Possibilities, probabilities, and sensibilities

Authors: Uday Gajendar
Posted: Thu, July 31, 2014 - 10:27:43

Design is an iterative activity involving trajectories of exploration and discovery, of the problem space, the target market, and the solutions, towards making good choices. As the primary designer charged with delivery of an optimal solution, I must contend with such problems of choice, and thus trade-offs. Designing is fundamentally about mediating “choices”: what elements to show on-screen, which pathways to reveal, how to de-emphasize some features or prioritize others, and so forth. Some are “good choices” and some are not so good. So, if choice is at the heart of designing, how does a designer effectively handle too many choices and options—a dazzling array propositioned by earnest product managers seeking revenues and tenacious engineers wanting to showcase brilliance. Hmm! It’s a veritable challenge in the course of daily design work that I confront in my own professional life, too. I offer a potential framework that I have been evolving and applying which may be useful: iteratively defining the possibilities, probabilities, and sensibilities. Let me explain further...

Possibilities: This involves mapping out to the fullest extent all possible variants of user types, contexts of use, or solutions for a problem. Even if it’s wild or unfeasible, or an “edge case,” just capture it anyway so it is recorded for everyone on the team to discuss. This shows commitment to open-minded understanding of the situation, creating trust with colleagues, which is vital to delving with credibility into the “possibility space.” To make this practical, in my own work lately I’ve done the following to express this wide set of possibilities: 

  • Itemize all possible visual states and signals that apply to a data object, given the impending factors as interpreted by the back-end logic (regardless of whether a user understands or sees it) as a giant matrix.
  • Map out all possible filter and sorting combinations from a multifaceted filter panel control, to force understanding of potential impacts on the UI and user’s workflow.
  • Diagram all possible pathways for accessing the main application, depending on various roles, permissions, states, timeouts, and errors, in exhaustive detail so the team is fully aware.

Probabilities: Next, by virtue of the previous exercise and artifacts, force a critical dialogue on the actual likelihood of these possible events or states to actually happen. This necessarily requires informed stakeholders to contribute and clarify, stake out a position and defend it with data (empirical or anecdotal, as needed). This also surfaces qualifying conditions that were implicit and encourages everyone to understand how or why certain possibilities are not favorable or likely. This awareness on the team increases empathy of the situation, and possibly incites more user studies or other “pre-work” around the business or technical parameters. 

Again, to make this practical, the dialogue requires everyone in the room (or otherwise present) to ascertain the criteria for likelihood of happening, and a stack ranking of probabilities. This, of course, is a sneaky way of forcing priorities—essential to designing and focusing down for an optimal solution. Clearly, to do this well requires historical and empirical data trends, as well as observational data of users in the wild, as needed. Else, you’re making wild guesses, which is a sign about team research needs. (That’s a whole other topic!)

After your probabilities ranked and focused, what’s next? Then it’s time to introduce the humanistic, poetic element of desirability, which is the “sensibilities” part.

Sensibilities: Now having winnowed down to some set of actually probable states, types, situations, or whatever, the question you must raise is “What is most sensible?” for the targeted user. This refers to some articulation that is meaningful, relevant, maybe even delightful—literally engaging with the user’s senses to become something satisfying and productive. This requires a more ambiguous interaction with the team, but grounded with mock-ups, prototypes, animations to portray what is sensibly viable for the given personas and their goals and desires. This also requires tapping into a set of design principles and cultural values as espoused by the company—a reflection of the central brand promise.

Designing is about choices and arriving at a balanced solution that strives to meet a variety of demands from many perspectives. It’s easy as a designer to get caught in the mess of too many options and lose sight of what matters most to customers, ordinary people leading busy yet satisfying lives. By thinking through (and collaborating with teammates) on the possibilities, probabilities, and sensibilities, you can shape a structured approach to getting to that optimal solution.

Posted in: on Thu, July 31, 2014 - 10:27:43

Uday Gajendar

Uday Gajendar is Director of User Experience at CloudPhysics, focused on bringing beauty and soul to Big Data for virtualized datacenters.
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