"Vision without action is a daydream, Action without vision is a nightmare" ~Japanese Proverb
Become Value Driven
Ok I confess, I've never tamed a REAL tiger before but I would imagine that the best way is to start when the tiger is very young. The more years you feed it and care for it the more the tiger associates your presence with a value for itself (care and feeding). The moment the tiger decides that your value for its benefit is gone, its probably not a good idea to go in the cage. The nature of product is very similar. Products that at one time stood tall and strong die due to the simple fact that the customer (tiger) looses to see the value of the product.
It is my core belief that if one works for value there will be no time on that path that is a waste. The opposing view might Of course that would mean that the opposing view would dictate that all is a waste without value. If a company providesA company should provide value for its employees, its employees then create a product that provides value to its customers, and at the end the customers provide value to the company through revenue or recommendations(revenue or recommendations). When all this happens, a value driven brand is created. It's the circle of product life, and it's a thing of beauty to experience products coming to life in this way. But how do we get there? The following is a list of reminders that I use to ensure I keep myself honest about my own personal values. These are in a particular order but by no means does this mean that it has to be this way. I have found that others have expressed my points in ways that I can't, so I will include links to articles and books that have helped me when possible. The challenge in getting there is that it requires a strategy and execution.
Do the Double Diamond
The Double Diamond is also referred to as Divergent/Convergent process. In a nutshell understand the problem through a number of tools and exercises that UX teams should be good. Then break it up into manageable and measurable chunks to execute on the plan (here is a great explanation). The one thing I would highlight is to ensure that leadership understands what this means and how it will reflect in the day to day operations. Specifically, an organizational commitment should be made to ensure proper time is given to understand the Why and How we will solve a problem otherwise, sprints and iterations choke the life of a product for lack of vision. The common mistake is to try to fit the strategy inside an Agile process. If we where building a bike the first diamond would answer, why are we building this bike? And, how does it solve a particular problem? At times it could sound like fluffy conversations which could lead to "It's just a bike, lets just figure it out as we go". Then the sprint conversations become maddening when the team doesn't know what materials or size the tires should be and in the rush teams are guessing without really understanding who, why, or how, which results in a Frankenstein bike that no one can really ride.
Design Thinking to Rescue
A popular method used throughout the double diamond process is known as design thinking. It has become a bit of a buzz word lately but unfortunately it seems that like "Agile", it's easier said than done. Design Thinking has been around other industries in some form or the other. I believe a design company called IDEO is credited for bringing light to it in the tech industry (I could be wrong). Design thinking itself is in my opinion is not that hard, it's the commitment to maintain the practice throughout the process that is difficult. What I really like about the methodology is that it provides a framework the is repeatable regardless of the problem. It is a creative way of defining a problem and understanding a solution through analysis and then breaking those down into a series of testable hypotheses. Again, here lies another challenge of design thinking. It's meant to be tested. That's a part many fail to adopt.
Unless you're a charity
I cannot stress how important it is for a design team to understand the business model of a company. This is the tip of the first diamond and its usually the trigger for a product push. In large companies this information is usually trickled down from the Product team. The important thing is for designers to not just be satisfied with knowing requirements. Understanding the business side helps the designs reflect a truly "viable" product. I am a firm believer that the more design teams start incorporating visibility into a full solution the easier it will be to get Design seated at the round table.
For startups and mid sized companies I have used a popular exercise called a Business Model Canvas created by Strategyzer. Value Proposition and Customer Segments are the areas that affect design the most.
This is were the rubber meets the road. The value proposition is why you build and they'll use. Get it right and your customers love you. Get it wrong and all hell breaks loose. The value proposition is to design as a target is for a sniper. I recently read this excellent article that explains how customers become a salesperson for a company when value and a great user experience is delivered (or as the author calls it "delight"). Nothing sells better than word of mouth. A good example of this is the Business Model Canvas mentioned above. It provides so much value that I and many others evangelize it. We've become their salesmen. Speaking of which, one of the other tools I use to understand the value of a product is a Value Proposition Canvas (also by Strategyzer). I highly suggest you buy the book which you can find on their site. Have I drunk the Kool-Aid? Yes! And I've spiked it too. That's the great thing about it. You can mix it with anything else that helps you answer questions because at the end of the day, it's the questions that are the hard part.
