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Designing Projects for Success: A More Humane UX Practice

November 3, 2014

In our travels over the last two years or so, we have thought deeply and had hundreds of conversations with UX professionals, trying to get answers to the following questions:

  • What elements make up a healthy, mature UX practice?
  • Beyond the UX community, from what influencers can we draw inspiration?
  • In what ways can we encourage better work behaviors on projects to help guide them and design positive experiences for people?
  • How do we design projects that are meaningful, purposeful, and enable people to feel that they’re part of something special?

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To help answer these questions, we’ve been studying the goodness from user-centered design, usability, design thinking, social innovation, innovation, strategy, interaction design, user research, UX design, customer experience (CX), creativity, Lean, agile, service design, and their accompanying toolkits. Each of these has its own language—sometimes causing confusion in a business, but at other times, working well in combination. Nevertheless, all of this certainly provides food for thought and deserves attention as we seek to encourage a humane UX practice, with the goal of helping businesses, governments, and other large systems to transition away from harmful behaviors and move toward a focus on creating more humane workplaces.

The free exploring mind of the individual is the most valuable thing in the world.”—John Steinbeck

A Humane UX Practice: Moving Toward Healthier Behaviors

We are continually searching for ways to encourage accessible, warm, and inviting conversations on projects—using less jargon and supported by collecting customer stories and observations. We have also been taking some time to reflect on our projects over the last 20 years or so, focusing particularly on how projects operate in various business domains and whether they

  • encourage understanding human needs to drive business value–win/win
  • provide a consistent and common understanding of the artifacts that are necessary to deliver projects successfully
  • nurture caring between the people in various project roles

So, does a humane UX practice exist? If so, is it moving us toward a healthier way of conducting business?

Are we encouraging organizations to give people the space in which to practice their soft skills and exercise their human qualities—what makes them human—within safe contexts?

The Elements of a Humane UX Practice

These are some of the elements that encourage the development of a humane UX practice:

  • current and future states—We need to understand how projects are working now, what this means to our organizations, and how we can help projects to work better in the future.
  • academy of learning—We need to support learning organizations, which foster workplaces in which people can regularly practice their soft skills, or human qualities, and where people can take inspiration from knowledge that complements their own functions.
  • values and beliefs—We need to foster workplaces where team members can contribute to cultural values and beliefs and define the ways in which they want to work. We need to assess whether our values and beliefs work with the current state—the values and beliefs of the businesses for which we work.
  • language—We need to develop a common and well-understood project language that helps to connect functions, deliverables, and artifacts together in a way that speaks to the project story.
  • toolkits—We need to gather the right tools to help us gain a deeper understanding of the business, the customers, the people who use our products, and the product design. We need to ensure that there is a well-balanced, representative mix of tools, covering envisioning, understanding, designing, prototyping, and validating. For example, see the DIY Toolkit and “This Is Service Design Thinking.”
  • human qualities—We need to encapsulate what are often described as soft skills within these tools, in various ways—including, to name just a few, observation, listening, probing, facilitation, communication, construction, deconstruction, synthesis, framing, connecting, critiquing, envisioning, and playing. See “13 Human Qualities You Must Have to Succeed in Work and Life.”
  • design and validation—We need to build spaces to which we can bring stories back from stakeholders, customers, and users, so we can better understand what they mean for a project and what activities, tools, human qualities, and roles we need to pursue.
  • artifacts—Over time and through various tool implementations, we need to create physical objects and populate the walls of our project rooms with print documents that tell the project story and connect team members to the project they’re working on, the value of the work, what they need to find out, and how it will impact what they work on next.

In this list, we have attempted to codify the elements of a humane UX practice and also the artifacts that we create through that process. We invite you to provide your feedback on this list in the comments.

We welcome all roles working on a project to contribute to its successful outcome. This does not suggest UX ownership, but rather uses our role as facilitators or guides to develop cohesion between artifacts and roles, encourage the use of consistent language, foster a constructive way of working, and tell a well-understood story. It also attempts to take the best of the existing ways of working from the various roles and disciplines to see how we can best apply them within the cultures at play.

