Design process as a Swiss army knife

Going back to my previous post about my flavor of the user-centered design process, I want to clarify one vital point. The most important thing about having an effective design process is not that you march lockstep through every step and every single artifact (persona, object model, taskflow, functional map, etc.) for every single design situation or every client.

Nor is it helpful to manage the process with excessive layers of bureaucracy, mandatory reviews and approvals/sign-offs from various people before design actions can be taken or movement forward to the next step.

Such approaches transform the design process into a heavy-handed tool that can take control of the designer and the designs themselves, adversely effecting mood and attitudes, perhaps even subverting cooperation with your clients and allied teams. It’s the designer’s (and team’s) process, so you have to own the process, else the process owns you.

Instead, it’s better to approach your design process (whatever flavor or variant accepted and evolved for you, your team and/or company) like a Swiss army knife. Nobody enters a room boldly brandishing the knife with all its tools fully exposed–At least, I hope not! :-) Instead, it’s kept in the backpocket and pulled out when it’s needed by the wise, knowing owner who recognizes when a necessary situation arises that would make best use of a particular tool.

Similarly, a designer shouldn’t simply barge into a meeting blasting the problem with full-on UCD process with all its minutae, which could unsettle the other project collaborators–unless they’re totally clueless and chaotic, thus desperate from some militant order and structure!

So it’s assumed here for an effectively waged design process, that the designer knows when to use it well, when to leverage certain phases and artifacts, when there are gaps in knowledge or stalemates to break through via certain artifacts or design activities, and so on. It’s also assumed that the designer can and will leverage whatever past experience and knowledge (i.e., wisdom) to resolve immediate design problems, particularly repeated patterns–just try to use what you’ve done before for another client. See if it works! If the designer feels confident to move forward per instincts and experience, so be it and then evaluate results with alpha testers or customers with iteration, accordingly.

It’s far more important to have a solid valid process, and use it flexibly, adaptively, per situations, operating in the back of the designer’s mind to be unleashed in a judicious manner…not as an explicitly wielded function of bureaucracy or project management which can often be counter-productive.

Just to rant briefly for a bit… I think there’s a general belief in the IxD/HCI world that if a designer doesn’t go through every single step of a militantly ordained UCD-driven process, then the designer is not “user-centered” or the result is no longer “usable”. I disagree. I think it is actually possible to trust a designer’s instincts and past experience/knowledge as a visionary leader who can solve various problems. And just possibly, it’s those moments when personal ingenuity and creative insight emerge forth. The last thing you want to do is use your design process as a recipe or formula that stifles innovation and creativity…or serendipitous moments of insight!

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