I am a user experience designer with experience designing, developing and leading the creation of software products. I am seeking an opportunity to work with a team that is passionate about building great technology products.

Knowing When to Prototype

In a conversation about my English learning project one Friday morning, Patrick Whitney said something that I want to keep reminding myself of as a designer.

“As designers, we often make an informed guess at what might be a much better solution than would otherwise exist . We don’t have to know all of the reasons why it is better, just that it is likely. If we kept trying to understand all the reasons, we would never get to prototyping. We are not looking for the single right answer; rather we seek the best of many possible solutions.”

A lot of times it is easy to get lost in trying to know everything or feeling like we know too little to move forward or that we need just a little more research before we can decide what the best way to go forward is. What I have learnt through many projects at ID is that, in dealing with complex problems, you will never know everything.That does not stop you from having a hunch about what a better solution might be. Patrick calls these guesses.

It is important as a designer to take that leap of faith, at this stage, and create a prototype. Depending on where you are in the project, it can help you think better about aspects of the solution you never considered, get user feedback on the rough solution and get an early sense of what works and what doesn’t and if nothing else, it is a way to externalize your thinking- to take the load off your head and onto something physical/digital which can then free up your mind to think about the finer details.

What’s important to remember as a designer, I think, is that we are not looking for the one right answer but we are looking for better choices that those that exist. Any solution we create to a problem will always have room for improvement but to get to that, we need to prototype first.

Wicked problems did you say?- A tour of ID whiteboards

I was walking through ID today and realized looking at the whiteboards that between all of us, we have pretty much all of the world’s problems covered. Education for the underprivileged, the role of government, unemployment, privacy, violence … you name it and someone at ID is working on it. 

Ofcourse these are learning projects and we probably won’t really solve anything but I love the fact that we take up these problems in our classes with so much passion and seriousness and really believe that we can solve them. It speaks to our ambition and maybe a bit to our ignorance that we believe we can solve these huge and messy problems.

I love this foolish ambition because as Sam Pitroda says, (and I’m paraphrasing here) “I work only with young people because when they are young, they are ignorant enough to believe that they can actually solve these problems” (and that belief leads them to sometimes actually solving them).

#LovinIT!

The Value of Design to the Software Business

Why this now?
I believe today there is significant curiosity around design in part because of the need for innovation after the economic crisis and increased focus on environmental issues and in part thanks to the work of IDEO, Frog, Stanford d School, TED in evangelizing design and design thinking as a means to achieve that innovation.

At the same time today, I believe there is a poor understanding of how design adds value to business. Though IDEO and many other design firms have done a good job of talking about the design process and the results some organizations have enjoyed as a result of this, a lot of talk today is about design thinking being the magic solution to all your problems. I think this needs to change. I think it’s important for us to talk about the specific areas in which design adds value. What specific areas of business can design add value to. Why exactly should an organization adopt design and what specific benefits it can expect to reap from it.

In part my motivation to do this has also been the fact that while I feel that I and others in my team are adding a lot of value to the products we work on, when it comes to explaining what we do, I find it hard to explain.

This post is my attempt to articulate what I have gathered as the value add we provide as UX Designers. A lot of these points are generic and are true for other fields of design as well.

What value does user experience design add to business?

I believe design delivers value to business along the following 5 dimensions:

  1. Insight
  2. Innovation
  3. Visualization
  4. Simplification
  5. Beautification

1. Insight: A deeper understanding of the customer, his/her unmet needs and desires.
How?
Design Research
One of the key values of design is human centeredness. Once designers have a problem statement for a product or interface to build, they start to understand who would be the potential users of their product, what is their level of understanding of the product and of the context in which the product exists. If similar or analogous products exist in the market (even if they exist in completely different domains), how do users use them, what are their good and bad experiences with those products.

Through such open ended and qualitative research designers try to build a mental picture of the potential users of the product. This mental picture is then converted into artefacts like personas, tasks and prioritized usage scenarios. These give the product team of designers, developers/ manufacturers and business managers insights as to who are the users that they are building this product for and what really matters to them. This allows the team to make better decisions of which features are important and which are not, how to organize content, what is the relevant content at each step of the workflow.

2. Innovation: New or significantly improved solution to a problem.
How?

  • Defining the problem right
    Given a problem to solve designers rarely take it at face value. They will keep asking ‘why?’ till they can find a way to state the core problem in its most abstract essence. They may also use their own user research to augment their understanding.

