December 14, 2011

Integrated Design to Create Great Software!

I was at a client site earlier this week. It's amazing to see how much people believe design can help their future successes. The level of awareness of design in software products these days is very high. At the same time, how to go about rigorous design is still quite a nebulous endeavor for most. So because design is not only about pretty screens and icons, what more do I need to consider then?

To start, and well worth the read, check out this great article from fastcodesign on what businesses should be striving for -”What Good Does Design Do For Business?”. In short, businesses need to strive for a design mix in their activities made up of the following elements: collaboration, innovation, differentiation, simplification, and customer experience.

To achieve the design mix, what does one have to do?

It starts with the users. The most common thing I hear is "we know what our users want". This is rarely true. While we may know what our users are asking for (their want), we rarely understand what it means in the context of usage and if it’s valid in the context of usage. A want is something a user will ask for; a need is something a user may or may not consciously be aware of. To understand the needs behind the want is where user research becomes handy.

User research has two main aspects: identification of the various user populations or personas and rigorous observation. Segmenting the user population into personas allows for focus in the design mix. It keeps your team from designing for everyone and anyone and focuses them on a few categories. Rigorous observation is framing user interviews in a way that they will be experiential. Observing the user in the environment of usage, however light the prototype is, brings solid data forward so that we can understand the user needs better.

You also need an iterative mindset and mixed team. In software, this is both the design crew and the software crew working together to address the user needs. They work iteratively together because the process has a constant influx of user feedback. It’s difficult to get collaboration between these two groups. The main idea to overcome is that engineers don’t think like designers and designers don't think like engineers AND this is the strength of the team. Engineers think from the code out to the user. Designers think from the user standpoint irrelevant of the technology difficulties. What this team strives for is:

  • Design informed by technology
  • Technology informed by design

Achieving the design mix is great for business. It leads to greater results earlier on because it's about asking the right questions early in the process and it's about constantly validating the progress against the business goals AND the user models. It provides an opportunity to get the things that matter for the market in this version not the next one. Ultimately though it's all about the user and this is why it's good for business to put users at the centre!

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