The canvas is a simple yet powerful concept. Identify the Pains, Gains, and Jobs (tasks) of a Customer Segment and align them with the Gain Creators, Pain Relievers, and Products/Services that creates a "Fit" or value. What the canvas does is not really intended to dive deep into is emotion. Although emotion is the driver for the areas in the Customer Profile it is not intended to be defined here. Which is why I like to add other models and journeys in the process.
Mental are powerful because they explain the relationships a group of people have with an environment an how they interact based on that relationship. They are not always grounded on reality. Perception, expectations, emotions all play a deep role. Frankly I find the psychology fascinating. Building on mental models allows a product to be personalized and perceived according to expectations. If done right, we exceed expectations and delight the customer! All because we took the time to understand their mental frame of mind.
walk in their shoes
Before you start firing solutions take the time to walk in the shoes of your customers. A designer is usually itching to create solutions at this point but stay the course and it will pay off. Empathy is the hardest part of design, anyone can create wireframes or comps with some sort of solution but no design is complete without considering the full end to end journey a customer takes. I even like to take it a level up and create stakeholder maps that show the touchpoints a customer has with the company. A customer does not know or care about who runs support vs sales, mobile or marketing. The map should drive the point that to a customer, the experience starts from the moment they hear about your company or product.
The customer journey should cover even the areas outside of Service Period. One method to extract the journey is known as Service Design. A Service Design Journey Canvas is an exercise used to map out the service layers. It is what the Business Model Canvas is to the Value Proposition. In other words, before you dive into the journey a customer experiences in the actual service layer, it is helpful to take a step back and understand the full journey for the pre-service, service, and post-service stages. Think about a time where you have been frustrated because the marketing or message that led you to a product created a disjointed experience and then to be further disappointed with the support provided. Big cable TV companies are notorious for this and are now quickly reaping what they sowed with a cord cutting frenzy.
A journey IS the experience, and that experience is best told in a story. Find the story teller in your company and take advantage of the talent. A story is powerful because it allows all participants to connect the dots regardless of role. Stories should convey the full customer journey including areas outside of the product. Communicate the journey to a broad audience for early verification that everyone is on the "same page". If not, this is the time to speak up. This is a good sign that important issues are being bubbled up. Once we can agree on what a customer journey looks like we can proceed to actually write the book. Too many organizations are too eager to write the book and then come back to say what the story is about. If you do this, it should not surprise you that you end up with a horror novel.
While the first diamond is mainly focused on analyzing the problem the second diamond is mainly focused on the synthesis or breakdown of possible solutions. Rapid exploration is key here. Testing a hypothesis should start from the beginning but in this stage my recommendation is to make it part of your daily language. To give an example, if this was an exercise for opening a new high end gourmet restaurant, the first diamond would be about understanding who, why, where, etc ("one percenters", very few choices meet expectation, NYC). The second diamond is testing the menu and the actual dishes.
Is this real life?
If it feels real, users will respond based on existing mental models and learned habits. That's a good thing. Take advantage of it. Rapid prototyping is the best way to gather feedback or test your explored solutions. Do not get emotionally attached to the solution and you'll be fine. This can be a challenge at times especially for us emotional designers :). I like to tell my teams; "pick the best wrong answer and test". It's just a fun way to ensure we understand that everything is a hypothesis until tested. That said, I do not think it is necessary to test every single piece of the product. Focus on the high risk points (if it fails, we fail) and move down to high friction points and the priority of your customers.
Low Cognitive Load
There is a great book called Don't Make Me Think that came out in the early "dot com" days that has been revised (quite frankly the first edition can even be used). The book highlighted the need to design with a users cognitive load in mind. The interesting thing I have discovered is that a design can introduce a subliminal load that the user feels but is not aware of. This starts creating a "debt" that eventually causes the mind to go bankrupt and quit. Think of how tired one feels from walking in a crowded location with many distractions vs a Zen garden. Or a conversation with someone that make it hard to focus by going on side tangents. These are two extreme examples just to drive the point that the mind is thinking about all visual cues on a screen, not just those in focus. Every element should have a purpose and like a conversation, if possible, quiet it down until the user needs the information or task, this approach is known as Progressive Disclosure.
When you look around you there are patterns everywhere. Doors have a recognizable shape and clear meaning. When they don't you feel lost. Patterns can also be applied to workflows and interactions. I am a big proponent of establishing design patterns early in the process. I usually like to tell a team to design the first iterations with patterns in mind. A quick exercise of thinking of other scenarios in the product that the pattern can be used or extended for is worth the time! These patterns can then be formalized to create a component library that speeds up projects. It also frees up time for designers to spend more time design thinking than just pixel pushing or becoming a wireframe monkey. There are a number of great component libraries out there that have dedicated full teams trying to solve this problem. Work with Engineers to pick one and accelerate the process by starting with a base.
