selecting several ideas I wanted to pursue further.

Many possibilities with several technical challenges to overcome

Many possibilities with several technical challenges to overcome

Low-fidelity wireframes and flows

I explored most of those key ideas in different wireframes created in Whimsical, also mapping the basic flow between them. In some cases, different ideas were able to be reflected within the same mockup.

I again met with the development team to discuss the low-fidelity mockups to confirm that there were no significant technical challenges to accomplishing my goals in this project.

High-fidelity designs

Once I moved into high fidelity design, as this was an existing tool relied on by many salespeople, I needed to ensure that I maintained and utilized consistent - and current - company branding and patterns of interaction while also creating new opportunities for sales managers and assistants to finally be able to utilize the mobile application.

I continued my user interface design work in Sketch, publishing to Overflow, through the integrated plugin, to connect the screens to better visualize the interactions between them. From past experience, the use of Overflow has been extremely helpful to better explain to the development team how a design will work and flow.

Three modes of use in the mobile application designed in Sketch for Mac

Three modes of use in the mobile application designed in Sketch for Mac

As I continued with the design process, I also built upon existing data entry processes and flows with a redesign of the navigation and dashboard based on three different modes of use following the previously defined user types: sales manager, sales representative, and assistant. Along with these redesigned elements, I also modified several screens and design patterns to more closely follow Material Design, of which the application was originally partially based.

The three different modes provide a more personalized experience based on the needs of each user type. For example, the Sales Pipeline, a tool for tracking individual sales opportunities has no use for sales assistants and, as such, is not included for that user type.  

Managers, while needing to be able to view their own sales data and business opportunities, also need to be able to filter down to their individual team members, bringing additional interaction elements to provide that functionality. Furthermore, since both managers and assistants have masquerade permissions - that is, acting on behalf of another user, similar to functionality present in the company's desktop sales application - additional affordances were added to provide more feedback as to what state they are in.

An overview of the redesigned screens completed during the project in Overflow

An overview of the redesigned screens completed during the project in Overflow

A capable tool for a complex prototype

A capable tool for a complex prototype

Building the prototype

From Sketch to Protopie

As I continued with the high fidelity screens, I also began work on the initial prototype, using Protopie. Having utilized several prototyping tools in the past, including Figma, Invision, Adobe XD, and Sketch's built-in prototyping, I had found them lacking in this use case. The complex nature of this application required more than simple screen to screen or component interactions that are capable in those tools.

Protopie's advanced features allow for a more functional prototype using variables and in-prototype messaging to trigger various components. Since the different modes of use can lead to different affordances on the screen, it was possible to modify individual screens via actions that could manipulate a variety of characteristics. While far more complex, this lead to a more flexible and efficient use of the designed elements in a prototype that could continue to evolve in the future.

For the following recording, I utilized a fictional user based on the Global Sales Assistant persona following a common scenario among sales teams in Asia.

A recording of a common application interaction as used by the Global Sales Assistant persona

Testing with users

Preparation

Prior to beginning the usability testing process, I had prepared the prototype to include a frequently used workflow that could be utilized in all three user modes: capturing a requirement (the customer's need) and generating a quote from that requirement. Additionally, other ideas were incorporated into the prototype, accessible through the main navigation, in order to gather further feedback.

An interview guide was also created in which I included my goals, procedures, script, scenarios and tasks, as well as several potential follow-up questions. Overall, my goal with the initial testing was to evaluate the multi-mode UI, redesigned navigation and action menu, as well as several process flow updates.

Fictional data was used in order to allow for better security of information

Fictional data was used in order to allow for better security of information

Remote testing

While I was unable to schedule with users in Asia due to my remaining project time and the scheduling challenges there, I was able to complete three remote usability testing sessions in the U.S. offices. The first was using the assistant mode with a member of the sales maintenance team in New York - who I realized could act as a proxy for the eastern sales assistants - along with one of the sales managers who observed the process and also provided feedback. 

I also tested the prototype in the sales representative mode with two frequent mobile application users - one in Texas and the other, California. All tests were handled using the web player of Protopie shared by each participant via Zoom.

Key findings

What I discovered

The results from testing were overwhelmingly positive with 18 new insights, opportunities and pain points discovered, indicating several minor changes and new ideas to consider. The redesigned navigation and action menu garnered unanimous feedback that accessing different functions and creating new transactions was subjectively much faster.

A few of the new ideas that came from the testing included providing actions - such as copy, or share - when clicking on transaction IDs or part numbers. This could help to provide more efficient interaction with other team members and reduce human error.  Another idea included generating a formal quote (such as a PDF version) from the mobile app which could then be quickly forwarded via email.

Also from the initial research, I learned that the app has been primarily used as an information tool. Salespeople use the available data to quickly quote their customers and they also want to know the status of their orders and how it affects them in terms of their profit margin. However, curiously, I found that there is a discrepancy between what the mobile application and desktop sales platform show in regards to data, which will need to be researched further with the technical team. 

I also learned that there is a considerable amount of mobile phone based communication happening with customers in Asia, which can be challenging when trying to enter requirements sent by customers from apps such as WeChat into the main sales platform. A common occurrence in those scenarios is a customer sending a photo of a very lengthy part number rather than in text that could be copied and pasted elsewhere.

Also in Asia, not being able to use the mobile sales app is leading to longer work hours for the sales assistants because they need to access the system but have no other alternatives. And finally, many users have not been able to use it for months due to unknown application errors, however they did not inform the IT department of those issues.

Improving the mobile sales application for a major global semiconductor distributor

When I first started this project, my assumption was that usage of the app would have increased due to COVID-19 and working from home. That was true to a point, until laptops were provided to many salespeople within the company. Overall usage has trended downward, but has begun to increase as many employees overseas are back in the office and are no longer using laptops. The two significant dips were due to network issues that disrupted use of the app and the recording of usage data.

Overall, from the completion of this project, it is very apparent that there are many exciting opportunities for further improvements and implementation of unique features - separate from the desktop platform - that could provide tremendous value for the users. As global salespeople are inundated with numerous messages and system-generated emails, this application has the potential to evolve further into a form of digital assistant that could provide them timely notifications, even when sitting in front of their computer.

Next steps

There's still a lot to do

Further usability testing and iteration will help refine the designs I have created so far. And as this application is very complex, many features have not yet been implemented into the prototype.

Several ideas that came from my research and initial sketches should definitely be explored. Screen size is certainly an issue with such a complex app on small devices so an iPad version may be beneficial. The custom notifications and application handoff (originally concepted in the Crazy 8s) require more technical research but could provide a significant benefit. And certainly - based on the research challenges I had, I think supporting multiple languages and system localiation could help eliminate - what I assume to be - challenges in how input field labels, buttons and instructions are worded and understood.

As this project represents a slice in the growth of this internal mobile application, I expect that projects like this will recur, continuing the evolution of a tool that will now be available for all sales roles globally.