Even Jackson Pollock Had A Method

pollock

Designers are held to a double standard, especially those of us who design for the interactive medium.

The stereotype of a designer is that he or she is self-referential with their design approach. Businesses cringe when faced with the prospect of bringing in a new designer to a team. I mean, come on, all designers are “shiny-shiny” types, looking for that Golden Pencil or Webby Award, right?

Management talks about wanting designers who have a rationale before suggesting a change to existing design patterns, which is understandable. We’re designers, not artists. Designers should have a process that substantiates their output; a smart, talented, non self-referential designer, able to take both the domain and its particular users into account when designing interfaces.

Fair enough.

So designers expose their craft and processes to businesses and product teams in order to show that they get it. Seasoned designers are able to have a conversation about a business model; they can talk shop with engineers; they can subjugate their own preferences in order to understand the needs of the end user and the possibilities that lie beyond the present user experience.

The aforementioned approaches aren’t optional to practice the craft; these are the multi-disciplinary skill-sets required for the role.

“Innovation comes from rapid iterations of features” they say. “Okay” the designer adds, “Let’s just make sure we’re focusing on the right features, useful to actual people.”

Product management doubles down on their roadmap, project managers steel up, developers get frustrated, cats sleep with dogs, etc.

The intent behind crafting an interface is to create a representational model that reflects, as close as possible, the end user’s mental model regarding their goals, desires, and ability to use technology; successful interface design and ux isn’t about deploying an implementation model.

– Me

So why is the method of getting to the interface so disconcerting?

Designers research and create user archetype(s) and scenarios to represent the potential user base and their needs and desires in a product. If the synthesized findings confirm the company’s vision—from c-level to product owners—they can then be translated by the design team into interactions in the interface to either support or change user behavior.

This is how refined, holistic user interfaces are created across a single product, an entire domain, and even into external product and brand communication. Design a cross-functional, collaborative process which may or may not impact the core hypothesis behind a product’s position, but definitely will improve the user experience of the product itself.

If my non-designer colleagues in this field believe that experience design begins and ends at the interface level, where it gets pretty, then I guess I understand the hesitation to leverage our methods.

Maybe us designers should “just get drunk and throw paint on the canvas.”

Anything But White Picket…

fence

What do you think of when you hear the word “fence” spoken aloud?

Unless you’re my friend Fleur (she’s a fan of the romantic sports), you probably lean towards the world of “things that stick in the ground and enclose other things” and you would be correct, as fences do just that; they enclose, divide, and protect areas and organisms for a variety of purposes.

If we can agree to such a broad definition, we should be able to agree that fences also define parameters of use, for if one can’t get past the fence, one can’t engage with anything outside (or inside) of its parameters.

Why am I fixated on the definition of a fence?

Well, a good deal of user experience design is centered around defining parameters; experiences that support specific goals rely on thoughtful crafting of usage parameters that work towards the needs of the user.

If that’s a vague concept, think about it in terms of designing a navigation system:

  • Does the top/down navigation live in a consistent pane in the interface?
  • If it’s located at the top of the screen, how does it behave?
  • Does it expand onRollover or onClick?
  • Does it display horizontally or vertically?
  • Does it employ hover states for greater affordance?
  • How does color and behavior reinforce the brand?
  • How is bottom/up exploration presented?

Before we get too granular within an imaginary interface, let’s step back outside for a moment and think about how we might design a fence in the real world.

  • The placement of corner posts could be determined purely on property lines or through specific requirements based on the needs of the owner.
  • The height of the fence, and its types of rails or wires, could be designed based on security requirements, or based purely on style.

When design attributes are specified, parameters of use spring to life. An experience is established through the simple process of reducing the environment from ALL variables to MANY variables (with an eye on reaching FEW variables)

These specific choices define how, say, a fence can keep sheep grazing within a field; or one that protects property in the midst of urban renewal; or one that surrounds a house at the end of a cul-de-sac.

Solution choices determine specific outcomes.

User Centered Design

Interactive design is an iterative process, a constant remodeling based upon the objectives and desires of both the business and the user of the system in play. But moving from good design to great design requires an effort of reduction to reach an elegant solution, where less is more and the complex takes form in simplistic presentation.

Back to one of our fence examples: lets say sheep are now grazing behind an elegant, rustic, utilitarian, wire fence with wooden posts. You’ve designed the perfect experience to meet the particular needs of your customer, and she is ecstatic with the outcome.

