February 6, 2018 // By Jeff Szpak, Gabe Camargo
As user experience designers, our main purpose is to solve problems. We seek out user pain-points and quickly set off to fix them. We rely on years of experience and skills to deliver great solutions to a myriad of problems. However, when we set out to solve problems in typical fashion, we run the risk of providing solutions that meet OUR needs more so than those of the USER.
ENTER: Design Thinking (D+T), a user-centric methodology. The intention of this blog is to help you succeed with D+T. It’ll help you develop a user-centric mindset and show you how to implement D+T to deliver creative solutions to complex problems.
We will start off by explaining what Design Thinking is and then move onto showing you how to implement it in your projects. Using this methodology will allow you to succeed where others fall short. D+T will streamline your design process, increase your velocity, and validate that your experience will be well-received. It will help you overcome user pain-points and deliver intuitive design solutions.
What is it?
When we talk about “Design Thinking”, what we are talking about is a structured “problem-solving” process to creatively solve problems. As new as this concept may seem, it is not; it’s been around since the 70’s. Like all good things, however, it is something that has fallen by the wayside… until recently.
This method can be used by anyone to solve complex problems. It consists of a predefined set of non-linear steps that can help anyone derive user-centric solutions.
User-centric Design: A process that aims at realizing products that meet the needs and expectations of the user.
Empathizing with your Users
We use D+T to develop a keen understanding of our target users and how they experience our product or service. It is important to remember that the Design Thinking process establishes a foundation of empathy for our users by observing their thoughts, feelings and behaviors.
Anatomy of a Design Thinking Model
Design Thinking models come in a variety of configurations. They consist of several phases-- each made up of processes, methods and principles used to develop user-centric solutions. It is an iterative process in which we seek to understand the user, challenge assumptions, uncover hidden insights, and redefine problems that help us identify alternate strategies. And while the process may vary from company to company, the Design Thinking Methodology remains consistent.
In our implementation of Design Thinking, we concentrate on four specific phases—each designed to be robust and flexible. This model allows the strategist to tailor a customized plan for each phase that is based on project and user needs.
Our model consists of the following phases:
Design Thinking typically starts with the Discovery Phase, but remember that the process can also be executed in a non-linear fashion. That means that you don’t always have to start off with Discovery, and you also don’t always have to follow the process in any particular order. For example, you may decide to produce concepts first (Ideation) as an input to Discovery. No matter what path you take, if you incorporate all of the steps outlined here, your team will succeed.
Step 1: Discovery
In this phase, we want to engage in activities designed to help you empathize with the user. To that end, employing some of the following activities will help you develop an understanding of user needs (e.g. goals, pain points, expectations) and the project.
- Conduct Stakeholder & User Interviews
- Create Personas (for every user type interacting with the product or service) consisting of:
- Key background attributes (e.g. role, age, location, income, technology proficiency)
- Mental model
- Pain points / frustrations
- Conduct a Competitor Analysis
- Create User Journey Maps
- Analyze (against usability & best practices) via Heuristics Evaluation report (for existing products only)
Stakeholder & User Interviews
By far one of the most important steps in Discovery, these interviews set the stage for your user-centric product journey—establishing the empathy that is so critical to project success. Focus on clarifying their goals, thoughts, and feelings in order to identify the right problems to address. To help you better empathize with your users during the interview process, be sure to use of the following techniques:
Focus on the user’s POV: Pay attention to the welfare, interests, and needs of the user. Set aside your opinions and hone in on his/her goals.
Validate the user’s perspective: Once you see why a user believes what s/he believes, be sure to acknowledge it (even if you disagree). Users will often have differing opinions and experiences that might not align with business assumptions. Listen carefully and recognize the specific perspectives of each interviewee.
Examine your attitude:
- Did you show up to the first meeting in the Discovery phase with a solution in mind? You probably should not have a solution in mind at this point, not without having first developed an understanding of the user’s needs and their perspective on things.
- Are you more concerned with getting the job done quickly?