Lipstick is Not for Pigs
Products come to life when the right colors, fonts, and great aesthetic principles are applied (space, contrast, etc). The challenge is that visual design can be so subjective, so it is easy for a project to skew towards extremes. One extreme is referred as "put lipstick on the pig" ( this makes me cringe). The fact that the aesthetic is used to try to pretty up a "pig" detaches the importance of visual design from the full solution. If you have a poor product it doesn't matter what color you choose. It is still a poor product and an insult to pigs to refer it as such (sorry, pigs are cute and smart).
The other extreme is to put too much emphasis on the visual design. Do not design as if the comp will be printed and framed. By this I mean it is part of the solution. Color, font size, etc should go through the same critical thinking process as all other elements on the page. Design trends can inform a design and could be relevant to the approach but it should not drive the solution. This can pose a high risk. For example, light greys are trending but could be a problem for aging adults or color blind. That could represent a large user base! The aesthetic and creative choices should have a purpose even if that purpose is to convey an emotion. In other cases it could be more directed and aligned to discovery, convey a message or even critical decision making.
Test For a Minimum Lovable Product (true MVP)
The only way to know if you have a Minimum Lovable Product is to ask your customer if they love you. Test, test, test throughout every one of these stages! I cannot stress this enough. Integrate it in the process as early as possible. Test your models, concepts, designs, development, and release. The basic principle is to design around a hypothesis (via interviews, knowledge, research, etc), then turn around and test the hypothesis. The most important thing is to keep a "strong stomach" to pivot when needed. In fact, as designers we should be designing as if we're wrong from the start.
A whole other article can be written on teams and resources that execute on the design. The focus of this article is on the product side of things but a quick note is worth mentioning. Recently I have started refining a design swarming process that evolved while trying to be as efficient as possible. At Sumologic (where I currently work) we started calling these UX Palooza's. UXPaloozas are great because in a time where time is never on one's side, it provides a method to accelerate the UX process in a fun environment. This can provide mentorship, quality, speed (two is more than one), excitement, cross pollination, creativity, and culture. You can read more about this in a recent article. I highly recommend doing these especially if one of these critical stages is at risk due to tight deadlines and the choke monster of endless meetings.
Evangelize, Evangelize, Evangelize, Amen!
User Experience is still very misunderstood. It can have grey areas between product management, business, and marketing. At times It's also hard to separate the visual from the mental aspects of UX. SO, please evangelize! Evangelizing is not the end goal, the goal is to educate, but evangelizing is the tip of the spear to accomplish this. The following are some ways I found useful in the past:
- Create buzz by taking over wall space outside of the UX area (if possible).
- Show the process and not just the end result. Explain the thought process.
- Include stakeholders and others in design phases. Teach by action and example.
- Educate the organization through company updates. Email, Slack, Brown bags, or even UX Happy Hours. These Happy Hours can be short fun "Ted" type talks on UX. This creates interest and opportunities to reach out.
- Celebrate your team! Leaders need to find ways to celebrate the actual designer(s) of a project. I find that one of the most effective ways to do this is by having the designer present their solution to a broader audience or even execs. Leaders should seek these opportunities actively as part of an evangelizing effort. As a bonus the designer will become more motivated and proud of their work.
So How Do I Train a Tiger?
1) Start As Early as Possible!
Even if you have a mature product. Think of each major product feature as a baby tiger. Don't worry about getting it all right or doing everything in the "book". Worry about setting a rhythm and cadence of necessary UX processes. Doing one step really well to then skip the others, in my opinion misses the opportunity to get as many steps included even if not in an ideal way. Less of more instead of more of less.
2) Keep Feeding the Tiger!
You never want to run out of stakes with a tiger :). In UX land stakes are all those things that keep your customer happy. Keep making improvements your customers want. Always advocate for the customer and find data driven ways to correlate customer love with business love ($). It seems obvious to us which is why sometimes product decisions made do not make sense to us. That said, I think the UX community has much work to do to connect the dots between UX and revenue.
3) Show Your Love
Stay close to your customer and encourage feedback from everyone in the organization that has direct contact with them. In short, listen to your customer from all angles.