The intent of a guideline, by definition, is to help determine a course of action or provide advice on how to do something. A guideline can be a recommendation, suggestion, general rule, or principle. Guidelines can inform design, inspire, help bring about consensus, or aid in decision making.
You can translate your UX research findings and understanding of users’ needs into design guidelines that apply to your design efforts. However, the challenge is often writing guidelines that are both inspirational and actionable.
Recently, my boss asked me to take over design strategy for an architectural design project from a colleague who was leaving the firm for an opportunity closer to her home. My colleague had conducted UX research and had done a great job of documenting her findings. I was to step in and pick up where she had left off. She had already developed a set of design guidelines for the project. I came onto the project at the point when we were to share those guidelines with the architects who would be designing the building. These design guidelines were inspirational in their language, and I wanted to understand what they meant to the project team members.
The lead architect for this medical center project asked me to share the design guidelines at the next design meeting. I had consumed my predecessor’s research notes and reviewed the findings that supported the guidelines she had developed. I knew the lead architect had read the guidelines, but wasn’t sure whether the design team had yet adopted them, so at the start of our meeting, I posted the guidelines on the whiteboard for the team.
The first guideline we explored during the meeting: “Design so connections to the community, the natural environment, and the [regional] ethos are demonstrated.” Before I could even ask what this guideline meant to the team, one of the architects asked, “Why?” (That certainly answered my question about whether the team had adopted these guidelines!)
The Whys Behind Our Guidelines
“Good question,” I responded. “Why would it be important to design with connections to the community, the natural environment, and the [regional] ethos?”
“To connect the center to the community,” one team member stated.
“To take advantage of the natural environment’s healing effects,” said another.
These comments just felt like restatements of the guideline, so I asked, “Why is it important to connect to the community and natural environment?”
“To make this center more comfortable and welcoming to community members,” the lead architect said.
“Why is that important?” I asked.
This time, my Why? didn’t elicit a response, so I shared a nugget from the research: “By connecting to what the community finds familiar, comfortable, and welcoming—for example, the local, natural environment and way of life—we can help reduce patient anxiety.”
Then, I asked, “Is ‘reducing patient anxiety’ something our team of architectural designers could try to influence?”
A discussion ensued among the team members, and we concluded that patients might be more apt to go see their doctor and be more receptive to the doctor’s questions, responses, and instructions if they feel more comfortable—emotionally and physically—going to the medical center. In this way, reducing patient anxiety has the potential to improve patient outcomes.
The Benefits of Getting to the Whys
The outcome was that this conversation garnered greater commitment from the team! One thing I really enjoy about working with the architects at this firm is that they are passionate about improving the user experience for patients and medical providers.
We worked through each of the remaining design guidelines in a similar fashion. By the end of the meeting, the team had a better understanding of what designing for the users of this medical center might involve. We came away with language that would help us communicate how well our project would fit into the master plan. This, in turn, could help build consensus with the city planning office and other key stakeholders. We also identified ways to more deeply communicate our client’s brand in the building design.
We are now immersed in the collaborative design process, manifesting these guidelines in our plans for this medical center. The team has reconsidered the building and parking-lot footprints to more directly connect them to existing bike paths and a nearby park. We are looking into building-height restrictions to find out whether we can build high enough to create a roof terrace, with views of the surrounding foothills. We are considering adding a retail-services floor, with leased space for businesses focusing on health and wellness, which could bring additional revenue to our client. We are also looking at ways of bringing the outdoors in, while keeping in mind the immunosuppressed state of some potential medical-center patients.
All of these potential design opportunities emerged from our taking apart the project’s inspirational design guidelines and exploring the potential user experience benefits of each.
Research-based, user-centered, inspirational design guidelines are a great vehicle for inspiring outside-the-box thinking, moving design beyond the project requirements—for example, departments, systems, components, and functions—and space allocations, or the physical space available for the build. But design guidelines are not something you should just write down and pass along for general consumption. Understanding and commitment are necessary to ensure real integration of guidelines into design solutions. These are best built collaboratively.
