Positive Design Impact

By Daniel Szuc and Josephine Wong

Published: May 7, 2012

“The purpose of our first meeting with the prospective client was to get an initial understanding of the product, determine its value, discuss scenarios for how people might use it, … explore who the target customers might be, and determine what differentiates the product against its competitors.”

Recently, a client asked us to help one of their teams that was developing a new product. This is our story about that engagement.

The First Meeting

The purpose of our first meeting with the prospective client was to get an initial understanding of the product, determine its value, discuss scenarios for how people might use it, watch a concept video to better understand how it works, explore who the target customers might be, and determine what differentiates the product against its competitors. We shared our respective backgrounds, then took the opportunity to communicate how we approach user research and UX design, show some of our previous work, describe the positive impacts we’ve made on teams and products, and tell them where we thought we could provide the best design guidance. This initial discussion helped us to get a preliminary idea of what might be the most appropriate approach to take in order to discover more about the product, the team, and the business.

As our first meeting progressed, we started to think about what it would mean to have a positive design impact on this project from start to finish and how best to convey UX design knowledge to a new team who may never have been exposed to design thinking before. In this article, we want to share some ideas regarding how we think about positive design impact as a way to both improve software and hardware products and influence the people we work with—fostering enthusiasm for UX design and helping it blend into business, strategy, creativity, and innovation as the team grows and its influence spreads further into a business.

Planning to Engage

“After a first meeting with a prospective client, it is helpful to consider whether a product and a team environment provide a context in which you have a genuine interest in working.”

After a first meeting with a prospective client, it is helpful to consider whether a product and a team environment provide a context in which you have a genuine interest in working. Is it a product you could see yourself using? Working on a project, product, or team that does not energize you can have a negative effect on the design impact you can make going forward. As your first meeting is progressing, then afterward, you need to give further thought to whether the client was receptive to the ways in which you could help them and whether, in comparison to your past projects, it’s a project you’d enjoy working on. Some questions to ask that can help you to assess the potential for your having a positive design impact include the following:

  • How much freedom would the team give you to explore new ideas?
  • How fixed is the team’s concept for what the product should do?
  • What are the critical user journeys or scenarios that would determine the product’s success?
  • How well is the team lead able to describe the product?
  • Did the product demo focus just on the technology, or were there also other product elements that the team described, using language that demonstrated it is more than a commodity product?
  • How long would it take to get a deeper understanding of the target customers?
  • Was the team lead receptive to how you can help?

If you are still feeling good about the project after considering the answers to some of these questions, you are ready to go on a test drive with the extended product team.

Taking a Test Drive: You and the Extended Product Team

“To better understand whether you can have a positive impact before committing to a project, try spending some time with the team. Engage them in design thinking to see whether they are open to your working collaboratively together.”

To better understand whether you can have a positive impact before committing to a project, try spending some time with the team. Engage them in design thinking to see whether they are open to your working collaboratively together. This may feel counterintuitive. Some design consultancies might want to win the business first, then think about fit later. In this case, we decided to offer to run a mini Design Studio, spending about two hours with the extended product team to enable us to understand more about the business, the characters of the other team members, and the product’s maturity and see where we could take our ideas as a team before deciding whether to write a work proposal for their signoff. Here are some of the questions we hoped to answer by taking a test drive together:

  • Who are the other team members, and what are their respective backgrounds?
  • How committed are the other team members to the proposed product idea?
  • What do the team members think it would take to make the product a success?
  • What gaps exist where the team requires further discovery?
  • How does the team work together? Do the team’s dynamic and work environment create a context in which you think you could help?
  • �What is the business plan or product roadmap?
  • How open is the team to playing with ideas, debating concepts, and discussing opportunities?
  • What activities could you engage in with the team to give them a taste of what might be possible if you spent more time working together?
  • What is the project schedule? Is it realistic?
  • Did the team warm up toward you during your time together?
  • Did the team make positive contributions to design ideas and planning for the future?

