Design sketchbook

A Sure Way to Succeed in a Design Process

By Dorothy Shamonsky, Ph.D.

Designing is a process, and as a designer you can utilize numerous strategies to progress to a successful outcome, but a sure way not to succeed is to deny the process. I like to describe it as not “honoring the design process.” You need to pay homage to the natural forces of doing and deciding. In other words, performing a bunch of random activities utilizing gathered requirements, constraints and user profiles does not necessarily lead to a solid design. A couple of examples that I have witnessed:

The pudding recipe approach: Just add 30 functional requirements to this particular hardware using this particular software. Add 12 developers and 4 user experience designers. Put in a pan (office), stir vigorously (have some meetings) and turn up the heat (give them deadlines). Cook until it thickens, about 10 months. Chemistry is the main process here and unless you have the exact right ingredients (i.e., a team that “has chemistry” and works together flawlessly) it’s a crapshoot whether the outcome will be tasty.

The boxed lunch approach: Gather your lunch preferences (requirements, constraints and user profiles of a design task) and look in the refrigerator for options that you already have there (think of the first design solutions that come to mind). Pick and choose from the things in the refrigerator (make a bunch of design decisions right away) and your lunch box is full. Now all that remains is to have the developers heat it up later in the office.

What I’m trying to get at with the use of these examples is to say that design is neither random nor a one-step decision process, once the requirements and constraints are known. Fundamentally design is progressive problem solving, but designing is not synonymous with problem solving - it’s bigger than that. Problem solving is a part of designing, but other parts include innovation, creativity and aesthetics.

A Structured Design Process

A Decision Tree: I’m fond of saying that designs need to be built and what I mean by that is a design is not a swirling mass of goo or a formless pudding that you stir around until it “sets” into a design. A design itself has structure, such as overriding concept(s), primary shapes, secondary shapes, replicating patterns, font styles, icons, colors, etc. It’s virtually impossible to have those come together all at once. Each level of the design requires some work, such as trial and error sketches, that leads to decisions of what exactly will be committed to for that aspect of the design, what I call, “doing and deciding.”

It’s like building a house. The overall form of a house needs to be decided on before it makes sense to decide on window style or roof angle. A design is a series of hierarchical decisions. Locking down large conceptual decisions makes it possible to progressively decide about smaller issues.  There is logic to decision-making, solving large, medium and progressively smaller issues. Each subsequent decision rests on the context of the earlier decisions.

One might think this approach is rigid and stifles the innovation, creativity and the beauty of a possible design outcome, but it’s just the opposite – it leaves time and space for the designer to consider these each step of the way. Anxiety about completing a design stifles creativity, and the anxiety usually comes from perceiving the design task as large and overwhelming. Progressive decision-making can allow the designer to consider, at each step, a larger range of options.

Consideration of a larger range of options can happen in a couple of ways and these design techniques can live within the decision tree of designing or as stand-alone processes. These techniques tend to open up possibilities rather than lock them down, but they can also provide a focus within which decisions can be made. For some projects such as prototyping, this process can be the only design approach.

Tinkering: You start with some materials (clay, metal, hardware, code, interface patterns, etc.) that you like or fascinate you in some way or they are the required materials of the project at hand. You simply try things, often experimenting with the limits of what the materials can do. When tinkering however, it’s not necessary to have a goal. It’s more important to know what you like and dislike.

Visioning: Many projects will begin with some version of seeking a design vision. It’s really important to have this kind of North Star to assist in “staying the course” as you work through all the nitty gritty decisions. Visioning is useful on a micro level as well, for any particular piece of a design. You start with an image, a memory or a feeling. That “vision” can be a clear image in your mind of how an application or device might look and feel or it can be as simple as a quality of light that you remember from a house that you lived in as a child, that you thought was particularly beautiful.

The truth is that every user experience design task has some aspect of all three of these design strategies: visioning, tinkering and hierarchical decision-making. As I am working on ViewPoint, ICS’s large screen kiosk authoring software, it has functional requirements, and a software and hardware platform, but I also have a vision of what I think the look and feel should be to make the large touchscreen device compelling to users. I originally imagined the display as fluid and airy interactive elements, like silk scarves that moved incredibly smoothly upon touch. We often tinker with specific functionalities or graphic interface elements to see if we can create something users will love.

To succeed at many things it is necessary to progressively build on a series of action or steps. Designing is no different. Because it utilizes imagination and creativity, it’s easy to mistakenly believe that a design emerges at the speed of thought, in a few seconds or minutes. Instead, an idea or vision for a design can emerge quickly, but developing that idea into a fully realized design can take days, weeks or months depending on the size of the project. Design utilizes visioning and tinkering, which are the creative and innovative activities of the process, but building a design using progressive doing and deciding is key if you want to create stellar designs. Honor the process!