I had the opportunity to design experiences, strategies, products and systems for companies in the San Francisco bay area during my two years as a d.school student. Here is how my design principles have evolved during that time.
Lesson #1: Follow your feet
My team and I were always able to come up with a lot of great ideas during our design and re-design work. It was easy to get excited about turning ideas into solutions, and sometimes we jumped to solutions too quickly.
Getting to the solution space is easy. It's working through the problem space that's hard. The process of navigating that space can be daunting, fuzzy or mundane. A designer might often feel far from the final solution, which can be frustrating. Having patience during this process is key.
Design thinking has helped me work through the problem space and stay patient during the entire project. The process is all about iteration and will lead you to the right answers eventually. But it's not magic (I'll say more about that later). Design thinking is a set of tools to help one structure a problem, distill people's needs and find insights so you can solve for their needs.
It's important to remember that you're solving other people's problems, not your own or those of your team. You also can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in the future and take a leap of faith. You don’t know where you are going until you are there. Follow your feet through the process.
2. To design or not to design?
There's often a question as to whether one should build a solution from scratch or borrow already existing design concepts. I like to build things from scratch, since it gives me more control over my solution and the creative process. Sometimes, though, redesigning or rethinking an already existing experience might require designers to benchmark existing solutions.
The saying goes "good designers borrow; great designers steal". So, if all creative artists and designers get inspired by other art/designs that means all design is re-design. While I might prefer to build from scratch, there is no harm in taking inspiration from already existing designs. In many situations, existing design concepts can actually help inspire better user experiences.
3. Be the change
I spent what felt like countless nights on rethinking the innovation system for one of our clients, Novartis. The company's past success in the health care space made them very resistant to change. The management believed that bringing in a design consultancy would help them keep up with the pace of innovation in their sector.
In order to change the system, my team worked hard to understand the company's operations, product development process, supply chain and research activities. Needless to say, our team knew more about the entire company operations in three months than the management itself.
That knowledge led to the realization that the problem we had to solve wasn’t the problem with which we started. That experience taught me a valuable lesson: in order to understand any system completely, it is important to approach it from the perspective of trying to change it.
The project also taught me that it is important to know the root cause of the problems at hand and gain deeper insights into why change is desired. Nothing beats a prepared mind; be sure your team is well informed about the history of organizational change and context. Asking and answering these questions should help:
- How did others effect change before we arrived?
- How did they circumnavigate the skeptics? (You'll want to take advantage of their foresight and tools.)
4. Kill your Darlings.
It's hard not to fall in love with your prototypes, after all, you work hard to create them. The moment eventually arrives when testing shows that those prototypes might not be aligned with your user’s needs or tastes, however. Alas, you have to let your darlings go in pursuit of better solutions! I know, it's difficult to do, but it's better you do that than stick with a solution that's not satisfying for people.
This is why it's better to create a lot of low-resolution prototypes and test them rather than create a few high-fidelity prototypes with no testing. There are moments when your team needs to pivot after realizing that they might have mis-understood the user journey map.
So, burn your prototypes, and know that the first is never the best. (That includes this list.)
Once you separate yourself from your prototypes, it becomes easier to let go of your prototypes in favor of better ones. This constantly lets you push the envelope and provide people with a solution that is best suited to their needs and requirements.
5. Show. Don’t Tell.
There are more great ideas in the world than inside our heads. While brainstorming with your team can definitely help bring a lot of those ideas to the whiteboard, it is impossible to get the plethora of ideas existing in the world onto that whiteboard. The only way we can come close to capturing the world of ideas is by having conversations with people.
Tangible prototypes make such conversations possible. They are a great way to communicate the essence of your ideas and help you gather feedback. Instead of talking to people about your ideas, try engaging them with prototypes. Everything can be prototyped, even experiences.
This is a critical insight because engagement by way of conversations and feedback (both critical and positive) improves your opportunities going forward and can energize and excite your team. All of that, in turn, helps you design better user experiences. So, show. Don’t tell.
6. Embrace Serendipity.
Working on tough problems has taught me the value of collaboration. Sometimes you can't solve a problem alone, and you need a different perspective. The value of these interactions, such as water-cooler chats, wasn’t very apparent to me three years ago, when Marissa Meyer urged Yahoo! employees to work from the office more. But I understand the importance of serendipitous interactions now.
The greatest ideas, for me at least, have always come out of casual conversations over a bottle of wine, and the following notions have helped me stay open. I hope they help other designers too:
- Be curious and inquisitive. Ask questions. Take nothing for granted.
- Take time to understand the world. It’s complicated.
- Leave your comfort zone. Spend time with the people you’re trying to help.
- Don’t assume you can fix anything. Sit, listen, observe.
- Be patient.
All design activity is ultimately social in nature, so it's important to never go hunting for inspiration alone. Be open to interactions and embrace serendipity.
7. The Power of Invisible Design.
Good designs are the ones that make people say, “Ah, yes, obviously that makes total sense, doesn’t it?” The reaction is similar to that given to a well-performed magic trick, in the sense that good design hides the complex mechanisms of how something actually works and presents a deceptively simple experience.
The magician practices just as the designer iterates. Both are working towards a perfectly polished performance that feels effortless and natural to the audience, one grounded in expectations based on reality.
The highest compliment a design can receive is being called obvious.
Some people think of design as aesthetics — mere icing on the cake. Whereas, design actually informs the form and function of a product or an experience. Simple gestures and animations in applications help users interact with them intuitively.
I see tons of animations added to pages on some websites just to make it look “cool”. While this is okay if the goal is to distract someone from the experience, it's not okay if your aim is to present a simple and intuitive experience. Simplify. Focus. Cut features. Unnecessary features/animations take the essence of the experience away and confuse users. I love this tweet from Snehal, which pretty much sums it up:
8. Empathy is your greatest super-power.
Our world is complex, and the connections between people, products and markets are growing in number. Human emotion is at the center of the human-centered design process. That means it is increasingly necessary to solve technical problems in ways that satisfy human needs and acknowledge the human element in all things.
I’ve always seen that a deep connection with people’s emotions helps in understanding their point of view. Their point of view is essential to the design process.
So, place people at the center of all things. Build personas for your users. Cover the walls with images of your personas. Celebrate their successes and understand their failures. Build environments that celebrate the “human scale”. Forgo monuments, and create an atmosphere of empathy-in-action for yourself and others.
This story originally appeared on Medium and has been edited for 'the whiteboard.' It is a part of a series of design lessons that I am sharing on Medium. The series is inspired by Julie Zhuo and her post on Writing in 2016.