What goes on inside the UX labs of large innovative companies?

Most big, future-forward companies are now investing in high-tech UX labs. But what actually happens in them? We got to find out firsthand at Telefónica HQ in Madrid.

Imagine your life as a toolbox, and all your knowledge and skills are construction tools. As you experience new situations, meet new people, and face new challenges, you acquire, exchange, and update that set of tools. 

But once you have those tools, how can you use them to drive change? How are big companies using new talent to drive innovation in their products and services?

The best way to discover the answer to that question is by going straight to the source: reaching out to and having conversations with professionals in the field. For that reason, the IE Human-Centered Design Club strives to establish and strengthen connections with relevant companies in the industry.

On February 21st, Telefónica opened its doors to the club and its members. A group of 20 IE University students visited their UX Innovation Lab on Gran Vía in Madrid. Overlooking an impressive panoramic view of the city, the students engaged in an in-depth discussion about innovative UX labs and their challenges, politics, and the “do’s and don’ts” of using a persona. In no time, a two-hour meeting turned into a four-hour exploration of what it really means to be a UX designer in one of the most important Spanish companies. 

What we found… 

Image by Sandy Chahine

First of all, the UX Innovation Lab was not something that happened from one day to the next at Telefónica. User research grew in importance as it delivered value on project outcomes. 

Well-applied user research, either during the discovery or testing phase, is about reducing risks for the company. The more you know your customer—their behaviors, needs, and expectations—the more likely you are to succeed with new and existing services. 

“What kind of products do you usually test in here?” was one of the event attendees’ questions. 

And the answer couldn’t have been better. 

We test video services and home products, applications for computers and mobile, the features of Movistar’s application features… and more importantly, a lot of ideas that never go to market due to the prototype and test cycle in here, which saves us a lot of resources.

From its genesis until today, the UX labs team has been able to translate their work into a business imperative (such as risk mitigation) and prioritize projects based on business priorities. 

Image by Sandy Chahine

At first glance, the lab looks more like a luxurious penthouse than a tech laboratory, with big windows, comfortable leather couches, Eames chairs, and a kitchen (which, as it turns out, is just there for show). 

Yet, upon closer examination, it’s possible to get a glimpse of the real UX touch: cameras on the ceiling, which are constantly recording, and microphones strategically placed across the room. 

The most interesting part of the lab is the one-way observation room, reminiscent of an old detective movie. The observation rooms allow key stakeholders, such as the product manager or the rest of the UX team, to discreetly witness interviews without interrupting the interviewer’s flow. 

“You wouldn’t know how useful the observation room can be,” states the UX facilitator. 

Not only does it build buy-in from key stakeholders by providing them the chance to hear and see first-hand the user’s response, but it also allows the UX team to capture unfiltered insights from the stakeholders themselves about the products being tested. Since the room is not monitored, stakeholders can speak freely about their products. Essentially, it’s a way for UX labs to conduct two interviews at once.

Image by Sandy Chahine

There’s something ironic about the idea of the UX team of a leading telecommunications company putting so much emphasis on physical spaces. In a sense, while the world is tuning in online, they’ve decided to go from virtual to physical.

“How might we translate everything we learn during field research to the rest of the team?” 

The answer is the War Room. 


The War Room: an innovation mine field

One of the biggest challenges that the teams of UX labs face is making sure they don’t lose or forget important information from their research or prototypes. This may explain why the walls of the War Room are lined with post-its and white cardboard delineating customer journeys, as well as all sorts of different maps (so much so, if you asked any of the students who attended, they wouldn’t be able to tell you what color the wall was).

Image by Sandy Chahine

The hectic War Room also demonstrated to other stakeholders the amount of work that goes on behind the scenes in the UX process. Sometimes a simple modification has an elaborate story behind it. 

PowerPoint presentations don’t translate the amount of work, research, and details behind innovations big and small. Those post-its and maps give visitors insights into what really goes on in UX labs—not just the result. And as we learned, the process is just as important as the end result. 

gabriela machadoGabriela Machado believes people are the key to solving any existing problem—and the cause of most of them, if we’re honest. She is passionate about human-centered design and is currently pursuing the Master in Customer Experience & Innovation and working as a Service Designer at UMANI Design. She is also a travel blogger, food lover, and an inherently curious person. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

Tanya Raschle is currently pursuing the Master in Customer Experience & Innovation and is passionate about immersing herself in different contexts in order to design products and services with a human-centered approach. Apart from that, she has a background working in the hospitality industry, and loves photography and discovering places that are off the beaten track. Connect with her here.

sandyAn avid learner and relentless thinker, Sandy Chahine believes that the most interesting work happens at the intersection of powerful questions and daring creativity. Having worked in strategy and design, she is now pursuing the Master in Customer Experience & Innovation at HST. Beyond design, her heart belongs to humanities—being involved in various initiatives to promote culture and social well-being. Get in touch on LinkedIn.