Corporate Education, Design Strategy, Design Thinking, Education, Technology

Pulling Back the Magic Curtain of Design

By Matt Franks

The COVID-19 crisis is forcing us to re-think our approach to product requirements gathering and co-design / co-creation activities. It’s highlighting challenges that have always been present but were often shoved aside by the momentum of maintaining the status quo, or simply due to the inexperience of junior product managers. At Modernist, the combination of client/customer isolation and new cloud-based design tools like FIGMA are opening up alternative avenues to how we approach co-design activities with clients, and it’s getting us to better results, faster.

Traditional Requirement Gathering Doesn’t Work

A few times per year I’m asked to help scope traditional requirements gathering sessions. While the idea of ‘user centered design’ is no longer a secret, the methods associated with achieving transformative results haven’t yet caught on. Many companies use outdated approaches (feature ranking, focus groups, feedback surveys, etc.) and I’ve seen too many product teams fall short of their goals.

Many stakeholders in product development projects focus on articulating a list of features that describe the “perfect” product. However, when working with a mixture of subject matter experts and real users, it takes more than a checklist to build something users need and want, and stakeholders’ value. There are a few pitfalls that I’ve witnessed in many of these exchanges, which are prevalent enough that I developed product development curriculum around this pivotal issue (which I’ve taught at Overcoming these challenges can be a game-changer. Below are the most common:

1. We use the same words but aren’t speaking the same language.

This can be is true even for product owners that work at the same company. All too often they use the exact same words to describe a completely different concept in the UX/UI. The aspirational bubble of a requirements session often prevents them from asking critical questions about the intent that lies behind the words tha

2. Stakeholders perceive domain experts (Subject Matter Experts) as behavior experts.

Anyone who’s watched a real user navigate a complex system to achieve a goal will tell you how irrational their behavior is. And while there is no doubt that SMEs have the best intentions—they lack the critical eye for capturing nuanced user interpretations and behaviors often left unsaid. But these nuances make all the difference to a designer whose role is to make choices about which parts of the user interface to prioritize over others based on user behavior.

3. The time delay associated with seeing the output of the requirements discussion removes opportunities for substantive re-alignment.

As such, a prioritization exercise is used to capture the most critical features for v1, that the team can all agree on—and designers are asked to reconcile workflows in detailed design…this is ‘agile’ after-all.  Months later, when the product (typically the MVP form) has shipped, it becomes clear that the system doesn’t really work as anyone intended, and the list of backlog items grows, but by this point, the product owner is left trying to reconcile the discrepancies between vision and reality. The initial team of stakeholders are off scoping out the next big product or service offering.

COVID-19 Forced Modernist to Change Our Approach

One thing teams of all sizes have learned from the Covid crisis is how to get work done without physically getting people together in a room. This single change in behavior has disrupted the typical working patterns of many of our clients—in some cases resulting in new projects and expanded programs for Modernist Studio. One such example is a recent project for a US based textbook publisher.

The textbook evaluation process for educators is a tradition that has remained largely unchanged since school districts first began purchasing materials from publishers. Typically, a group of subject matter experts (teachers and parents) gather in a large room (a school auditorium, gym or the like) and physically pass around print copies of materials to examine, deciding whether to include them in their curriculum and classrooms. But with Covid, this necessary act wasn’t possible. All of the sudden, every major textbook publisher in the US scrambled to find a way to facilitate an evaluation of print-based materials—in a digital capacity. Moreover, gathering company stakeholders in a conference room and hatching out a plan was also out of the question.

Modernist is fortunate enough to have trusted relationships with these publishers and when this moment of realization hit, we, like them, had to change our approach.

Design strategy workshops with clients in-person and online
A New Approach to Real-Time Collaboration

At Modernist, we pride ourselves on helping organizations gather true insights upon which we can build product and service behaviors. This usually involves a mix of qualitative and quantitative research activities where stakeholders leave their office and experience the world for themselves. This works great for breaking through the reliance on Subject Matter Experts—but it doesn’t solve the issue of the time delay to seeing progress. In most of our programs, designers will go away for some amount of time and craft a product or service vision. Clients are typically not involved in this process—sometimes because designers need space to explore without outside perspectives that can disrupt nascent ideas or, often, because clients are unfamiliar with the tools we’re working in.

But Figma has changed the game—Adobe CC and Sketch have recently launched collaborative options as well.

The simplicity of use and ease of access in cloud-based design tools unlocked one of the biggest barriers to co-creation that I’ve witnessed during my career. For years, getting access to the tools—Sketch or Adobe Creative Suite—required substantial money, involvement of IT, or both. As a result, capable users and clients were often relegated to the sidelines—waiting with their post-its in hand for the next design review. But with tools like FIGMA, users and clients are invited directly into the creation space.

In a recent project with a textbook publisher, we started out slow. We gave the client ‘view only’ access to the creation space. Within 15 minutes, three stakeholders were navigating the artboards and posting comments—their insights were extremely helpful. So, a few days later, we tried an experiment—we gave them edit access (after backing up everything, just in case).

As it happens, the first thing they did was delete half the working artboard—but they quickly realized the mistake and no work was lost. After 2-3 days of playing around, our team found a super-efficient and valuable working cadence.

  • Our designers were able to rapidly stub out a page or workflow.
  • The user/client could enter the space and directly edit the content that appeared on the page.
  • With their content expertise, we were able to identify holes or deficiencies in the workflows almost immediately.
  • We were able to have ‘real content’ inserted into the iterations for the designers to work with.

The net result was the creation of a digital textbook evaluation experience with real content—from end to end—in just 3 weeks. That’s about 1/3 the time associated with other systems of this scale—time that is typically locked away in review cycles, misinterpreted feedback, and waiting while people gather the content needed to populate workflows.

The Takeaway: Create Opportunities to Further Involve Stakeholders

Clients rarely get to peek behind the curtain of the creation process—and when they do, it’s typically in a controlled setting that limits changes or the ability to impact nascent ideas. What I’ve learned through inviting clients and stakeholders into the creative process, is that there is value in building a creative partnership where co-creation exposes ‘the magic’ behind design. The net result is a better product, a stronger vision, and the creation of advocates within the organization who ultimately have to carry the product beyond the initial launch.

Matt Franks

CEO, Modernist Studio

Matt Franks

CEO, Modernist Studio

Matt is the CEO, and a Partner, at Modernist Studio. He was previously a product owner and creative director at Blackboard. He is also an instructor at Austin Center for Design. His work focus includes social system design, mobile systems for both handsets and tablets, entertainment experiences for TV, web, and video, and strategic design thinking for large-scale system design and product rollout. He’s been awarded patents and a silver IDEA award for Target’s ClearRX bottle.

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