Congratulations, but don’t pat yourself on the back for long. As people engage with interactive spaces, priorities and needs will shift on a dime.

Tom_Sawyer_8c_1972_issue_U.S._stamp

In this out-of-control metaphor, imagine your ecstatic customer now telling you that her sheep are going to be racing for cash on the property across a range of individual courses, which will drive numerous betting options for the local yokels. For good measure, you also catch wind that other farmers may be using the property for similar purposes in the near future, but will most likely use more exotic animals than sheep; animals much faster and larger, with different maintenance needs and subtle details pertaining to optimal footing.

Each farmer is now a stakeholder in how the property needs to function, yet they each hold a different degree of say in the decision making process.

With multiple priorities and agendas in play while designing for an optimal experience of the overall environment, your general approach to quality design (reduction and elegance) remains steady, but the outcomes that you’re driving to meet must be continuously and iteratively redefined and understood.

One thing is for certain: you can’t possibly satisfy each customer requirement with a singular understanding of a fence. The challenge that lies on the horizon: How might you broker the definition of appropriate usage parameters moving forward?

You’ll need to meet each customer’s explicit needs, but not by making “fences” too complicated or by over customizing the experience to any one client need in particular.

You’ll need to be innovative with your solutions by keeping an eye on the underlying viability, usability, and usefulness of the environment that you help create.

You’ll need to be discrete in your approach to both understand and frame the outcomes that your designs ultimately serve, or you’ll never reach them.

Tom Sawyer has nothing on the challenge you now face.

This is Design.

The CLIENT Is The Bottom Line

collaboration

In an industry such as online brokerage, one would assume that the client would always be at the center of focus. And while most of the time it’s the case—firms do create products and services that respond to client needs in order to grow their business—the underlying focus on the bottom line of a publicly traded company often demands executive attention, which can obscure best practice methodology, client initiatives, and how to make innovation a reality due to the pressures and expectations of The Street.

Therein lies the problem: Only a sustained and coordinated focus on understanding client goals, needs, desires, etc. can innovate in a manner that is useful to clients.

Collaboration

If clients can recognize the value proposition of an offering, firms will find clientele. That’s a rather understandable equation, but the cost of doing business can drive decisions that affect the quality and focus of a product, let alone how teams work together.

Why change how an organization works when the sausage has been made the same way for as long as people can remember?

Without a charge from executives, organizational management tends to gravitate towards less cross functional collaboration and spending, and more wall building. Whether such decisions lead to multi-tasking employees or avoiding methodological advances, working within conservatively defined parameters lessens risk in the short-term.

So how can a business operate in a manner that supports clients goals at a desirable investment level without risking putting the business in a tenuous position in the process?

The glue is the simple concept of collaboration.

Harder Than It Sounds

For the sake of simplicity, imagine a company divided into four primary units:

  • Business
  • Design
  • Technology
  • Marketing

In this simple example, nothing could be accomplished with quality or efficiencies without close collaboration.

  • Marketing and Design need to share quantitative and qualitative research (respectively) to assist the Business in developing an explicit understanding of client needs. These qualified findings can then be prioritized by Business and Technology in terms of viability and feasibility (respectively)
  • Business, Design and Technology must collaborate during all phases of product design in order for goal-directed and innovative experiences to become a reality. This collaboration is always crucial, but even more so when first (or speed) to market is the goal
  • Marketing must be looped into all Design points to ensure that brand communication meets brand experience. Marketing plans can then be created to introduce the client experience to the market in proper fashion

Yes, this is oversimplified, but the point is that successful product teams aren’t led by management that hunkers down, walling off their teams and agendas from other groups. There will always be office politics, no matter the domain, but when conceiving, designing, developing and launching interactive products, collaboration is essential to the success of not only the product, but the overarching brand.

The current buzz within the walls of Ameritrade has shifted from constantly touting our top operating margin in the industry to making transparent a commitment to designing an organization around the needs of our clients, while keeping that industry leading operating margin.

After a major merger (Datek Online), we’ve slowly grown in the direction of living and breathing the above degree of collaboration over the past few years, as Design has become an understandable entity, rather than the black box that development once considered us to be.

Keeping a competitive edge in this industry and on The Street is a tricky business. Producing killer products for clients can be made a lot simpler.