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Sensitize. Synthesize. Sell.

It’s happened a few times. I’ll sit down with a business representative for a round of stakeholder interviews, and then one of them quietly comments to me with a snarky-looking grin, “Well, it looks like I’ve been put on Schindler’s list.”

True, my team identified a list of key stakeholders from the organization, put individual meetings on each of their calendars for a comprehensive and candid interview about business objectives, and my last name just happens to be… wait for it… Schindler.

Having heard more than a few people connect the first and last dots during the course of my career as a User Experience practitioner, I simply remind them about the detail people always seem to forget about that movie.

“The list is life.”

Occasionally, and in certain measure, this list can bring new life to projects too. Because it’s sometimes only during a pre-arranged private interview that business stakeholders reach a cathartic moment. Up until then, they may have not been able to discuss what’s truly important to them in the setting of a large meeting, which may have been dominanated by a vocal few. Worse yet, they may not truly feel like anybody has listened to them. That’s a problem that can destroy group morale and ruin large projects that have real costs on the line. So, I take it as a measure of just how dark perception can get when a business stakeholder non-chalantly pulls out a reference to a black-and-white movie about the worst human tragedy of the twentieth century.

Not to get you down, or anything.

In my experience, established organizations tend to look at UX practitioners with a curious eye. They don’t always know how to map to us, or how we relate to a solution, especially if we’re doing our jobs correctly and listening during the early phases of problem definition. Are we strategic? Are we tactical? Why do we ask so many questions about operations and business process?

The answer’s simple. We fit right in the middle of everybody and everything. This position can be awkward for us. We’re selling solutions to stakeholders that technical people need to build — on time. We’re struggling with new and unknown complexities across systems, operations, and sometimes even policy components. We can never know enough about what we already don’t know.

And without a baseline understanding of these constraints from the people who understand them best, it’s difficult to know what may or may not be appropriate for a design solution. That’s why it’s so important to do the first step right. It greases the wheels for everything that follows.

Not every project needs a formal key stakeholder analysis, but it can build trust and good will, where skepticism and fear might ordinarily creep in. And it can be a powerful token that represents an active effort to change strategic perception.

Part of that’s what I simply call sensitizing.

Yep. Sensitize. Don’t just interview. Don’t just observe or do research. Get to know your business. Open up with all of your senses. Look with fresh eyes. Listen with open ears. Empathize and feel the full experience as it is today. Get to know and understand the real impacts.

Then do the same thing with your users. Do their needs and motivations align with the business goals? Often times they do, but sometimes not. How can you take what you find from the first step, synthesize it into a solution that makes sense to your end users, and then sell it back to the organization with confidence?

Sensitize. Synthesize. Sell. Those are some simplified steps. I can get into the last two at a later time.

For now, let’s just set a foundation. I use three singular words to generalize a design methodology, of sorts, because it helps me remember what I need to be doing at different phases of development, using very broad and efficient strokes. It’s a good little trick because it works on projects of any size — whether you have 30 people and 6 months to solve a particular design problem, or 3 people and 3 days.

So, before I go any further, just remember… Schindler? The good guy. The list? It’s life.

And it could be the beginning of a successful design strategy, if you give it a try.

Heuristically Speaking

25 Design Heuristics

A while back I decided it would be helpful to organize a list of design heuristics (call them principles, truisms, or generalities) some other folks had written. The original list I worked from mostly came from well-known practitioners in usability and user centered design — people like Jakob Nielsen (who’s pedagogic style I usually find as easy to digest as sandpaper), as well as some other folks who were able to encapsulate meaningful guidelines and methodologies from the empirical work they were doing at the time.

This research-based approach subsequently created huge in-roads for experience design, as we now know it today — so much, that it’s allowed designers such as myself to transition from designing applications and web products using seemingly blind intuition, to practicing complex observational thinking, ideation, and blink-of-an-eye doing. By problem solving heuristically, rather than prescriptively, we can now apply holistic solutions rather quickly, instead of laboring through seemingly arbitrary and disparate ones.

Large organizations, in particular, have benefited greatly by treating design as an opportunity to apply appropriate objective rationale, while eschewing the usual subjective wants and whimsy so common in design critique and approval processes. Because it’s not just the duty of the designers to think in terms of principle, it’s up to all decision makers.