Writing Succinct Design Guidelines
Design guidelines do not have to be complex or poetic. On another project, I had the opportunity to work from the project’s inception on a new type of service offering for the client. We got to dig deeply into similar programs in the county to discover how they were offering their services and find opportunities to step up the game at this new facility. Again, we wanted to establish design guidelines that the whole project team would utilize.
One of the potential constraints for this project was that we needed to gain the commitment of not only the client, but also the county agency that supports this service. Public entities sometimes have more Is to dot and Ts to cross than private clients do. In this instance, the county was considering utilizing grant funds for the project—thereby increasing the number of Is and Ts we needed to dot and cross. This particular team from the county also had very little time available for project planning. The lead designer and I worked collaboratively to develop guidelines that would inspire our project team, resonate with the client, and engage the county stakeholders.
Ethnographic research for this project revealed beautiful stories about the interactions between clients and staff and between clients past and present, in the existing county facilities. Research also indicated similarities between these services and another delivery model that focuses on the full reintegration of clients into the larger community.
Working together, we developed simple, actionable guidelines that needed little explanation. The guidelines we drafted focused on: “Design for accessibility, dignity, durability and comfort, safety, and togetherness.” These guidelines sounded almost trite when I listed them in this manner. Any design professional reading them might think they’re obvious. Of course, we would design for accessibility, comfort, and safety. But how would we make these simple tenets resonate with the client and engage the county stakeholders? What would inspire our project team to stretch their talents and come up with creative ways of addressing the space-planning and program needs for this facility?
During a project-planning meeting, I had only about ten minutes of air time for sharing the design guidelines. Rather than just post them on the screen, I described how we had developed them. I started with just two sentences, briefly describing our ethnographic studies. I then supported our ethnographic-research findings with sociological data on the related delivery model—just another three sentences. What I shared next was where I gained the commitment of everyone in the room. I shared the stories.
Using only words, I illustrated people’s beautiful stories, described their human connections, and identified the opportunities for success for the challenged population who would benefit from the services this new facility would offer. Then, I closed by listing each of the design guidelines—along with statements of the reasons behind them—relating them to the stories.
Again, the Whys
We wouldn’t design for accessibility just because the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires it. Instead, we would:
Expand on what the ADA required to support the service program and the staff of this new facility in achieving their goals for their clients.
Design for accessibility to provide clients with opportunities to overcome their individual limitations and evolve a positive, confident attitude.
Help create a can-do place that would spark a can-do attitude.
I addressed each of the project’s simple goals by supplying brief reason statements such as these. The project team helped develop the guidelines, so they were already committed to them. The client responded by agreeing to go back to the budget and attempt to get reserve funds released to cover some of the expanded accessibility requirements. Demolishing and widening restrooms can get pricey. Doing this for more than the percentage of restrooms the code required takes real commitment. The county asked whether they could invite me to speak to potential donors about their county-wide program. Though they had previously told me they had little time available for this project, they requested an hour-and-a-half meeting on the following Wednesday to further review the research, so that they could use it to release grant funds for this project.
Gaining commitment to design guidelines can take many different paths, depending on the project and the people who are involved. It requires more than drafting a report or creating a list and handing it over to design teams, hoping they’ll follow them. However, when we apply our UX methods to our processes and begin to understand the user experience of the people who will utilize our findings and execute on our guidelines, gaining commitment becomes easier. When project constraints require us to make compromises, a project team that is truly dedicated to following user-centered design guidelines will have an easier time making user-centered choices.
Senior UX Researcher & Design Strategist at Taylor-Design
Trabuco Canyon, California, USA
As a Senior UX Strategist, Alesha employs design thinking and UX research to help improve the design of products, processes, services, and spaces. She has contributed research and design thinking to physical and digital properties and processes, including desktop, mobile, cloud, Web, and voice interfaces. She brings her high energy and enthusiasm for user-centered design to each new challenge and, thus, discovers the design opportunities that lie within. Alesha is a graduate of Kent State University’s User Experience Design Master’s program.