Category Archives: Design

Lost and found in the design process

Which is better: Having courage to explore the unknown, or a map to help you find the way?

When heading on a design journey, I’m beginning to think courage and a good compass is better than a map.

A year or two back I tentatively drew a map of the design process for a specific client and their design challenge…

It became a 2m long poster to help a team of healthcare professionals new to design see what lay ahead, and refer to as they progressed towards their goal. A ‘you are here’, ‘look how far we’ve come’, (and sometimes ‘oops, we missed that bit!’) kinda thing.

Yet another design process map. Obsolete the moment it was printed.

I enjoyed pulling this together, thinking about the likely journey ahead for this team, reflecting on my own experience of design and building on top of classic frameworks promoted as ‘best practice’ by the likes of IDEO, Design Council, and what I’d learned during my time with Stanford as part of the Better By Design program.

The cynic in me believes these design process diagrams likely derived from sales tools for design agencies, each claiming to have a point of difference and perhaps to have some ‘secret sauce’ that the other’s hadn’t discovered. …but their 3, 4 or 5 step bubble diagrams have become ubiquitous to the point they are almost redundant.

Semantics aside, they all promise gold at the end of a rainbow if you’re prepared to challenge your thinking upfront.

Other metaphors are funnels, diamonds, snakes, vortexes, washing machines, the list goes on, but essentially they describe a few phases of lost and found with a bit of loopback before finding that gold.

They make nice visuals and the theory seems sound enough, but when you start to actually apply one of these to a live project you realise how futile it is to try to map the design process.

A sequence of steps is convenient and tidy but the reality of design is more like this:

… and there’s no ‘one squiggle fits all’ here either…

Maps and guidelines give us comfort. They can provide a sense of shared understanding of where we are going and what to expect…

… but the reality of most meaty design projects is that we don’t know where we are going, and we need to find a new kind of device to help clients feel comfortable with the unknown.

What makes the journey-maker comfortable with the unknown?

Is it time to throw away these maps and find a design compass?

Yes, it’s another metaphor, but perhaps it’s the designer’s job to be that compass. Something the client trusts to navigate through the messy reality.

Designers are comfortable with the ‘lost’ feeling, because we’ve ‘been there done that’ and believe in great outcomes based on our own experiences.

So how do YOU convince a nervous client you know where ‘north’ is?

Do you roll out a map, or are you the compass?

I’d love to hear…

Prototype, Test, Rinse & repeat


The value of iteration.

Switched-on digital agencies understand the value of user testing with early stage website mockups; ironing out sticking points and identifying opportunities to improve interaction design early, before committing to code.

During a day of back-to-back user interviews, ‘quick wins’, like changing a navigation item can be made in seconds and validated (or not) by response from subsequent research participants.

…But how possible is this rapid-fire iterative improvement in the design of physical products?

Lately, I’ve been helping a Christchurch company take a User Centred approach to refining the design for a new type of mouse.

The industrial designers at 4ormfunction produce fresh batches of prototypes using shaping compounds then scan & print in 3D. This makes for quick builds of fully functional prototypes. They look a little sketchy, but are perfectly suitable for user research where ergonomics are being explored.

Continuous customer feedback = continuous improvement.

This ‘turn on a dime’ flexibility allows an iterative approach; Designers respond to insights and observations from natural use with potential customers, build a new round of design variants, then put these prototypes through the next round of user research to further refine the design.

It’s not as quick as shuffling pixels, but It’s a great realisation to me that such complex objects can realistically be put through a quick cycle of: prototype / user research / analysis / …repeat.

UX in the physical world

Individual user experience in the physical world. Custom built surfboards.
This project from 2009 allowed me to work on interactions with a different kind of digital – gripping fingers and thumbs, … taking me back to my surfboard building days.

A kiwi company was developing a new type of mouse. I’used UX methods to help refine the design, starting off with some user research to understand how people will use it.

Working with a physical object so closely tied to the task at hand is a challenge. Asking people how they’d use it can be misleading as they often struggle to articulate what they want from a product they aren’t always conscious of using.

This really takes me back to my first encounter with User Centred Design – making custom surfboards in the early 90’s.

My first customers would fill out an order form with their height, weight and suggested measurements for the board. These were often based on their vision of riding in a certain way, on waves which often only happened twice a year, or in their dreams.

When viewed through the right lens, observing people use a product can convert directly into design requirements to improve the user experience.

Wherever possible, I’d go surfing with my customers, to get a feel for their riding style and the conditions they most often rode in.  Watching them ride provided a more reliable brief of what they needed from a board than they’d written on the order form.

When you’re riding the right board, you forget it’s there; it’s like an extension of your body. Making the board ‘disappear’ was my measure of whether I’d made it right for the rider. (As well as the smile on their face at the end of a session)

Using a mouse with your computer is similarly sub-conscious but it’s not a sport, and doesn’t need to make you smile.

… but there’s a first time for everything.

Best laid plans. Blueprint for a charity home page

To help the client team moving forward I’ve produced a home page blueprint for the website built during Full Code Press.

With web projects requiring information architecture and overall user experience input it’s often as useful to justify the strategy and principles behind recommended approaches as it is to implement them.

Rainbow Youth helped us to understand their audience, now they need to pick up the website and run with it. It’s important they understand the strategy behind the home page and the function each element performs in relation audience motivations and expectations.

Since the Full Code Press event the Codeblacks team are providing tweaks and ongoing direction for our client, Rainbow Youth before the new site goes live.

To Share the goodness and our findings, …I have made a copy of the web page IA-UX blueprint available for those who work with the design of charity websites.

Is User Experience ‘The New Black’ in NZ ?

I’m visiting the main cities in NZ to find out ‘who’s doing what?’ in the area of User Experience and User Centred Design …I’ve met couple of dozen people so far…

So, what lies below the surface of the words User Experience? And is it more than just a buzzword?

  • Agencies practising User Centred Design methodologies have been evangelistic, raising its profile in NZ
  • NZ design agencies have a strong belief in the philosophy behind User Centred Design and research
  • User Experience as a brand differentiator is gaining traction amongst clients
  • Larger organisations as well as product and service providers are starting to build internal UX teams or hire dedicated UX staff
  • Usability Testing methodologies are merging with User Centred Design to shape the overall experience of online in particular
  • Insights gained from UCD methodologies are informing and shaping products and services prior to as well as during development

These are all positive things, but almost everyone I spoke to felt they still had to ‘fight their corner’ within their team, and in particular with their clients.

Keep fighting …your clients will thank you, and ‘the new black’ will endure.

A sign your User Experience needs a reality check

How can it be that a sign-writer, who arranges letters day in day out, can make a spelling mistake?

A mere series of stickers applied to a board, but somewhere along the line, the very purpose of the sign, the word itself became an abstract series of tasks within a task.

Happily beavering away up there in the cherry-picker, the sign-writer has lost sight of the big picture only two letters in … and walked away from the finished task unaware it has totally missed the target – To be read by people.

This happens every day when business and design teams become too close to their product.

The end user experience can and often is inadvertantly deprioritised when you are totally immersed in the myriad details of build and delivery.

User research with identified customers provides the vital ‘reality checking’ of a product, helping the designers see the product through the fresh eyes of its future users.

We’ve got spell-check to keep us literate, but before we deliver our message, it pays to test the product with real customers to ensure we really are speaking their language.