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XXIV.2 March + April 2017
Page: 24
Digital Citation

Trusting the design process


Authors:
Uday Gajendar

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It’s often stated—usually in a casual way, to offset any anxiety by non-design stakeholders in the midst of a lengthy project engagement—“Let’s trust the design process.” But what does that mean? And is there even a bona fide design process to trust?

As HCI-informed experts in the technology sector, we’re loath to see the practice of designing good interactions as some messy, funky artistry of random inspiration à la Don Draper in Mad Men—fueled by whiskey, cigarettes, and couture. That misguided notion is certainly not helpful to our quest to be viewed as critical to business and technology value, with a seat at the table in enabling strategically impactful decisions.

Thus, UX firms and corporate UX departments dutifully cite a rigorous process that connotes systematic action and thoughtful predictability, with clearly achievable outcomes—not risky, random accidents. This message keeps non-design leaders calm, confident, and willing to pay big bucks. They may even be able to brag about learning some design verbiage. (Hey, perceived “vanity value” matters too!) And there may be some “process theater” happening, as well. After all, we’re dealing with humans, who might need a little bit of a show to enthrall them and help them shift their beliefs about design that have been shaped by pop culture.

Yet this all makes me wonder: Does any of this process talk even matter? Especially when any creative process—no matter how atomically reduced and labeled—is basically akin to the infamous creative squiggle from point A to point B. A jumbly, squiggly mess, not a straight line.

Labels and symbolism all matter, of course, as part of the rhetoric of the design discourse that a team or agency is trying to enable—to be seen as a vital partner with real credibility and as generating revenue to build a sustainable business. Aside from that, we ought to realize a couple of things about a design process (or any process, for that matter):

  • It is basically a model or framework that structures that which is messy and difficult (i.e., irrational) into something that can be understood and communicated, foster shared agreement, drive collaboration, and enable coordinated actions toward resolution (i.e., ship a packaged, positioned, and profitable solution).
  • It helps if it’s sequential, linear, repeatable, and predictable, with standardized terms, since that grants confidence and clarity to those anxious of uncertainty or risk. In other words, almost everyone who comes from left-brain analytical worlds of logically derived answers with measurable results!

Tensions arise when the process of designing effective interactions becomes rote, blindly obeyed and not adapted to new situations, such as new information, new people, modified timelines, different constraints, and altered goals and targets. Mindless adherence to process for process’s sake is rarely helpful and can be rather counterproductive. If not outright dumb.

Hence, we often hear “let’s trust the process”—wherever it may lead us, and no matter the twists and turns along the way. It suggests an implicit faith in the immaterial, yet it is grounded in material, tangible actions and outcomes. Kinda hard to wrap your head around if you’re coming from the hard world of numbers, formulas, and analysis!

So how exactly do we decipher this casual turn of phrase, if only to help our non-design stakeholders join us in the journey? I see it as a composition of core elements that define a “trust fabric” woven into the work of practicing interaction design with our cross-functional peers. Let me explain further…

Mindset as the foundation of a good process. There are some excellent habits of mind for a successful journey through a design process. All are grounded in a “bias to action”—as design is a practical art—yet motivated by a desire to reflect and learn and adapt, while moving forward. For instance, all project participants should adopt a Zen “beginner’s mind”—a sense of curiosity, of truly wanting to know about a customer’s unmet needs and latent pains. They should always be asking, “How can we make things better?” They should ask how they can apply HCI-informed techniques toward understanding or resolving the complexity of a situation, beyond agile project spreadsheets or arbitrarily selected metrics. Everyone must be totally willing to try, risk, and fail forward! It’s all about learning to improve oneself, the entire team, the philosophy of success, and the overall strategic approach of progressively creating and capturing value via supporting customers’ goals.

Design skills and methods as the tradecraft to deliver something real. Knowing the mechanics underlying the technical execution of HCI methods is crucial, since that serves the actual, tangible basis of showing the evidence of a process transpiring and helps others to witness its applicability and value. Therein lies a vital aspect of the trusting—seeing expertise unfold in execution! From contextual inquiry to heuristic evaluation to generative models of ideation, HCI methods are essential. Knowing how to perform them, with sensitivity to the timing, tools, or materials, is the basis of the tradecraft behind designing interaction, and is the engine for enabling such a process to continue. Of course, not all methods work perfectly, and hiccups do occur. But with the prior mindset of openness, and realizing that there is always a risk of failing, the hiccups will be more tolerable. And with a bias-to-action disposition, there is enough flexibility to quickly pivot and try another method without indulging in the messy human drama of blame and accusation. That can get pretty nasty, quickly! Instead, keep moving forward, mobilized by the craft of thinking and making.