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Looking Beyond the Boundaries of User Experience

We have often led project teams using these approaches. This involved convincing teams of the merits of involving people in the design of the products and services that we were creating for them, so we could better understand their needs, and at the same time, challenging the assumptions that are often inherent in project-team viewpoints.

What we haven’t done so well, in the past, is to take the time necessary to understand the way project teams are currently working together—the current state. Ideally, based on this understanding, we would define what they are doing well and what gaps exist. Finally, the current state should inform the ways in which we would really want people to work together—the future state—and the core artifacts that we’d need to connect ideas, people, and conversations and rally team members—independent of their role—around a central story about the what and why of the business and its customers.

All of this reflection has led us to some important questions:

  • How can we design projects for success?
  • How can we intentionally encourage healthy behaviors on a project team, factoring meaningful human and business elements into our work?
  • How do we know when a project is working well and recognize what that feels like?

Frictions Between Different Roles

Frictions exist on most projects, lead to communication breakdowns between roles, and get in the way of doing great work. These frictions surface when people on a project team

  • understand neither the project story nor how the project story fits with or connects to the context of the business story
  • know their own job function, but don’t know how their function connects to other functions that are instrumental to the design and delivery of products and services
  • have not received a complete induction into how the project team works and what that means for them
  • speak from assumptions and ego, but are unclear about how to validate their assumptions based on customer or user stories or are unwilling to do so
  • don’t have access to customers or users or, if they do, see understanding their needs as the responsibility of researchers or other roles rather than as a shared responsibility of the team
  • don’t know what to do with customer or user research or how to make it actionable and connect it to design improvements
  • have a limited or misguided understanding of UX research and design and their toolkits
  • have no easy means of learning about better ways of working
  • have flawed knowledge about the use of certain UX research or design tools and lack a complete understanding of their intention, how to use them, what to do with the outputs of the tools, and how the results connect to a story
  • don’t completely understand how a project functions; how processes, tools, and deliverables fit together; or where to find the necessary knowledge
  • are too busy and have limited attention to devote to a project, so need simpler ways of working and communicating with each other
  • lack a structured way of walking through designs or, if they have this, don’t always know what to do with the feedback
  • don’t know how to aggregate customer feedback back into their design
  • have no defined criteria to help them weigh, score, or prioritize features, which implies that they don’t know why they’re working on what they’re working on
  • lack a clear, holistic idea of the core value and meaning of the product or service they’re working on

Artifacts in the Project Room

Over time, place your research and design artifacts around the project room to help the people on your project gain a joint understanding of the project story and how each of their roles contributes to the project’s success.

As we’ll outline next, there are several types project artifacts—and at their center is core meaning. Thus, the primary intention of all your artifacts is that they connect all team members on a project to the value of what you’re designing, why you’re designing it, and what value it will bring to the business and customers; and provide a constant point of reference for your project.

The following meta-information sits above the details and guides your project:

  • project goals—What are your project’s goals? Do team members know why they’re creating what they’re creating and how it will help the business?
  • design principles—What are the principles that provide guidance for your design frameworks? How can you use objects consistently across the product you’re currently focusing on, then across other products over time?
  • metrics—What are you measuring and tracking to enable the project team to see whether there is improvement over time? Are team members able to understand the implications of and base their decisions on relevant metrics?

The following customer or user data encapsulates everything your team knows about customers or users and helps guide UX design decisions:

  • stories—These are customer or user stories that your team collects through interviews. They should reside in a searchable library to enable the team to uncover observations and derive insights from them.
  • profiles—These are descriptions of customer’s or user’s unmet needs, goals, motivations, and painpoints; and reveal your product or service’s opportunities and gaps.

A project’s core meaning should reside at the center of all other project artifacts, and all other artifacts should refer back to it. This core meaning connects your team to the value of what you are designing, why you’re designing it, and what value it will bring to the business and your customers.

