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Efficient UX Design Within an Organization

Innovating UX Practice

Inspirations from software engineering

A column by Peter Hornsby
December 21, 2015

As UX designers, we spend a lot of time helping other people to be more effective. This is the heart and soul of good design. Is the new approach making users more effective in what they do? If not, it’s failing.

While there are countless articles about how to understand users and design and test applications, I want to take a look at how to make the design process itself more effective, particularly within the sometimes neglected context of designers working within—rather than contracting with—an organization. While your circumstances may be different from those I’ve experienced and this column is likely to be more helpful to designers earlier in their careers, I hope it provides some value to more experienced designers as well.

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Designing Efficiently

Of course, any UX professional must be an expert in using the available tools. As a UX designer, your job is to design. So whether you’re a fan of Axure, Balsamiq, or Illustrator, or just diving straight into code, knowing how your tools work and being able to both optimize their capabilities and work within their limitations is key to an efficient design process.

But, personally, I now use design tools less than I did even a year ago. Partly, this is the result of my educating clients. If I can communicate what I need through a pencil-and-paper sketch, I can save myself a lot of time. I must confess that I’m pretty terrible at drawing, but that doesn’t matter. I can still get the ideas down, riff on them, and get feedback.

But my using design tools less is also the result of a change in my mindset. I make a conscious effort to explore the solution space more thoroughly before committing my design ideas to the computer. Creating design deliverables can sometimes create the illusion of progress. For example, creating an interactive design prototype in Axure rather than a sketch on paper or a whiteboard may be a short-term win at the expense of a better long-term solution. Sketching is the quickest, easiest medium for creating and sharing design ideas. Putting a design into a design tool takes effort, and once you’ve made that effort, it can sometimes become more difficult for you to discard that effort and address a design problem afresh.

When using design tools, you must understand the nuts and bolts—how they work and what you can do to optimize the process of getting the design from your brain or paper sketch into the tool. For example, if you’re designing in Axure and you’re using the same component more than once, convert it to a master so you can reuse it.

If your design may develop into a high-fidelity prototype, take the time to create a styled widget library and other styles, if they don’t already exist, so you won’t have to rework or restyle components down the line. It’s much easier to create a design once in the right style than to rework it later on. Plus, when—not if—you need to change your design, it’s much easier if you’ve taken the extra few moments to create your design using the proper styles to begin with. If you already have a corporate style guide to follow, using it from the outset will save you a lot of pain and rework later on!

I’m reasonably technology agnostic, am comfortable designing with either a Mac or a PC, and alternate between a mouse and a trackpad to reduce the likelihood of wrist strains. When I use a mouse, I prefer a gaming mouse, and depending on the application I’m using, assign its additional buttons to different functions. For example, within a Web browser, the buttons navigate forward and back or switch between tabs, while in other applications, they let me cut and paste or align content directly using the mouse. This is a small process optimization, but one I find works well for me. However, I’ve rarely seen others use this approach.

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Understanding the Organization

Now, taking a step back, while UX designers are great at spending time understanding users, they often neglect the flip side of the coin—spending time understanding the organization. UX designers should always have a role to play in questioning why certain information is being requested during a process: Is that information still needed? Organizations tend to add layers of complexity to processes—sometimes unnecessarily. By asking fundamental questions, it’s possible to strip back the what of a process to understand the why—which leads to the design how.

UX designers, particularly those working within an organization, can speak directly to stakeholders and make an effort to understand the perspectives of all stakeholders. By doing so, they not only can make sure users are able to be effective in doing what they need to do, but also can challenge the organization to ensure that each step in a process is necessary and delivers value to both the user and the organization. Engagement with the user is generally a trigger for—and sometimes the result of—organizational processes. UX designers are uniquely positioned to understand and, sometimes, to re-engineer these processes.

The Classic Requirements Challenge

If you don’t understand the problem, you can’t create an effective solution for it. Understand that it is unlikely that your client understands their problem either. Within an organization, there is explicit, recorded knowledge about a process, often written from the perspective of the people providing a service. But there is also a huge amount of implicit knowledge—all the things people know because they’ve worked someplace for many years, including the edge cases, the work the company did for a particular customer who is no longer with the company, the project tweak that got applied because one of the managers was really keen on it.

UX designers are able to use the research data for a project to challenge the status quo. For example, if a customer is no longer with the company, should the work that was done to meet their needs be abandoned to reduce maintenance overhead, or is it sufficiently useful to roll out to other customers? Can you test the design tweak a manager wanted to see whether the data shows that tweak supports the desired outcome for the project? Now that there is operating data regarding the edge cases the company defined when it was just getting started working on a product, can you challenge whether they’ve stood up to actual usage?

Conclusion

As with any other professionals, UX designers must periodically pause and reflect on their design practice. Not just how they work on a daily basis or how they can optimize their design activities, but also how they can add more value to the broader organization by applying design thinking to its processes, as well as the mindsets behind the design activities we conduct on a regular basis. If we do this, we can make our design work more efficient and effective and deliver better project outcomes. 

UX Manager at Distribution Technology

Reading, Berkshire, UK

Peter HornsbyPeter has been actively involved in Web design and development since 1993, working in the defense and telecommunications industries; designing a number of interactive, Web-based systems; and advising on usability. He has also worked in education, in both industry and academia, designing and delivering both classroom-based and online training. At Distribution Technology, Peter is responsible for the user experience of Web and mobile apps; working closely with analysts, testers, and developers; and developing a research program. Peter has a PhD in software component reuse and a Bachelors degree in human factors, both from Loughborough University, in Leicestershire, UK. He has presented at international conferences and written about reuse, eLearning, and organizational design.  Read More

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