By Daniele Lanza
January 19, 2017
Good design is often attributed to creativity. But that’s not the whole story.
By its very nature, creativity can go in an infinite number of directions. Unless it’s informed by foundational research, there’s good chance a design will not be successful with target users or customers.
I saw this happen many times when I worked in traditional creative agencies. Without adequate research, the design process was often handicapped by a lack of perspective on the problems we were trying to solve. As a result, designs served only form, and not function. Creative talent and budgets were wasted. We often delivered meaningless designs with little impact, leaving both designers and clients unhappy at the end of projects.
Ultimately those experiences are what led me to human-centered design. At Azul Seven, our creative process is based in what we know—what we’ve discovered—about actual user needs. There’s just as much creative expression as before, but now it’s directed by much more than just preference and intuition.
Now “informed creativity” guides four distinct project phases.
Immersion: Getting to Know the Client
Design projects at Azul Seven begin with getting to know our clients. Who are they? What problem are they trying to solve? What are their needs?
But interestingly, the client’s needs typically aren’t the one’s we’re directly trying to solve for. We’re usually hired to design a product, service or practice that solves the needs of the client’s customers, users, or perhaps employees. In doing so, we indirectly solve the client’s needs.
The trouble is, clients may not be able to accurately identify the unmet needs of their employees or customers. Or, they may think they know, but once we immerse ourselves in the situation and begin asking probing questions, we find a lot of assumptions that need to be tested, and a lot of informational gaps.
For example, we were engaged by a major healthcare client that was absolutely certain doctors were the primary, and almost exclusive, users of their software. This assumption was so fundamental that every decision they made rotated around it. During research, however, we discovered it was completely untrue.
In fact, doctors almost never touched the software. Instead, admin and nurses were the primary users. Doctors obtained information from them, but not from using the software directly. This discovery was critical, and it lead to a major shift in the way we designed the software.
So in the immersion phase of a project, we’re careful to keep an open mind and not rush to conclusions about what the work is. With a bit of research we often find more cost-effective ways to apply budget towards the end goal. (We’re also not afraid to say, “We don’t know yet,” when more research is needed to answer client questions.)
Field Research: Getting to Know the Users or Customers
The human element is a primary factor in everything we do.
Gaining empathy for people and understanding their needs is ground zero for our design projects. (It’s also good for building strong project teams!) When we better understand people, we can make better decisions and set the right parameters for the outcomes we want to design.
However, this deep understanding of the people who use products and services isn’t the result of a simple survey. We have to work for it. We have to immerse ourselves in their environments and observe what they’re doing, and how. We have to think about why they do what they do, and then talk with them about it. We interview people about their experiences and viewpoints, and ask them for specifics and stories.
Qualitative research like this also can be important for branding, because the internal perspective of a brand is sometimes quite different from external perspectives. That would mean the company is trying to move in a direction customers and prospects don’t understand or support.
In order to identify gaps and opportunities, we define and map qualitative user research in four areas:
- What they say (quotes and defining phrases)
- What they think (thoughts and beliefs)
- What they do (actions and behaviors)
- How they feel (emotions and feelings)
Once we’ve analyzed the research, we give a presentation of findings to the client, defining the problem to be solved as we perceive it.
We purposely include the client in the decision-making process before design work begins. As a result, there’s no secrecy—no big reveal as there often was in the agency world. If there’s any concern that we don’t fully understand the client’s problem, we keep researching until we do.
Solutions: Now We Start Designing!
Once we’ve clearly identified challenges and set project parameters, that’s when we roll up our problem-solving sleeves for what is typically thought of as the creative work. We break out the sticky pads and white boards, and start jamming.
We find this phase of the design process is strongest when we practice radical collaboration. Differences in opinions and problem-solving approaches provide creative tension that improves end results.
Initially our creative aim is to surface a high volume of ideas, regardless of where they come from or where they go. We defer judgment and encourage wild ideas that can spin off in interesting directions.
Once we have a large pool of ideas to consider, we intentionally work to bring together diverse perspectives and build on one another’s ideas. When we feel confident we’ve exhausted the possibilities, we sort and classify solutions. We draft visual executions of important ideas, striving to be as concise, specific and clear as possible.
Finally, in choosing which ideas to prototype, we keep a close eye on our research findings. They are the touchstone that keeps us focused on meeting user needs. We want the design choices we make to be utterly dependent on understanding what works and what doesn’t. That’s what we clarify in the next phase.
Testing: How Well Does This Work?
The testing phase could be called the “More Research Phase.”
We take one or more prototype solutions back into the field and observe how it works for actual customers, employees or users. These prototypes aren’t models of a finished design—far from it. Rather, they’re specialized research tools built to give us specific insight into questions about user needs that emerged during the creative solutions phase.
Always building on the initial research, we go back through the process of interviewing and observing to see where the design prototype works simply and intuitively, and where it doesn’t.
Then we iterate the prototype with what we learned and do it again. Lather, rinse and repeat.
Through continual testing, we select and refine the best solutions and improve the likelihood of launching a design that succeeds in the marketplace and has meaningful impact in people’s lives—an informed design that makes both us and our clients proud.