These artifacts influence or express your design decisions:

  • task models—What task models are implicit in the stories your customers and users tells you? How can you better understand the ways in which people try to complete their goals and interact with your product?
  • journey maps—How do these tasks fit into a customer or user’s overall journey? What are the stages in that journey? What are the relationships between these tasks? How can you improve your product by filling gaps that currently exist?
  • designs—How should you communicate your designs? At various stages of a project, these may be sketches of concepts, wireframes, high-fidelity mockups of visual designs, or working prototypes.
  • design patterns and standards—Over time, how can you transform your team’s conversations and learnings from your product design work into reusable design patterns, frameworks of working code, and design standards?

Business Impacts and Implications for Our Future Work

So what are the implications for our future work and the places we might want to work? What does a mature project look like? To improve the prospects for our having better workplaces and project outcomes, we want to encourage people to do the following:

  • Adopt simpler ways of working that are jargon free and allow team members in each role on a project to have their time in the spotlight.
  • Bring observations and insights to each project to improve your way of working going forward.
  • Allow more time to think, play, and work on ideas that have no direct link to current projects or the bottom line.
  • Encourage team members to focus on a project’s core meaning while pursuing parallel streams of work—whether short-term improvements or research and design for key feature sets over the long term.
  • Create spaces that are reserved for bringing team members together to tell stories, design, have conversations around artifacts, and share ideas with other people.
  • Foster a learning organization that both invites outside perspectives and encourages staff to teach each other about topics that promote complementary thinking in relation to the projects at hand.
  • Share design artifacts to encourage conversations and connect projects to business goals.
  • Collect and connect data points and translate the data into stories that people can easily understand.
  • Ensure the balance of skills that a team needs to create great designs. See “Understanding UX Skills.”
  • Create facilitation and project guides to ensure your team is constantly collecting customer and user stories that provide evidence to support business decisions.
  • Show clear connections between designs, insights; business, mental, and content models; and system architectures.
  • Express these connections through artifacts that everyone can see in your project room, letting people unravel the implications of your research and designs for features.
  • Aggregate your learnings into meta-artifacts that link projects to other projects, relating them to your organization’s overall story, strategy, and roadmap.
  • Continue to learn from the best and worst of your project experiences. 

Acknowledgments–Thank you to all of the people who have contributed in some way to our thinking—you know who you are—and special thanks to Michael D.B., Steve P., Bas, Geke, Jen, Michael M., Will, Mike L., Chris M., Davide C., Alex C., Tom W., Bill D.R., Matto, Matt W., Doc B., Marcel T., UXHK, Louis, Sarah B., Andrew M., and the Reach Network.

UX Hong Kong 2015—We founded UX Hong Kong in 2011 to bring all product and service design disciplines together—from research, marketing, design, technology, and the business to name a few—as well as to provide a gathering place for people who are interested in and passionate about designing great experiences for people and helping businesses to create a better world for all. UX Hong Kong is now its in 5th year, and we have a great program planned for 2015. Early-bird pricing ends on December 31, 2014.

Principal Design Researcher at Apogee Asia Ltd.

Hong Kong

Daniel SzucOriginally from Australia, Dan has been based in Hong Kong for over 20 years. He is a co-founder of both Make Meaningful Work and UX Hong Kong. Dan has been involved in the field of User Experience for more than 20 years. He has lectured on user-centered design globally and is the co-author of two books: Global UX, with Whitney Quesenbery, and Usability Kit, with Gerry Gaffney. He is a founding member and Past President of the UPA China Hong Kong Branch and was a co-founder of the UPA China User Friendly conferences. Dan holds a BS in Information Management from Melbourne University Australia.  Read More

Co-founder and Principal Design Researcher at Apogee Asia Ltd.

Hong Kong

Josephine WongJo is a co-founder of both Make Meaningful Work and UX Hong Kong. She grew up in the multicultural city Hong Kong, with her Chinese-Burmese father and Chinese-Indonesian mother. Fluent in Cantonese, Mandarin, and English, Jo collaborates with global teams, conducting design research and usability testing. She is passionate about the environment, political and economic systems; and discovering how we can live healthier, happier lives without adversely impacting less fortunate people. She is a member of the Usability Professionals’ Association (UPA) Hong Kong Chapter. Jo attended Melbourne University, completing a Bachelor of Social Science Information Management.  Read More

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