Overcoming Objections to Modeling

Recently, I asked on Twitter,

What’s the best objection you’ve heard to making conceptual models as part of the design process?

A lively discussion ensued. Some respondents were unclear on what I meant by “conceptual models,” which speaks to the lack of mainstream awareness of this crucial design artifact. (Here’s my latest stab at clarifying.) Others, clear on what conceptual models are, pointed out that the process matters more than ‘deliverables.’ Great point.

But I’m especially interested in the objections. Here are some that represent what I see as the main gist. Chris Avore pointed out that conceptual models are seen as “too hand-wavey or theater-like,” and that they “lead to a few head nods but the world/plan/goal doesn’t change at the end.” To put it bluntly, as Hà Phan did, some people see conceptual models as “bullshit.” (My take: true insofar as they know about modeling at all; I suspect most people don’t.)

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Internal Design Teams and Thought Leadership

There’s a sense of disillusionment among some designers about UX’s ‘lost potential’ — that it’s been co-opted for purely commercial (and in some cases, unscrupulous) ends. It’s articulated in this post by Mark Hurst, and I’m reading it into this tweet by Jesse James Garrett:

I haven’t experienced this malaise myself. (But I’ve seen lots of it on Twitter, a platform that rewards kvetching.) Most designers I know are engaged with their work, and my students seem excited for the future. So, I suspect Jesse’s ‘more than a decade’ qualifier matters.

That said, I believe he’s onto something. Designers should be ecstatic about our field’s increased visibility and impact, but we don’t seem to be. What’s going on? I responded to Jesse’s tweet with one possibility:

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Design with Strategic Intent

Many designers can’t effectively speak to the value they create. Instead, they mostly focus on the beautiful, elegant, user-centered, screen-level artifacts they make.

As a result, many stakeholders don’t see designers as strategic partners but as implementors whose role is designing products right (more engaging, usable, attractive, etc.) rather than designing the right products. Ironically, it’s in the latter where design can make a real difference.

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How to Keep a Long-term Focus

Point of view is worth eighty IQ points.

— Alan Kay

Sometimes we face situations that demand an immediate response. A few weeks ago, millions of Americans dealt with unexpected weather conditions that disrupted their ability to keep themselves and their families fed and warm. On February 20, the crew of United flight 328 had to deal with an engine that exploded in mid-air. (Fortunately — and through excellent piloting and engineering — the plane landed safely.) Such life-threatening situations call for skillful action now.

Most situations aren’t as urgent as landing a crippled plane or finding shelter in freezing temperatures. And yet, we often feel the stress of urgency in our day-to-day lives. Perhaps we’re on the hook for meeting this quarter’s KPIs, or we’re running late to take our child to her 10 am martial arts class, or we have a big presentation on Tuesday. Whatever the case, we’re under pressure to deliver now.

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Meta-IA

My friends Jesse James Garrett and Peter Merholz recently wrapped up the first season (my phrase) of their podcast Finding Our Way. The show is about “navigating the opportunities and challenges of design leadership,” and it takes form as an ongoing conversation between the co-hosts. (And occasional guests, including yours truly.)

Peter and Jesse are rendering a tremendous service to the design community by having these conversations in public. They’re experienced practitioners reflecting on what they’ve learned both in their own journeys to design leadership and through advising other design leaders. If you haven’t heard Finding Our Way, I encourage you to listen.

Episode 25 (“The Reckoning”) is especially worth your attention. In it, Peter and Jesse reflect on emerging themes in their conversation. An exchange early in that episode resonated strongly with me. Peter observed that “the crafts of (design) leadership are communication and information architecture.” He elaborated:

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Three Models

The men who are cursed with the gift of the literal mind are the unfortunate ones who are always busy with their nets and neglect the fishing.

– Rabindranath Tagore, Sadhana

Modeling is the most critical underused design skill. The ability to examine a domain abstractly — to consider its components, how they relate to each other, and how they allow people to achieve their goals — is essential to designing complex systems that balance the needs of users with the organization’s strategic goals and, more broadly, social well-being.

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Thinking Contextually

Whenever I’m designing anything, I always keep in mind this quote from Eero Saarinen:

Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context — a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.

Whatever you’re working on isn’t an end in itself; it’s always part of something bigger. That bigger thing may be out of scope for the project, but it influences the project. When an architect designs a building, the street grid informs the structure and form of the building. Whenever I work on a navigation system for a company’s website, I must look at other websites in the industry (i.e., the company’s competitors, partners, customers, etc.)

In other words, context matters in design. Nothing ever exists in isolation, and you can’t do a proper job if you don’t consider the forces surrounding the project. This is all design 101; Saarinen’s admonition is printed on the wall in one of the IxD studios at CCA.

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Starting The Big Picture

I’ve designed digital experiences for over twenty-five years. In that time, I’ve worked with many different teams. Some have succeeded, while others haven’t. Often, success comes down to leaders who can articulate the vision and direction for the project to bring clarity and alignment. I call this “The Big Picture.”

The Big Picture doesn’t have to be an actual picture; it could also be a description, with words. (Such as the plaque above.) That said, a clear diagram can move mountains. For example, one such (simple!) diagram helped save Apple from near-death at the end of the 1990s.

Many design and product teams still work without seeing The Big Picture. More often than not, they’re beset by conflicts with other groups, duplicated effort, mis-prioritization, and more. Most of these folks are excellent professionals. But lacking clear direction, they end up working at odds with each other.

That said, The Big Picture doesn’t need to come from the top. Anyone can explain their understanding through drawing. They can then show the picture to others and ask clarifying questions:

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Seeing The Big Picture

San Francisco from the hills over the East Bay, where my family and I went hiking for a late-afternoon 4th of July picnic.

The most crucial measure of success for a design project is the degree to which it serves its intended goals.

Projects come about because an organization invests time and resources in changing something in the world; it could be migrating a key system to a new platform or launching a website to sell a new product. More often than not, designers are brought in to “spruce it up.” Alas, they often join the project too late, when major decisions have been made.

It’s a mistake — but understandable. Talking about look-and-feel is easy; talking about fitness-to-purpose is hard.

It’s hard for several reasons:

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