Practical Design Thinking

Experience Design
Practical Design Thinking

Brian Alexandrowicz

Senior User Experience Designer


"Design doesn’t – and can’t – exist in a vacuum. Today’s projects are dynamic. They include a lot of moving parts and require even more teamwork."

A lot of folks in the design community prefer to work independently: headphones on, blocking out everything but that one super important thing they’re creating. This silence is sacred. Email, IMs, meetings – all are the enemy of the focused lone wolf.

But design doesn’t – and can’t – exist in a vacuum. Today’s projects are dynamic. They include a lot of moving parts and require even more teamwork. Gone are the days of the eccentric shut-in artist; a single talented individual who would take some requirements, go off on his own, and burn the midnight oil until it was time for the big reveal. Focused solo time still has a place in every project, but design today is a collaborative, iterative process that needs input from different groups of people at all stages of a project.

At Archer and elsewhere, the lone-wolf approach has been supplanted by a little something called design thinking. In a nutshell, design thinking is a hands-on, user-centric approach to problem solving. That’s a pretty general definition, so let’s go ahead and dive into the particulars.

Here are the three steps we follow to align on design objectives, harness the idea power of the entire team, and create work that makes us proud.

1. Define the problem with a “how might we” statement

Let’s say we’re tasked with creating a new site structure for a client. We look at the site and see that it’s disorganized, there’s a lot of duplicative content, and many links are broken. Consequently, we might define the problem as: “Fix the content issues and make everything easier to find.”

But that’s not quite good enough for our purposes. It overlooks the goals of the client. One of the client goals for the new site might be reworking the information hierarchy so new users are able to easily find a piece of information, purchase an item, or sign up for a membership.

A “how might we” statement helps us paint a fuller picture, by starting with client needs and filtering the current state of the experience through them. For the site example I outlined above, this statement might be something like, “How might we present the site content in a way that drives purchases and new memberships?” Notice that we’re not assuming a solution to our problem, but we’re providing just enough structure that we have an actionable starting point.

2. Collaborate and ideate with our good friend, “yes and…”

Once we define our problem, we can start the ideation process. We begin with a “yes and…” approach. Essentially, we – as a creative team – encourage our co-collaborators to elaborate on their ideas instead of discouraging them with negative feedback. It’s like improv, but with (an even) smaller audience.

Consider the following exchange:

John: Where are you going on vacation this year? Anywhere cool?
Susan: We’re going to Paris! I’m super excited.
John: Do you speak French? I hear that there’s a bit of a language barrier over there.
Susan: No, but I’m sure it’ll be fine. We’ve been saving up for a while and I think I’m ready to go!
John: I hear it’s really expensive. You should do a money exchange before you go.

Notice anything about that conversation? Susan was pretty excited about going to Paris, but John kept “dead-ending” the conversation with negative (but fairly reasonable) feedback on her plans.

Let’s compare it to another exchange:

John: Where are you going on vacation this year? Anywhere cool?
Susan: We’re going to Paris! I’m super excited.
John: That’s awesome! Have you thought about renting a moped? I heard it’s a great way to explore the city.
Susan: No, but that sounds really cool! Any recommendations?
John: I heard about this one place that rents them out and will take on tours down these little side streets that cars can’t go. It sounds pretty sweet.
Susan: That sounds great, I’ll have to check it out! I’d love to go off the beaten path a bit.

Notice how different that conversation was. Instead of being negative and raining on Susan’s parade, John joined in her enthusiasm and gave her additional ideas for experiences that she might have otherwise not considered. That is what we’re doing with the “yes and…” approach: Creating an environment where all ideas can be validated, elaborated on, and strengthened.

3. Make a decision and put it to the test

Once your ideas have had a chance to grow and flourish, you can start narrowing the list and devising solutions. Let’s go back to the website I mentioned above. We stated our problem (how might we present the site content in a way that drives purchases and new memberships?), came up with a few ideas (putting a callout box on the homepage to drive our users to the most popular offering), and now we’re ready to test our solution. We could do this in any number of ways, but since we’re smart and tech-savvy individuals, we’re going to use Adobe XD and create an interactive prototype.

In a perfect world, we would always test things with real product users. However, the real world isn’t perfect (for reasons that extend beyond product testing limitations) and sometimes we need to settle for some good old-fashioned internal testing. We can design these tests in a number of ways, but often the simplest approach is best: putting a laptop in front of people and having them click around while we watch and take notes. Remember, we’re not looking for in-depth analyses of the whole product, we just want to know: Does the solution adequately address the problem? If the answer to that is “yes,” then TA-DA! We have our solution.

Teamwork makes the dream work

Design thinking is a tool, not a solution. And it only works if you have a team of collaborators who are willing to contribute what they can, bolster the contributions of others, and check their egos at the door. In 2018, it takes a village to solve any complex digital challenge. Wolves need not apply.

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