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Developing a design perspective

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24 May 2021
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It used to be one of my favorite questions to ask when interviewing prospective employees:

What techniques/approaches/people have influenced your approach to design?

There is no right or wrong answer to this questions, but I always thought that it was a good way to understand how the candidate saw the world, what techniques they used, and why they used them. Either the candidate provided that information directly or at least created an opening for me to ask those questions.
For example, the candidate might mention some traditional Human Factors practitioners and we could talk about task analysis. Or they might talk about some of the titans of Interaction Design or User Experience and go forth from there. If the candidate came from a less traditional route (Art or Architecture or History), they might describe how what they’ve studied has impacted their perspective on what makes for good design and how it translates to UX. Not only would it provide me useful information about some of the current skills, it also helped me identify what they are passionate about.
If you were to have asked me coming fresh out of school, I would have tried to cobble together some kind of answer that weaved together the names JJ Gibson, Don Norman, and Alan Cooper. I would have talked about Ecological Psychology and Affordances. As I grew in my career, I would have appended more names and approaches to that list. Now, I directly state in my portfolio how I view the world and the impact that has on the products I design.

But over the last few years, I have begun asking this question a lot less. I still like the question, but most candidates I have interviewed simply didn’t have an answer. They would hem and haw a bit but offer nothing of real value to move the conversation forward.

Junior designers or those straight out of design school might answer that their professors provided the most influence on them. It is at least a valid answer, because teachers will have an out-sized influence on any young designer’s viewpoint. But these teachers will be sharing the techniques and approaches developed by others. After all, your physics teacher may have helped you learn, but it’s really Newton’s physics.

After getting these non-answers for years, I began to worry that many candidates just didn’t have this background. And it’s this background that makes design successful. Without it, design is nothing more than a check-the-box process. First you do some research (make some observations, talk with potential users), then you generate insights (make a persona or journey map), then you design (wireframes first, pixel perfect second) and test. Repeat as necessary.
But completing a process is not design. Checklists are great as safety measures. You want the pilot to go through her checklist before a flight to make sure the plane will operate as intended. Design is a different beast. In design, checking all the boxes only means that something has been delivered, not that anything of value has been produced. Design does not work when it is a soulless process. Design only works when you infuse some intentions into the process.
For example, most in UX would agree that we need to design to align with (or develop) users’ mental models. Discovering your users’ mental model will help you understand how they think their problem space works and what mismatches exist between that and reality. It can help you identify the information users need, and help you structure the content accordingly.
What’s not agreed upon is how to do this. You have to decide which perspective you want to go forward with, because there are several variants. I happened to have learned about Herb Simon’s concept of mental models early in my career and was taught tools and techniques that leveraged this. It has definitely shaped my analysis artifacts, which means that it has had an influence on my final product concepts.
But there are other definitions and approaches you could use. Indi Young has written a book about mental models and has created tools. There are likely other definitions of mental models out there that you could be using as well that I don’t know about. There will be some overlaps and some differences between these approaches, and knowing how your chosen approach works is important. How you capture the mental model will ultimately have an impact on your design. Is one better than the other? I don’t know. I haven’t studied all the definitions/techniques enough to know. But I could certainly justify why the concept I have chosen to use is valid if you were to ask.

Mental models are just a drop in the bucket. Every step during the design process brings choices. There are dozens of research techniques to help understand the problem space. The way you frame your analysis insights will influence how you do research and can shape the results of your design. Your perceptions of human behavior and our strengths/weaknesses will impact how you design for your users. Some might see humans as incapable and error-prone, while others (myself included) see people as resilient and remarkable. Whether you see people as capable or feeble, you design accordingly.
You may question my approach. You may think that another approach is better. I would happily have those discussions because it’s valuable to question everything about our process. It means that people are thinking about the merits of the process. It’s how the field improves, helping to strengthen what stands up to the scrutiny and casting aside those parts that don’t.
However, discourse is only valuable when it’s done honestly and when the person can back up the claim. You can’t just say that “X doesn’t work”. All that means is that it doesn’t work for you, and I’m going to assume that you never learned how to actually do it. Personas seem to catch a lot of this heat, making it the prototypical example of an activity that has been turned into a box to check rather than something that will provide value. That’s not on personas. That’s on the designer.

If you don’t know why you are doing something, then it’s nearly impossible to be doing it well. I encourage everyone to figure out their design perspective. It’s your personal mental model about design. Start small. Read a few books and think critically about them. Don’t just read them to say you’ve read them or buy them to show them off on the bookshelf. Some should be about design. Some should be about other topics. You never know where you can pick up interesting nuggets. Next time you see a presentation on design, try to figure out the speaker’s perspective. See how it mirrors your own. What can you learn? If something doesn’t add up, challenge the speaker — respectfully of course.

Be willing to share your perspective and know it will evolve over time. You should influence others and be influenced by others. Generating a design perspective shows a desire to learn and to pay it forward to those who are just starting out. It helps you, it helps the design community, and it will definitely help the people you are designing products for.


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