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.

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.