Don’t be--finding a solution that addresses the users’ needs is a higher priority. Failure to have an open mind and good attitude will not leave enough room for empathy.
- Listen to the user and the entire message they’re communicating.
Verbal: Take note of what is being said and in what tone. Also, be sure to write down any key-words and phrases used and incorporate these into your conversations with users.
Non-verbal: What does the person’s expressions, gestures, and other body language say about his/her experiences?
- Ask the user to explain to you what they would like to see & how s/he might fix the issue.
Interacting with users on this level helps you bond with them—reinforcing your interest in their ideas and promoting trust.
Contextual Surveying is a research method involving shadowing the users as they work with your product in their natural setting. Depending on the number of participants, this type of field study can take anywhere from a few hours to a few days. As the user goes about his/her normal daily activities, the researcher will observe behavior—asking how, what and why the user does what s/he does.
After going through the interview process, the remaining tools and techniques used in the Discovery phase are pretty straight forward. Just be aware that we haven’t listed all of the tools available to you as researchers. The ones listed are here because they stand out as being very effective at this stage of the Design Thinking process.
When it comes to creating personas, be sure to do so for each specific type of user— ideally, you'll want to have three to four. Having more will cause too much distraction and dilute the users’ specific needs.
Start out by identifying your top 5 competitors and analyze their product offerings, capabilities, points of advantage or strength, and areas of improvement. Analyze your own product in the same way and chart the comparison findings. Rely on these findings to formulate product improvements and a direction plan.
User journey mapping is an important evaluation technique used to uncover insightful data about how users experience and perceive your product. This type of actionable data will help you develop a list of corrective actions that can be implemented to reduce errors, eliminate frustration, and ultimately improve user interaction and adoption. It is important to continue to leverage this process throughout your product journey, including the: current, future, and redesigned (post-release) UX states.
This usability inspection method helps to identify usability problems in the product’s user interface (UI) design. Leveraging the 10 industry-standard NNG Review Principles, evaluators (Digital UX consultants) examine the interface and judge its compliance against these criteria--highlighting violations and documenting recommendations on how best to correct the issues.
Step 2: Ideation
Once your research is complete and you have a clear understanding of your users, now it’s time to take that information and begin generating ideas—lots of them. Ideation (a.k.a. Brainstorming) can be done in a variety of ways, so experiment with a few techniques to determine what is best suited for you and your team. Be sure to emphasize that no ideas are bad ideas so that your team members aren’t discouraged to participate. The ultimate goal is to come up with ideas to solve your users’ pain-points, remembering that all concepts are valuable.
As with anything, it is essential to come prepared to your brainstorming session. The facilitator is tasked with much of this preparation, including: setting up the workspace, keeping track of time, leading the session, and keeping participants out of the weeds.
Having the right supplies will prevent unnecessary delays in your session. Recommended supplies include:
· Drawing pens or pencils
· Post-it notes
· Paper (preferably grid style)
· Whiteboards or large Post-it pads
· Whiteboard Markers
As I stated before, there are many ways to go about your brainstorming sessions. Some considerations to get you started:
- Start with an icebreaker - If it’s a new team, consider starting with an ice breaker. This serves to introduce new team members to each other, as well as jumpstart the creative thinking process.
- Set a time limit - Set a time limit for your activities depending on the number of topics you need to cover. It’s helpful to have a timer in the room that everyone can see.
- Stay out of the weeds - It doesn’t take much to get off topic and get deep into the weeds. Should this happen, gently remind the team of the task at hand and create a “Parking Lot” of topics to discuss at a later date.
Streaming & Capture
Once you have run a successful session you should have plenty of ideas…possibly too many. At this point, try to narrow them down to the most feasible ideas. Be sure to capture photographs of your whiteboards and compile your top ideas into a shared document; this will be used as an input for prototyping.
Step 3: Prototyping
At this point, you should have a few ideas that you want to get in front of your users, so leveraging Rapid Prototyping is a quick way to design interaction concepts to test with users. This process requires a small investment, promotes the “feedback > iteration loop”, and allows designers to fail fast.
