Often, clients — project owners that come to us seeking user experience (UX) design expertise — have “pre-designed” their project to some extent before our kickoff meeting. This can be very helpful and we encourage it. It means they’ve already done a lot of thinking on their project so it’s easy to get the ball rolling.
But this eagerness can be a double-edged sword. The problem is, if the project owner is convinced their approach is the correct direction, they’ll likely have little patience for the UX question-and-answer sessions typical at the start of every project. Plus, the project owner may believe they’ve saved time and money by tackling some pre-design so they’re anxious to move forward.
As a result, they risk not achieving a successful design.
Look Before You Leap
There is something about human nature that compels people to jump to an obvious solution quickly, often too quickly. That can be a huge obstacle when trying to solve a complex problem like a design challenge. I have a few theories as to why people do this:
- They want to offer a solution rather than present a problem as it shows strength and competence rather than ignorance and weakness
- They don’t understand that solving a problem effectively — in this case, creating a great design — requires being thorough and accurate on the details of the problem
- If they are not professionally trained as a designer, the design process is a mystery to them so they worry it could spiral out of control
- As the expert on their business, they believe they know best what will work and are reluctant to cede control to the UX pros they’ve hired to work with them
- They’re convinced they have a great idea — and sometimes they do!
Respect Context of Use
This reluctance by some project owners to take a step back and work through the UX design process is particularly problematic when designing embedded and Industrial Internet-of-Thing (IIoT) devices, such as medical equipment or sales kiosks, where the context of use is very specific.
Context of use refers to the conditions and environment under which a product (or service) will be used in real life, with actual users. This context should deeply influence the device’s design. If we’re talking embedded and IIoT devices, the users are typically professionals in a particular field, and the time and place of use is unique and for a very narrowly focused purpose. This is not at all similar to how we use our PCs and smartphones.
If context is not taken seriously the product can be a failure, even if the design appears viable in isolation from where and how it will be used. Here’s what I mean. Let’s say, a wayfinding kiosk is designed to use voice input at key points in the interaction. But, the kiosk is situated in a cacophonous hotel lobby, right next to the bustling bellhop station. That’s an environment far too loud to use voice effectively.
It’s a simple mistake to make — locating the kiosk in a super high-traffic area — if you’re not considering the context of use. But that simple misstep could be fatal to the success of the kiosk. Context of use is essential to the success of a product yet it’s a difficult concept for non-designers to really grasp.
Discuss the Design Challenge
So, what can you do to if the project owner has already created a pre-design and then pushes back hard on engaging in a standard Q&A about their design challenge? Here’s an approach that I’ve had success with: focus a discussion on business success and the project owner’s role in that success.
After some probing in that direction, I’ve found the discussion leads naturally to more-specific design requirements — the meat you need to do your job. Here are the types of questions you might ask relating to the business success the project owner wants from the design:
- How will you define success for this project?
- What are the goals you want to achieve from this project?
- What worries you about this project?
- Have you already tried something that has/hasn’t worked?
- What is the single thing we must get right to make this project worth doing?
- Where do you want this project to be in the next year or five years?
- Who are your competitors and what do they have over you?
- How do you want to differentiate this project?
Once you’ve shifted the discussion from “let me share my design expertise” to “tell me about your business and your plan for success,” you’ll find the project owner is more receptive to answering questions that relate directly to the design. This is the time to ask questions like:
- When and where will this device be used?
- What is the duration of time users will be interacting with this device?
By the way, use mockups and design concepts when possible to illustrate your discussion points. Visualizations are always persuasive tools because they quickly show what can take a long time to explain with words. (You can read more about why this is so effective in my blog Want Your UX Design Project to Succeed? Include Stakeholders in the Process.)
One caveat: creating mockups and concepts takes time and sometimes you need to understand the problem better before spending time on visualization. In some cases, you need the requirements and stories first.
Here’s the Bottom Line
I’m not telling you project owners have no place in the design process; that they don’t bring great ideas and insights to the table. I’m just saying that you, the professional designer, need to find a respectful way to engage them in a dialog that they feel is valuable in order to investigate the best options for design success. Project owners want the best possible outcomes for their projects. You need to help them avoid co-opting the design process and instead become active participants in discussions and decisions. A co-creator relationship can lead to the most fruitful outcomes.