blog.zolk.com

12 Jan 2017

Good Design Starts With Research

Say you’re a designer and you’re embarking upon a new project. What should be the first step of your process? Sketches? Photoshop comps? A prototype? If you’re skipping directly into any these steps, there’s a good chance that you’re missing a critical first step for any design project: research.

Incorporating a research phase into your design project increases the chances that your design will succeed. Design is about solving problems within a set of constraints. Research helps to identify both the problem and the constraints. Design without research is simply a shot in the dark. You might end up with a final product that doesn’t truly solve the problem at hand.

The good news is that you don’t need a PhD to conduct design research. While some companies may have an entire staff dedicated to research, with some basic training anyone can play a roll in performing research. In fact, most design research can be performed using simple six-step process:

  1. Define the problem. All research should start by determining what problem you’re trying to solve. Are conversion rates too low? Are users unaware of how to use an existing feature in an application? Are you trying to learn more about the audience you’ll be targeting for your new promotional campaign? The outcome of this step should be a set of specific questions that you’ll be able to answer at the end of the research process.
  2. Select the Approach. There are various types of research approaches that you can take depending on the problem you’re looking to solve. If you’re starting with an entirely new product, you might perform user research to understand the needs that the product needs to solve. If you’re fixing problems with an existing product, you might perform evaluative research to understand what areas of the design need to be fixed or rethought. In either case, you’ll probably also perform organizational research to determine what specific problems your design needs to address and to identify the stakeholders who will ultimately approve your work. If you’re analyzing other available products in the marketplace, you may want to perform competitive research.
  3. Prepare and Plan. In this stage, you’ll want to start with a problem statement that you’re looking to solve. You can then determine the duration of the study, identify who on your team will be performing which roles (interviewer, note taker, etc.), and identify the subjects of the study (potential customers or users of the existing application).
  4. Collect the data. If you’re performing qualitative research, data may come in the form of notes collected during user interviewers or observational sessions. Quantitive research may come in the form of results from user surveys or existing software analytics data.
  5. Analyze the data. At this phase, you’ll begin attempting to identify any patterns and insights from your research data. You can begin to think about how this data may impact your ultimate design solution. However, you’ll want to avoid looking at specific solutions at this point. The goal of research is simply to present data that will be used during subsequent phases of the design process.
  6. Report the results. Depending on the type of research, you might be reporting these results to your client’s stakeholders or to an internal team at your company. Deliverables can include both raw research data as well as observed patterns.

Ideally, the results of your research will leave you well-prepared to begin the next phases of the design and development process.

Looking to learn more about design research? I highly recommend by the book Just Enough Research by Erica Hall from A Book Apart. It’s a concise read that dives into further detail about the processes and research types discussed in this post.

23 Nov 2016

Creating an Information Architecture Diagram

One of the first steps I like to do when embarking upon a web site redesign process is to create an information architecture diagram. An information architecture (IA) diagram can be extremely beneficial in the discovery phase of a project and even beforehand during the proposal creation process. By creating an IA diagram of the site or application as-is, you’re forced to learn more of the ins-and-outs of either the information hierarchy or application functionality. The resulting document can also be a great guide for your development team as they begin to assess either CMS requirements or custom software development needs.

Another benefit of an IA diagram is that it allows the client to get a full picture of their current content or functionality. Often times, this IA diagram can be a useful tool when planning for a minimum viable product (MVP).

I like to create IA diagrams using a mind mapping tool called MindNode. It’s available for both macOS and iOS. I enjoy working with MindNode because it generally gets out of the way and lets you quickly create an IA diagram as you work your way through the existing web site or application. Here’s an example of an IA diagram that I created for a recent client project:

IA diagram example

IA diagrams don’t need to be obsessively detailed. Often times I will condense particularly hairy areas of a site or application provided that the result is a rough representation of the hierarchy or functionality. I like to time box these projects to no more than an hour or two, particularly if they’re being created as part of the proposal phase. It’s always possible to dive deeper at a later point.

