From concept to reality: Lessons learned

It’s the ambitious fantasy of perhaps every designer, to be summoned by a super high-level authority person (like a company GM, SVP, or R&D Labs Head) to work on a “next gen” project: draft up some cool ideas, pitch them at the next staff review, deliver something exciting! And yes, while this part is quite cool and fun, a fabulous break from the tedious humdrum of tweaking pixels, doing “concept design” is a veritable challenge at many levels, even if you got full exec support. Gotta be careful what you are being led into! I’d wager that for most designers who say they wanna do “next gen” concept work, once they realize the journey and issues involved, they might back away with a few second thoughts :-) A concept project is not simply “fun and games” (unless you really are gamifying your concept ;-) but has serious impact upon business and tech strategy with real consequences upon schedules, resourcing, messaging, branding, etc.

Let’s take a look at what’s involved, and things to watch out for:

The Kickoff – design & research together!

It’s vital to hold a team kickoff discussion with design and research leads, to clarify assumptions, dependencies, and expectations. Also, gotta identify the audience and contexts. And, please do clarify the exact problem, opportunity, and/or hypothesis. Without this, you’ll be adrift for weeks amidst confusing email threads and communications breakdowns later on. Better yet, define a design brief to signal serious intent from key players involved that this is “for real”, not some academic exercise.

Political dynamics: Who’s involved (and not–and why?)

Ahh, so who’s involved anyway? And what levels of visibility? What’s the DACI model structure? Who’s the driver, defining the priority and expected results? Who is explicitly not involved, for what reasons? Some projects maybe  very sensitive due to merger/acquisition issues, disruptive technologies, cannibalizing pre-existing products, etc. Get this sorted out ASAP! But also try to get a pipeline set up for socializing the concepts later with relevant people, even if initially excluded. What are the triggers for folks to finally “be in the know”?

Process flexibility: Full UCD, or shortcuts?

This is where you’ve gotta exercise maximum flexibility as a designer and go with the flow. You may not be able to do a full UCD cycle of research, testing, iteration, etc. Be prepared to make shortcuts, but also try to insert time later for revisiting steps. This is primarily why, I think per my observations at places like Oracle, Adobe, Citrix you need very senior designers to lead concept projects. They can make the intuitive leaps leveraging past experience, judgment, pattern-making, etc. to arrive at better solutions faster, in case there’s little time (often the case, due to business or tech priorities).

Getting buy-in from others: Middle-managers, engineers, marketing.

Socializing the concepts is critical, with any inherent political sensitivity handled well, since this is where your concepts will run into friction and pushback. This is the beginning, frankly, of “making it real”. No longer a blue-sky fantastical vision demo’d in Flash, but the first attempts to get legitimate development traction behind it, which will likely upset existing projects in the pipeline. Empathy is paramount here, not just for users, but for folks who don’t like change: other people in your company (or your client, if you are consulting).

Dovetailing into current projects: Schedules, dependencies.

Once you are done socializing, you need to make sure you have the project schedules and tech / resource dependencies defined and articulated. By this point, the concept’s original mandate will have evolved per tangible logistics and quarterly business goals. Also, the pool of stakeholders has increased, as multiple teams and people on the periphery are brought into awareness about your concept. As concept lead you need to understand the bigger picture as much as possible to grok how they all fit nicely–if at all. Tap into the exec support who initially asked for your wild crazy ideas, informing them that this is now reality time, and you need their guidance for you (and the teams) to be successful.

Converting from “concept” to “shipping product”:  Details, details, details!

OK, now the concept is becoming a shipping, commercial product. OMG! No, it’s not freak-out time :-) However, you’ve got to understand that your role as concept lead is done. You are now a product designer, so you gotta shift into proper gear with pixel precise delivery, balancing edge cases, handling errors/warnings, drafting help text, flowing out first time vs next time experience…and the web channel, the mobile UI, marketing / branding decisions, etc. This is where the heart & soul of bringing a fuzzy concept to life resides, in the details–gotta sweat it! But remember, you should have by this time a dedicated, dependable team with you, all sold into the concept and prepared to execute on the implementation plans, flexing with the “devil in the details” problems along the way.

 

Look, I love concept projects as much as any designer, but in my role as Principal Designer, with an official job responsibility around “Emerging Technologies” I have to be critically conscious and diligent about what exactly each concept initiative entails and how they track into the product strategies and release schedules. Otherwise, a concept can quickly become a sore point, a boondoggle, a waste of everyone’s time–vaporware that goes poof! A design concept is successful when it elevates aspirations, demonstrates bonafide potential and gets productized for everyone’s benefit. Not just some fun entertainment on the side…which it may start out as, that’s true and good…but to fully reap the benefits, you have to make it real. Because, as Uncle Steve famously said, “Only real artists ship” ;-)

 

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