Once you’ve spent two hours together, you’ll have gained some deeper knowledge of the team and the business context. This should give you better confidence in your judgment about whether you can achieve positive design impact going forward. With this understanding, you will also be in a better position to plan how you can help the team as you move beyond your first meeting. Ask yourself:

  • Based on my skillset, what user research and UX design activities should we undertake next?
  • Who else do I need to bring in to help move the team and product maturity forward?
  • What information should I impart to the team to give them a sense of design ownership?
  • What activities could we do together to get the team sharing and doing?
  • Beyond the next activity you’ve planned, what further activities could you do together with the team?

It’s important to note that this is not just about determining how to help the product team for this project alone. You should also be thinking about how the project could help you to mature as a UX professional and whether this fits with where you want to be now and in the future. Each step in this process allows you to iterate on a UX design roadmap, discover where you would like to take the product team, and better understand your role in pursuing that roadmap.

After our test drive with the product team, we could see the mood of the team change as they started to open up more and share with us. This was a good sign—and one we were looking for. We were also able to get greater clarity on what to do next and how much time it would take to find out more by facilitating a business and design discussion with the team.

We decided our next step should be to run a more in-depth Design Studio, spending two days together to get answers to both strategic and tactical questions that would move us toward scoping a pilot product. We also asked ourselves how we could we have a more positive design impact during the next round of our work together.

Note—Because of our positive feelings after our initial meetings with the team, we decided to take the work forward and proposed this Design Studio. Of course, depending on what you think is best for a product team, you could propose any type of UX research or design activity. In this case, we thought a Design Studio would be the best way to achieve what we thought the team needed at that stage of product and business development to have the most positive impact going forward.

The Design Studio

“Our intention was to give them an opportunity to take a step back and think about the product and the services, partners, technologies, and teams that the product would require to achieve success.”

During the two-day Design Studio, we engaged in deeper discussions with the product team. Our intention was to give them an opportunity to take a step back and think about the product and the services, partners, technologies, and teams that the product would require to achieve success. By choosing to facilitate both the process and the discussions, we gave the team an opportunity to share everything they knew with us, without our having to worry about how to uncover this knowledge. Throughout all of the discussions, we ensured that that the team captured their knowledge visibly, so they could see the fruits of their labor, and we could look at the data holistically, enabling us to make better strategic and tactical decisions going forward.

We continued thinking about how best to have a positive design impact. To assess how this could play out during the Design Studio, we asked ourselves these questions:

  • Are we keeping the mood in the room upbeat?
  • Are we making progress?
  • Are we removing roadblocks, documenting them, and staying on target?
  • Are we refining scope?
  • Is everyone on the team feeling like they are making a positive contribution?
  • Are we synthesizing the data so it makes sense as input to both the business and the product plans?
  • Are we giving people enough breaks during the day?
  • Do people feel good about the work they are doing together?
  • Are we feeling more excited about the product—reflecting on whether this has changed since our first meetings with the team?
  • Are our actions helping the team to be more successful?
  • Are we recognizing gaps in our own knowledge that we need to overcome to help us plan our next activities with the team and what people can help us make it happen?
  • Do we want to keep working with the team beyond the Design Studio? If yes, what do we want to help them with?

It is important to remember that there are a few parallel processes at play when you work with a product team:

  • sales process—making a compelling pitch to a prospective team, so they’ll want to procure your services
  • relationship process—determining whether you and the team have the right fit to give you a better chance of doing great work together
  • methodology process—defining the methods that would make the most impact and how they should work together as part of a bigger product development roadmap
  • resourcing process—understanding which people on your team can help take a product team on a positive journey
  • technology and services process—defining the technologies and services with which you need to work

To Conclude

“This is all part of determining where you can best invest your time to have the greatest positive design impact.”

The first meeting is about getting to know each other and seeing whether you are really interested in the product that a team is developing. Is there is a good fit?

The second meeting is about getting to know more people on the team, seeing whether there is receptiveness to your approach, and planning how to take a project forward with more intelligence. Test your hypothesis for how you can best to do additional work together. Hopefully, at this point, you’ll decide that you want to continue working with a team.

Of course, if after the second meeting, you decide that you don’t want to continue toward drafting a proposal, that is fine. This is all part of determining where you can best invest your time to have the greatest positive design impact. Remember, if you are not enjoying what you are working on or the people you are working with don’t value your work, it may be time to rethink what you’re doing and redirect your energies.

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