Design partnership enabling the statecraft of relationships. Simply running through various HCI-based tools and techniques as a perfunctory to-do list for a design process is not sufficient without truly developing productive relationships. This demands strong partnerships with cross-functional peers in product, engineering, sales, and other departments. And I truly do mean partners, not merely collaborators, which can be a nice start but is insufficient in the long run of delivering a solution and building strategic value. By partners I mean co-owning a mutually dependent, shared understanding of collective success and risk-taking. Decision-making is fully transparent and informed with full recognition of every member’s due value. Co-creation, co-planning, co-interpretation of results from design activities/studies for strategizing the next round—all this conveys what it means to be partners, with maximum investment of time and energy for mutually assured sustainable success.

Camaraderie may be that invisible glue, the secret sauce required for a certain level of hospitable engagement. It’s not about being friends, per se; it’s more about enjoying the presence of others, being productive from the convivial energy, and giving back in a virtuous cycle of building effective rapport, with constructive inputs and supportive outputs. Of course, mutual respect with the presumption of good intent is key to making any partnership work.

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Design principles round out our common motives and decision-making. Design principles are valuable in ascertaining and defining the core qualities of a product or service offering, and in providing a guide for critical decisions (and even conflicts). I apply principles often in the course of my work, whether for a next-generation app or a design-thinking workshop for managers. Principles serve as the steadfast lighthouse, guiding the team’s efforts toward an aspirational goal, while grounding everyone when conflicts and arguments flare up. There are a few kinds of principles to consider that shape an effective design process and that can reinforce that elusive trust fabric:

Cultural. These principles are broadly phrased to serve as a collective touchstone for an organization with some shared purpose. They are meant to change team behaviors and attitudes for the better. For example, at Citrix we had a set of principles concisely worded as “Make it simple,” “Focus on human goals,” and “Inspire delight,” which spoke to cultural attitudes rather than to how to update a specific interface.

Systemic. These principles are a shade less cultural and more about creating a system of visual and experiential elements (like a brand system or a UI system) that has a coherent voice and behavior that can be evolved with variations. For example, Salesforce’s Lightning design system celebrates notions like the following: “Eliminate ambiguity,” “Streamline workflows,” “Intelligently anticipate.” There are also specific principles in Lightning that apply to motion, navigation, and typography.

A principle is most relevant when it arises out of intense self-scrutiny about the motive and purpose of a project. It’s certainly not easy, but it’s well worth the effort. And indeed, going through such a process can help build rapport, respect, and perhaps even collegial trust!

So, to trust the process is really this amalgam of flexible mindset, executed craft, building relationships for credibility and influence, and leveraging principles to guide common decisions with shared goals. In effect, any HCI process of reputable consequence is truly an artfully developed practice led by noble aims and tested (strengthened) by the contrasting opinions of stakeholders’ agendas. The value of such discipline is found in having a kind of, well, faith or trust in that which can provide structure and focus so that the wheels don’t fly off. Ironically, that’s despite feeling like exactly that is happening in the midst of it all. Indeed, the best way to trust the design process is to simply encourage skeptics to go through it together, with the totality of methods, partnership, and principles serving as the reinforcing bulwark to make it all work out just fine.

And if things do fall apart along the way, or collapse in the end, then so be it! Hopefully everyone walks away better for it and is able to apply the process a bit differently (or much better) on the next project. After all, trust is not only earned but also must evolve with the experience and maturity of the practitioners themselves. Therein lies the true value of any creative process.

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Uday Gajendar (www.ghostinthepixel.com) is a design leader focused on next-gen innovation and guiding startups on UX fundamentals. He has more than 12 years of versatile experience at Citrix, Peel, CloudPhysics, Netflix, Adobe, and others. He also routinely speaks worldwide on design topics. udanium@gmail.com

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The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2017 ACM, Inc.

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