This kind of thinking isn’t without its problems, though. Often times, it’s easy to slip into an absolute mentality using such broad-based guidelines, when in fact design is often about resolving volitile tensions that lay deep within the problem space. For instance, a particular design might need to be both simple and predictable (a very common expectation), which are many times diametrically opposed to each other when you think about them in terms of principle. This isn’t always easy to resolve and may require a deeper understanding of the business needs or more rigorous analysis of available data points. Ultimately, though, appropriate solutions can be found and balanced through a rational design synthesis. That’s the goal, anyway.

Now, I’d like to make the list of 25 design heuristics available for download, but I’m afraid publishing it wouldn’t be prudent, given that I can’t cite the original authors with 100% accuracy. However, if you contact me, I’ll gladly send it to you.

Ring It

Mike Schindler
Ring It / Holiday Card 2010

Location-Based Mobile Apps: Served Up Fast and Hot

Picture this in the not-too-distant future.

You’re on your way to pick up some fast food because you’re so amazingly hungry for a new quadruple-decker bacon angus cheeseburger. Your mind is just telling you to go out and get this new meat wad delight, which sits precariously between two deep-fried grilled cheese sandwiches. Hard to imagine, I know, since you’ve been using a mobile app to count your calories, but you’ve got a serious hankering (and no one needs to know about your caloric careen off course now anyway, right?).

However, instead of ordering at the counter or over the loud speaker at the local drive-thru window, you decide to check the “My Locations” folder on your mobile phone–or better yet, the iPad mounted to your dashboard. Once you come to a stop at the restaurant, an icon with the unmistakable red pigtails of a certain girl appears. You click on it. She starts talking to you by name and tells you what’s new on the menu. With a few swipes of your finger, you glance over the succulent selections and tap on the value meal that’s going to soon spark a conversation between you and your family physician (we’ll save the details of that encounter for another daydream).

At the end of your order, you’re asked to repeat their fast food slogan, or some other perfunctory gibberish thought up by the marketing hacks. This allows you to pass the voice recognition process, which instantly purchases the order using your pre-saved payment information. You feel so good about the experience that you somehow forget that a factually correct account of the caloric intake you’re about to consume was just instantly uploaded to a data-cloud. Guess you’ll come to terms with the slowly declining line graph that represents your ever-diminishing dietary goals the next time you’re faced with your personal apps at home.

For not only does the future mean that mobile applications will be served to you at the moment you need them without downloading apps or typing in web addresses (this was served to you when you came in proximity of the restaurant), it also means that your information will be sent to other applications and services uninterrupted by device or network specific barriers. Think of the possibilities of using the same premise at retail stores, hospitals, airports, or classrooms.

So, while you once downloaded applications to your mobile devices anticipating to use them with the world at large, the experiences of the future will most likely be finding you instead–and with that, changing the way you interact with the world.

In fact, this is all quite possible now and could certainly be used for more worthwhile things than ordering cheeseburgers.

Or maybe I’ve just got my head in the clouds.

The Shape of Design

I alluded to a design theory about two years ago. Rather than allowing it to collect more cerebral dust as my take on what’s important to design becomes aged with each passing day, I thought I’d share parts of it now.

In truth, it’s more of a construct than a theory, and it’s not at all original at that–all the parts are derived from the well-established principles of design management. I just applied different components of that application into a visual model that made sense with the way I’ve been seeing and working with design every day for the past couple of years.

The shape, like a lot of theoretical models, is composed of three equal circles that converge at the center. What’s important to know about this model, though, is that it starts broadly at the top and funnels its way down to a more narrowly focused endpoint. This purposely suggests that design problems in need of a solution, regardless of individual design practices and organizational structures, optimally start with a large overall strategic objective, which eventually or simultaneously merges with operational practicalities, and becomes something real through iterative tactical execution.

The Shape of Design

All of the relevant parts are equal and overlap at multiple points, suggesting that each are far from estranged from one another, but rather remain integral to a higher working order which requires constant communication and coordination throughout a design life cycle. At its core, I believe, lies the heart of real design thinking, which independently can be used to develop the mythical “shared brain” among design practitioners and business thinkers alike.

While this model certainly needs a lot more substantial examination, if not explanation, I’ve found that it’s been adequate enough to allow me to organize where disciplines, people, and ideas fit into a given design context. I think it also sets my expectations for what design is, and where I think it needs to go–for the time being anyways.

I’ll be interested to see how it holds up, myself, in the future.

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