“Don't think of it as failure, think of it as designing experiments through which you’re going to learn.”
- Tim Brown, CEO IDEO
There are many methods you can use to prototype and test, so choose the one(s) that allow you to most efficiently test your idea with users.
Types of Prototyping
- Paper prototyping: Sketches & storyboards.
- Low-fidelity prototypes: Wireframes, placeholder content, and greyscale or limited color palette.
- Mid-fidelity prototypes: Wireframes with the addition of some images, icons, and text in place (but the UI design is still lower fidelity).
- High-fidelity prototypes: UI design (colors, images, icons, typography) is very close to the final product. This form often uses realistic data to give as accurate of a depiction as possible.
Though simple paper sketches or wireframes often suffice, prototype design tools have come a long way in recent years—allowing designers to create higher fidelity prototypes sooner and with less effort. Designers can take advantage of a bounty of open source accelerators (templates) to speed up the rapid prototyping process. Established and compliant UI kits (i.e. iOS or Material app design) are readily available and can serve as great time savers in the early design stages. In addition, many companies already have detailed design systems and UI Kits that help their teams efficiently design and test new products. With all these resources within reach, designers can spend less time figuring out the UI, and more time focusing on user needs and interaction flows.
Reference UI Kits:
- Google Material Design
- Salesforce Lightning Design System
- GE Predix Design System
- IBM Carbon Design System
- UX Power Tools
Step 4: Measuring
“Test early and test often.” -- Something you’ll likely hear amongst UX professionals. Testing your prototypes early with real users allows you to validate your hypothesis, confirm your vision, and make any necessary course corrections based on the feedback received.
As an important best practice, be sure to encourage your entire sprint team (from stakeholders to developers) to observe the process of conducting a user test. If your team is too large for this to be feasible, be sure to regularly share your results with the entire team. Hearing feedback directly from the people that use the product can be a very eye-opening experience and will build user empathy for all parties.
“Elaborate usability tests are a waste of resources. The best results come from testing no more than 5 users and running as many small tests as you can afford.” - Jakob Nielsen
It is most ideal to run small tests often, with a small handful of users. Whenever possible, on-site user testing provides the most valuable results—allowing the ability to record body language, establish familiarity, and reduce the potential for distraction. In many cases, though, remote testing may be the only option due to a geographically dispersed customer base. There are many great virtual user testing tools available (of varying price ranges), so choose one that has the features that most benefit your organization.
When conducting user tests, as with anything, make sure you come prepared. Keep in mind the following:
- Create a script: Keep it simple—including an introduction (stating your research goals), a few general questions to break the ice, and outline of tasks the user should perform.
- Set up your environment: In-person tests should be conducted in a dedicated testing facility, quiet office, or conference room. If conducting remote testing, make sure your software is up to date and working properly in advance.
- Conduct a trial run: Prior to your session, run through the final script and test your prototype. Mistakes are less embarrassing when you find them vs. during the test.
- Send reminder emails: It’s helpful to remind your participants the day before a testing session—reducing the number of no-shows or issues the day of. If remote testing, include any relevant connection information.
- Take notes: It’s very difficult to moderate and take notes at the same time, so it’s helpful to recruit someone to be the scribe during the interview. If the session is recorded and you don’t have a note taker, be sure to review your session later and pull out key takeaways.
- Review and Capture: Once your session is complete, compile and review your findings with your team. Identify and group any patterns that occur—using them as a benchmark to compare against your original hypothesis.
Design Thinking works. It is a problem-solving methodology that allows you to find solutions to problems that would have been difficult to define otherwise. With empathy for your users at the heart of the D+T process, you can see and experience your product as they do, discover what drives their decisions, and truly understand their needs. The process allows you to create and test ideas, fail quickly, and repeat—ultimately resulting in a great user experience.
We have outlined a process for design thinking above, but it is not set in stone. What works for one team might not work as well for another. Always adjust the process for what works best for your team. The most important things to remember are to leave your assumptions at the door and to never rely on the experts in the room to have all the right answers. Keep your users in mind at all times.