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25th July 2022 | What's brewing?

What's Brewing: The invisible designer

Rob Brewer

Design thinking – the process we follow for product, user experience (UX) or service design – is pretty straightforward.

design thinkingWe learn about the problems in discovery. We come up with ideas to address them in ideation. We bring our ideas to life in prototyping. Then we find out if they solve the biggest problems in user testing. If we’ve done all those things, we’ll start building things for real.

There’s a whole bunch of stuff that we do at each stage of the process, but those things are pretty functional. It might seem like each stage serves only to move you on to the next one, but this isn’t entirely true.

Each stage is dependent on the previous one. For example, you can’t ideate if you don’t have any insight . However, as a designer leading projects like these, I am constantly trying to create an environment where good design can happen. This takes more than just working through the design process.

If you’ve ever heard me when I’m atop my soapbox, you’ve probably heard that statement before. Creating this environment is arguably the most important element to being a really strong design leader.

Environments aren’t created by one single thing though, you can’t will it into existence and you definitely can’t just say it for it to become a thing. This environment isn’t created just by what you do, but how you do it.

There are a lot of ways I do this, but there are two that stand out the most.

The first is in the discovery stage of the process. This is all about understanding what problems exist in our users’ world. It’s also about understanding their behaviours, and them as humans. Yes, our primary function here is to find out what our users need, but we’re also trying to work a bit of magic on the team. We’re trying to get the team to care about them.

When we care for something or someone, we’re more driven, focused and determined to deliver. Care creates success. Care creates empathy.

Empathy is powerful. It connects us to users on a level normally reserved for those closest to us. It brings emotion into the equation when we’re ideating too, because we’re ideating for real people, not just ‘users’. It’s powerful stuff.

There are loads of ways to conduct discovery research, but my go-to approach (which I won’t go into now) is an in-depth interview. Spending an hour with someone and giving them the space to tell you all the things that are important to them is powerful. You learn so much about what they need, but you also learn about them as people. If you interview them in their homes or their workplace, you experience the smells, sounds, distractions - the real life - that happens around them. This stuff might not help you design a solution, but it will without a doubt help you to empathise and that’s rocket fuel.

Most people don’t even realise it’s happening which makes it even more powerful. It’s emotional inception. This is why I always try to make sure that anyone in the team gets to be part of at least two user interviews.

So, empathy is great and it makes us more passionate about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, but there’s more I do as a designer to create an environment for good design. Ideation (idea generation) is another key part.

Let’s skip forward a bit. We’ve kicked off an ideation session, our creative juices are flowing and we’ve sketched some ideas. We’ve got LOADS and they’re all up on the board. We know we can’t prototype all of them, and we probably don’t want to either, so we need to whittle them down. Lots of books and articles will tell you that you should now vote for the best ideas to take forward.

Everyone gets a few voting stickers and they stick them to their favourite ideas. It’s a quick and easy way to get to the team’s favourite idea, right? It’s definitely quick, but that’s about it in my opinion.

I have a problem with voting for the ‘best’ *full-blown air quotes* idea in ideation.

On the face of it, voting is the most democratic way to get to a solution. Majority rules right?

But look at the Brexit vote for example. Yes, there was a result and yes it was based on the majority, but it split the country in half. Half the people happy, but the other half were angry, sad and alienated.  

Now I’m not saying that voting is bad. I’m also not so naïve to say that there’s a better way for massive decisions like Brexit, but in my little design environment there is.

If we vote for the ideas we think best solve our users problems, we lose a whole load of other great elements that aren’t included in those ideas. Not only that, but we alienate the people whose ideas weren’t voted for. When that happens, those people are instantly less passionate about the work we’re doing. All that hard work to bring the team together and create empathy is gone. That environment for good design just went up a couple of degrees and the design ice caps are starting to melt. Sure, some will fight on, but we’ll lose others.

As I said, every idea is valuable. Every idea has something good in it, even the seemingly mad ones. We still can’t prototype everything though, so we still need to whittle down those ideas.

This is when I bring in the ‘keep, don’t keep’ exercise.

In this exercise we take the good things from every idea and use them to build a single idea. By doing it this way, everyone’s ideas are included in some way, and we get to keep the bits that best solve the user’s problems.

We review each idea and write notes about the things we want to keep. Sometimes these things are literal like:

“Enable user to customise their avatar’s look” or “progress bar towards a goal”.

We don’t take everything literally though. We also write down notes like:

“Make the user feel special” or “simple interface with one action”. We’re capturing the concepts, as well as the specifics.

To bring them all together, we create a storyboard that shapes them into a coherent idea. It also serves as our blueprint for prototyping, and we’ll rely on the expertise of the designer to translate the less specific things into tangible things.

Inevitably, some of the things we liked still don’t make the cut because they don’t fit with the user experience we’re trying to create, but that’s OK because by this point everyone in the team can see elements of their ideas included in the storyboard. By approaching it this way, the whole team can still feel like they have ownership of the idea, and we get to keep the best bits.

It’s all a bit like Lego really. We’re using insights like instructions to build our sets. Then we take them all apart and use the best bits to build a new, better set. By working in this way, we’re maintaining that team spirit because, as we all know, everything is awesome especially when you’re part of a team.

Creating an environment where good design can happen is key to successful projects. A lot of what I do to achieve this isn’t that obvious, it’s almost invisible. I’m not just helping the team to design solutions to problems, I’m designing how we do it because when I do that, I get the most out of the team, and the team get the most out of the experience.

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