User Experience professionals are often faced with the challenge of receiving assignments in new fields and disciplines that they have never had the previous opportunity to tackle. Indeed, I have worked in sectors as diverse of finance, healthcare, industrial manufacturing, government, education, technology and a number of other diverse sectors. If one were to include the broad range of technology platforms, languages/cultures, and business sizes (Enterprise, SMB, startup, etc.) the list quickly becomes immense in the scale of its diversity.
The nature of this type of work is that you are often thrown into unfamiliar waters and asked to swim. There are, however, a few effective strategies to solve this challenge. At the forefront of these is one's ability to draw from past experience. As seasoned researchers and designers, we have a body of previous experience to draw from. The good news is that most projects have things in common—similar universal truths, such as human factors, usability heuristics, and general design guidelines, not to mention common business needs such as profitability and larger company goals such as growth and innovation.
There are also a set of common approaches to solving design challenges, our User Experience (UX) methodology, that allows one to feel comfortable in a different environment. Design Thinking, part of the UX process, is a wonderful tool that allows us to tackle new challenges, often in fields, we've never approached. It is at the center of how we do our work, something we all learned in school. Wait, you didn't go to design school? Don't worry! The good news is that it isn’t just a tool for designers, but can be applied by all professionals. So, what does this look like?
Define Your Problem, Carefully
The first step in the Design Thinking process is to carefully define the problem you are working on. In the UX world, this is often formalized into a requirements document. Systematically, all of the individual project requirements are listed and the details for each of the items is carefully noted. All of the various team members are asked to collaborate and review each other’s contributions until consensus is achieved. This process of cross-disciplinary problem definition has the benefit of allowing everyone to see the problem from the perspective of their colleagues, who usually have a different set of challenges and insights. This type of partnering with other, often more experienced stakeholders, at the beginning of the project helps to solve our previously stated dilemma—how do you work in a field that you lack in depth previous experience? One of the answers is to build connections with team member and leverage their expertise.
Another aspect of understanding the problem is questioning whether or not one has defined it correctly. In some ways getting this step wrong can be disastrous. It’s akin to starting a long trip but taking a wrong turn out the front door. Having a bit of healthy skepticism certainly is helpful here as well as being willing to invoke the expertise of those who are experiencing the problem first hand. Design Thinking often relies on speaking directly with people outside of the design team. These include customers that you are creating the product for, other team members in different disciplines who are also working on solutions for the same issue, or indirectly your competition by conducting a review of the competitive landscape.
Iterate On It
What is meant by the notion that designers iterate? At the core of this question is part of the design process that skillfully allows us to find winning answers to challenging problems in domains that we may lack sufficient previous experience. Designers start with raw ideas and constantly refine them. We “iterate.”
User Experience has introduced the notion of low-fidelity, rapid prototyping, which is just another way to say that designers try out their ideas, ditch their mistakes and pick back-up on what’s working. The low-fidelity part simply means we don’t get too involved in the details early up front. The more time and energy that is exerted in finessing a concept, the more difficult it will be to throw it away with the multitude of other ideas that are initially considered. This is a key point because the point of this stage in the Design Thinking process is to consider as many different ideas as possible. You are in search of that rare creature, an idea that is unique, highly original, and particularly well-attuned to the problem at hand.
In my process I typically follow the same method I was taught in design school. Ideas are crafted and placed on the walls of my studio. At any one time, there are hundreds of notes, sketches, market studies, and other printed out documents plastered to the walls from all of the different team members. What’s especially powerful is the ability to see what your colleagues are working on at any one time in the day. Cross-fertilization happens easily and often. It’s really cool to see and more than inspiring when clients or team members from other departments drop by the studio for a visit. What’s even more inspiring is the pace at which old ideas come down and new ones go up.
While there is a lot to say about creativity and certainly an issue worthy of additional thought, one last point should be made regarding the design process and Design Thinking as a methodology to ideation and problem solving. This type of work requires a fair amount love. Good ideas can be hard to spot, often come out malformed or only partially realized. Our experience shows that the evolution of breakthrough ideas happens incrementally. It’s not only a process of refinement, but one where every stakeholder should be encouraged to contribute and all ideas evaluated for their potential. Junior team members must have an equal seat at the table beside business leaders and creative directors.
To sum this all up, it should be said that design is an incredibly engaging and breakthrough process that allows its practitioners to immerse themselves in problem spaces they have never explored. It’s an open-minded discipline interspersed with a healthy dose of skepticism and empathy. It’s truly humanistic, ergonomic and customer-centric. Applied in the real world it goes the distance.