    E.g. In the documentary Objectified, a film about the industrial-design process, a group of designers charged with designing a new toothbrush asked the unobvious first question: Why does it have to be a toothbrush? With that starting point, they eventually redefined the problem as “creating the future of oral care.” Defining the problem in this way leads to a wider range of solutions, maybe an entire product line.

  • Divergence
    A prominent and unique feature of design education is that it stresses on divergence, the generation of multiple solutions to the same problem. In John Kolko’s talk at CMU, I heard him talk about assignments where they would be asked to make 50 different toasters in a short period of time, and select 3 of the best solutions and generate 50 more starting from there.

    This divergent approach is one I have seen good designers around me take for design problems that they are working on. This approach is taken for problems of all levels, starting from the overall idea of the solution down to finding the right button. No matter what the problem, after getting the problem definition right, they quickly start generating many solutions and then select the best one or create a new one integrating the best elements from the solutions generated. Not stopping at the first obvious solution is one of the main reasons that designers are so innovative.

    Tim Brown from IDEO says this often in his talks, quoting someone (I couldn’t find the original source), “The first step for having great ideas is to have a lot of ideas.”

  • Innate desire to do things differently
    Another observation I have about designers is that a lot of these folks just love doing things differently. Now just doing things differently is not innovation in itself but questioning the status quo and having the courage to try new solutions is a necessary step to innovation.

3. Visualization for Improved Communication
Businesses today rely heavily on verbal or textual communication which inherently leaves room for ambiguity. It often happens in the software services industry that what the customer tries to convey is different from what the business analyst understands, and what the business analyst tries to convey is different from what the developers understand and thus the final product often differs a lot from what the customer originally had in mind.
Designers are typically visual thinkers, they think by drawing. They continuously create visual models to aid their understanding. Bringing in designers into the team helps the team visualize and reach a common understanding at various stages in the development cycle. The use of visual models reduces the need for onerous documentation while improving clarity.

How?
In the early stage of the project, while the team is grappling with understanding the domain, the requirements and various workflows, designers might create visual representations of the domain fundamentals, representing various entities and their interrelations, the various actors on a system and their roles. These serve as a means of quick interchange between the team and validation from the subject matter experts.

As the project proceeds and the user research begins, personas, comical/ photographic scenarios and user journeys help the entire team visualize why and for whom they are developing this product. A lot of times when the team is confused about how to proceed developing a particular feature, their questions get answered by thinking “how would Smitha (a persona) use this feature?”

As the requirements get clarified, designers start building visual prototypes, typically wireframes, and start testing them with real users to see what places they get stuck, how long it takes them to figure out how to complete their task and then complete it. These prototypes are also continuously validated with technical and business teams to ensure that the proposed interface is technically feasible while meeting the business objectives. Gathering feedback, designers refine these prototypes and repeat the cycle. The approach of continuous prototyping helps reduce risk through improved communication and continuous validation.

The prototype- test-refine-iterate cycle creates visual prototypes that are extremely useful in quickly getting all stakeholders on the same page about what exactly needs to be developed even before the dev team writes the first line of code.

4. Simplification: Make things only as complex as they are, no more.
When users come to a website or an application, they are trying to achieve an objective, for example booking an air ticket or finding articles on a particular topic.

The interface is just that, an interface, between them and their goal and thus it needs to help the users achieve their objectives as fast as possible based on what they already know.

Thus some of the key objectives of usability which is a subset of UX design are:

  • Increasing Speed
  • Reducing user errors
  • Making it as easy as possible to recover from error.
  • Reducing need for learning.

How?
Aiming at the above objectives, there are many ways that designers use to achieve them. A small subset of possible ways is:

  • Understanding the capabilities, knowledge and domain specific terminologies of the target user group and aligning the interface with the same.
  • Trying to organize data the way users organize it in their head.
  • Asking for data only where and when it is necessary
  • Aligning with the established conventions in a field.
  • Use of colours, typography etc to draw the users’ attention to more important items and reduce visual distractions.

Improved usability has a strong impact in highly competitive spaces like ecommerce where if the user doesn’t find the product on your site, he will look for it somewhere else, places where safety is at stake like cockpits of aircrafts, places where speed is essential to the job at hand/ profitability like interfaces for customer support executives etc. For a more detailed analysis of where usability is important, please refer to my earlier post Who cares about Usability?

5. Beautification: All else being equal, the better looking product is a better product.
This is the most visible aspect of our work and we usually get requests where the customer already has the product ready but they need to make the interface more ‘jazzy’. Designers rebel against this image of mere stylists, because it devalues our thought process, our intellect and I agree with that view. But I would still say that making things look better is still a key value add that we provide, because of the sheer impact of this step.