23 Nov 2016

Understanding the Research Process

So you’ve decided to incorporate research into your design phase. Great! So where do you go from there? This post will outline a basic six-step process for performing design research.

  1. Define the problem. All research should start by determining what problem you’re trying to solve. Are conversion rates too low? Are users unaware of how to use an existing feature in an application? Are you trying to learn more about the audience you’ll be targeting for your new web site promotional campaign? The outcome of this step should be a set of specific questions that you’ll be able to answer at the end of the research process.
  2. Select the Approach. There a various types of research approaches that you can take depending on the problem you’re looking to solve. These include organizational research, user research, competitive research, or evaluative research. Some projects may require multiple types of research. If your questions are about users and their behaviors, user research is a great place to start. Evaluative research is appropriate for testing an existing design or a potential design solution.
  3. Prepare and Plan. In this stage, you’ll want to start with a problem statement that you’re looking to solve. You can then determine the duration of the study, identify who on your team will be performing which roles (interviewer, note taker, etc.), and identify the subjects of the study (potential customers or users of the existing application).
  4. Collect the data. If you’re performing qualitative research, data may come in the form of notes collected during user interviewers or observational sessions. Quantitive research may come in the form of results from user surveys or existing software analytics data.
  5. Analyze the data. At this phase, you’ll begin attempting to identify any patterns and insights from your research data. You can begin to think about how this data may impact your ultimate design solution. However, you’ll want to avoid looking at specific solutions at this point. The goal of research is simply to present data that will be used during subsequent phases of the design process.
  6. Report the results. Depending on the type of research, you might be reporting these results to your client’s stakeholders or to an internal team at your company. Deliverables can include both raw research data as well as observed patterns.

Ideally, the results of your research will leave you well-prepared to begin the next phases of the design and development process.

23 Nov 2016

The Importance of Design Research

There’s a common misconception that designers are simply “creatives.” I see design as more of a science than an art. Research is one of the key ways that designers can distinguish their field from simply being a creative endeavor.

Design is about solving problems within a set of constraints. Research helps to identify both the problem and the constraints. You can’t perform quality design work without starting with design research.

Research can be carried about in a variety of fashions depending on the circumstances. If you’re starting with an entirely new product, you might perform user research to understand the needs that the product needs to solve. If you’re fixing problems with an existing product, you might perform evaluative research to understand what areas of the design need to be fixed or rethought. In either case, you’ll probably also perform organizational research to determine what specific problems your design needs to address and to identify the stakeholders who will ultimately approve your work.

Incorporating a research phase into your design projects increases the chances that your design will succeed. Research can also help you sell your design to the client. If your design decisions are based on research, you can use that research as a tool to help defend against subjective feedback from stakeholders regarding items like typeface selection or colors.

Design without research simply a shot in the dark. You might end up with a final product that doesn’t truly solve the problem at hand. You’ll also find yourself defenseless against stakeholders who may suggest changes that could ultimately further harm the design.

11 Nov 2016

The Meatball and The Worm

Clients often don’t see eye-to-eye with our design decisions. They may have an aversion to certain colors or may have personal preferences that are not actually representatives of their customers or users.

They may even ultimately prefer the old design. That was the case with an ill-fated redesign of the NASA identity in the 1970s. Design studio Danne & Blackburn was commissioned by a federal program to develop a new identify for the space agency. The result was “the worm”, a logo designed to speak to the agency’s future rather than its past.

“The worm” was generally well-received amongst the design community, but NASA employees largely rejected it. No formal announcement was ever made to employees to announce the new identity or its vision. Instead, stationary featuring the new identity appeared at the organization without any explanation of the change. The logo lasted for two decades until it was eventually rescinded and replaced by “the meatball” in 1992.

The Meatball and The Worm

“The Worm” continues to be beloved by designers today. A recent Kickstarter to re-issue the NASA graphics standards manual was wildly successful. “The Worm” also serves as an important reminder of the importance of both design research and selling design in an effort to create a final product that is accepted by the entire organization.