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The Design-Thinking Superpower You Might Suspect You Have

May 17, 2016

Knowing what you know about interaction design, how would you use your skills to improve a procurement process, achieve better realization of benefits, or ensure a project runs more smoothly—even when the solution has no UI component?

While it might not be obvious to everyone, many UX professionals have awesome, hidden powers among their UX skills, which enable them to do all of these things and much more. Let’s look at an example: The F-16, one of the most successful military aircraft ever designed, was not built to spec. Its designers recall that the original speed requirement was for Mach 2.5, yet the plane never achieved that speed. Back in the day, that speed was next to impossible, so the designers reached out to stakeholders and conducted interviews, trying to figure out why that speed was important.

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Their efforts resulted in a really successful aircraft that is still a legend today, after more than 30 years in production. Instead of just running with the mission and trying to achieve Mach 2.5 or focusing on the proper processes, the designers took a step back and looked at the bigger picture. It turned out that, while greater speed was necessary in situations where a pilot needed to escape from combat, delivering faster speed was just one possible solution. They garnered a lot of additional insights during interviews, including alternative solutions such as better visibility from the cockpit and greater agility that would help them achieve the same or better results.

Designers can take this same approach on a range of projects—all the way down to a small content-migration project for which the business requirement was simply a better way to migrate content. Again, there was no UI component to the solution, but research helped the team to discover that users actually spent the majority of their time on mapping the old and new content structures. So, by focusing on the key business goal—faster migration—the designers helped users to complete projects eight times faster, saving the organization two million dollars in the first year.

The Magic of User Research

A recent study by The Project Management Institute (PMI), titled “Requirements Management, A Core Competency for Project and Program Success,” states that, of all projects that failed to hit the mark, 47% were unsuccessful because of poor requirements management—whether they failed to hit time, budget, or functionality requirements. This was true for all types of projects, across all industries—including nuclear power, construction, and other industries that are as far from IT (Information Technology) as they can possibly be.

Think about this: The single biggest reason why all of these projects were unsuccessful was that the implementation team just took the requirements document and ran with it, without ever conducting any additional research.

Now, think about all the superpowers a UX professional can bring to the table. You can do contextual inquiries or ethnographic studies to observe business people engaging in their activities and glean insights that most users would never be able to articulate. You can use efficient, inexpensive surveys to cover a lot of ground, whether across a product’s whole user base or even the entire marketplace. You can do interviews.

Imagine yourself explaining these methods, tools, and techniques to a procurement officer or a project manager who works in construction. Imagine the looks on their faces when you deliver the results! You would seem like a fortune teller to them because you could actually discover exactly what needs to be built, before the project has started. These business users would no longer have the lingering feeling that something is missing. Nor would they come up with so many additional requirements late in the game. Yes, you could still employ the agile development methods that let teams react to changes in the marketplace, but there wouldn’t be nearly as much confusion or waste.

But you don’t have to take things that far. Instead, just imagine talking to a typical Business Analyst (BA) about user research. Mind you, a lot of BAs are now moving toward creating wireframes or even clickable prototypes, but how many could do a good job on user research?

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The Download

When it comes to collecting business requirements, most companies are still relying on the download ritual: a BA just sits with key stakeholders, asking what would they like to see in the finished product or the current phase or sprint. They then capture everything in their business requirements! Their requirements-validation activities involve simply asking these same key stakeholders whether the requirements document looks complete and includes no unnecessary features. This process culminates in the stakeholders’ signing off on the requirements document.

What’s missing here is a reliable process for collecting requirements, while making sure you actually get the full picture—including a complete description of the problem areas and the key processes people are using to conduct business. What’s missing is the use of sound user-research tools and processes—something that most UX professionals do every day, albeit on a much smaller scale. These missing user-research activities are the reason so many new requirements are still getting discovered late in the project, then managed as scope creep.

Organizations invest in agile methods to ensure cross-functional, collaborative teams can deliver their projects successfully. They work really well, but only for the delivery part—the part that has to do with the on-time and on-budget thing.

All it takes to fail is for one person—a key stakeholder or a BA—to miss an important detail in the business requirements. Then fast, efficient, on-time, on-budget delivery no longer matters. The project misses the mark.

Even when there’s a team of BAs in place or a team works directly with users, the chance of missing important requirements or getting them completely wrong is still very high—unless the team is employing sound, proven user-research activities.

Taking Action

As a UX professional, you possess a superpower. You have the tools and the skills that, chances are, can save your organization millions of dollars, create competitive advantage, and save your collective user base from enduring years of misery and frustration. So what are you going to do with it?

Simply by looking at a business-requirements document and taking note of how your business users are doing their work now, you may find gaps in the requirements. Occasionally, you’ll discover that a project is going in the wrong direction altogether. What were they thinking?!

But don’t┬ájump the gun. Consider the circumstances, your role, and the local politics. If you want to make a difference and really help your organization, don’t get yourself fired!

Achieving change may be a slow process. Along the way, you’ll probably need to be politically correct, keep on asking non-threatening questions in your soft voice, and slowly guide your stakeholders and project manager in the right direction. But you’ll succeed in the end, and they’ll appreciate your contributions. Just remember, it will then be a lot easier to find the root causes of problems—the real reasons behind them—and persuade people to admit their validity and get on board with change.

What is it like to work in your organization? Do you conduct user research on a broader scale? Or does research focus just on user interfaces? Do you still see BAs downloading requirements? I would love to have your thoughts in the comments. 

Principal User Researcher and Interaction Designer at ECM Solutions

Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Dmitri KhanineDmitri loves to impress business stakeholders with six- and seven-figure savings by finding the root causes to problems and focusing project teams on solving the right problems quickly. His user research provides hard facts to support decisions. Dmitri’s secret sauce is his ability to help organizations reduce scope creep, costs, and delivery times by enabling them to define better-focused requirements and design more efficient user interfaces. Sometimes not starting a project can be the wisest and most cost-effective decision. Dmitri is a published author and frequent speaker at industry events.  Read More

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