How?
So how do designers manage to make things look great? You might be tempted to say its talent, creativity, artistic ability etc. While all of those are quite true, there is a lot more science to it that you would imagine. Alignment, symmetry, visual hierarchy, proportion, proximity and many other such logical factors add up to basic visual hygiene. Then comes the layer of appeal, though it is more intuitive, there too there are patterns which can contribute to appeal. Designers know these rules and patterns, either explicitly or implicitly, and understand how and in which contexts to apply these.

The impact this makes on users is quite profound, purchase/ usage decisions of users are often quite subjective. Sensory appeal often plays a key role in these decisions. Thus and importantly, all else being equal, the better looking product is the better product.

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This is a summarization of my evolving understanding of design and its implications on business. Over time this understanding has been aided and questioned by many of you and I thank you for that. With this post, I would love to hear feedback from both the business and design angles. Do let me know what you think, either through comments or on my email address lukwhostalking@gmail.com
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As a personal aside though, I feel that I am spending too much time thinking about the value of the work I do and not enough doing it. Though this framework will help articulate the value of design but while designing, it’s probably best to just forget all frameworks and thoughts about value and just lose yourself in the work.

Bridging the gap between Design and Business

I have, for a while, been thinking about the value that design adds to a product/ service and how to articulate that value to the decision makers so we, designers, can get a chance to play a bigger role in the development cycle. I have come to realize that there are 2 ways to approach the problem.

1.      Designers talking the business language: As designers in the work we do, our processes, our reasoning etc is all quite qualitative and implicit. And this qualitative approach allows us to observe and value individual users, their experiences, their motivations, their ‘a-ha’ moments instead of relying on broad (and boring) statistics alone. This empathy is what drives our creative process.
But this puts us at a disadvantage while dealing with the decision makers because more often than not, they’re more interested in statistics and (to borrow from Roger Martin) reliability. I believe if we have to increase our impact in an organizational environment, we need to be able to articulate the value that we add in a language they are familiar with. This means measuring the impact of our work not just qualitatively, but with numbers and not just stopping at task completion times and error rates but articulating how improving these numbers impacts the bottom-line of the business. How many dollars of revenue did we add? How much did we reduce the support costs by? I dream of a day when we can base our fees on the impact of our work instead of an hourly rate.

2.      Exposing the decision makers to our style of work: This is an approach that firms like IDEO and Frog are propounding today. Bring in the managers, the engineers and involve them in our brainstorms, our prototyping. Do not restrict deliverables to just the end design but deliver the insights, the user stories, the personas etc.
Involving them in our processes helps in 2 ways:

a.       Demystifies our work: It helps them understand what we do, why we need the extra one week to observe shoppers in the supermarket, why we have all the post-its on the walls and how each of these things adds value to their end product.

b.       Improves buy-in on the final solution: If the key decision makers have been involved in conceptualizing the solution we are proposing, they will be much more inclined to go that extra mile to ensure it is executed the way we, together, envisioned it.

I think this is a really exciting time to be a designer because today we are at a point where a lot of people are beginning to look at us for innovation but to achieve that critical mass will take us that much more effort. And we have the responsibility to bring about this change because at the end of the day, we will gain the most out of it.

What the hell is Design Thinking? Some resources.

Well I’m definitely not an expert on that..but here are 3 resources I found really useful.

1.       Innovation Through Design Thinking – Tim Brown (1hr) Great talk by the CEO of IDEO at MIT Sloan.

2.       Design Thinking… What is That? Article by Mark Dziersk on Fast Company

3.       Design Thinking- A New Kind of Leadership (iTunes U, 1hr 5mins) – Talk by Banny Banerjee of the Stanford Design program.

Abstraction and Analogy- Tools for Creative Thinking

On my way to Bangalore last weekend, I was thinking about alternates to contemporary tabs in browsers. I couldn’t think of too much till the time I thought about the problem in another way. “How can I browse though a large number of items visually, when I can see them only partially?” This problem definition allowed me to think of various ways in which we already do this in our daily life.

 

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Then I thought of the supermarkets, we browse through a lot of visual information but it is categorized. Categorization, how come browsers don’t have that yet? (Just checked, there are some Firefox add-ons that attempt at this.) I figure tabs can be categorized in some fashion. One way would be blogs, social networks etc.

Though I don’t think any of these ideas are too great, I did learn a new way of thinking about the problem. Define the problem in a more abstract way and think of analogous situations.