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How does a good designer operate? How can they understand users, challenge their own beliefs, and redefine problems to create effective prototypes?
This is what Bekah Diring, an interaction designer for Red Hat’s User Experience Design (UXD) team, asked a group of high school students. She and fellow designer Gina Doyle helped lead the first meeting of a UX workshop series for Boston Public School students run by visual designer Mary Shakshober. For years, Red Hat’s Boston office has collaborated with the Boston Private Industry Council to engage students with the tech industry through internships and mentoring programs. After participating as an intern mentor, Shakshober wanted to continue working with the program in a larger capacity.
She created this workshop series to share the importance of design thinking with students. "The design thinking process is a good way to kick off really any introduction to UX," Shakshober said. "It helps practitioners of UX to think holistically about a process, rather than associating it just with design. Design thinking also helps to build problem solving and communication skills too."
So what did these students learn? How can a UX designer work comprehensively to achieve success? To find the answer, we’ll look at the design thinking process.
What is design thinking?
In short, design thinking is the process of creating designs that solve real problems.
It’s easier said than done, of course. Design thinking is a multifaceted process involving five major areas of focus:
Empathize: Recognizing and removing your own biases, centering the user, and understanding them/ their problems through research.
Define: Use data from user research to define (or redefine) problem statements.
Ideate: Generate new ideas that center the users, their needs, and your problem statements.
Prototype: Produce mock-ups of your ideas to address each problem encountered in the design process.
Test: Share prototypes with users and gather feedback to begin a new iteration of the design process.
The five components of the design thinking process interact in complicated ways. The process isn’t a straightforward charge from one step to the next until you are finished. It’s nonlinear, cyclical and continuous. It’s flexible and dynamic. Most importantly, it’s iterative.
Feedback loops ensure that phases of the process inform each other, and end results are used to improve the process in iterations that follow. Users, users’ assumptions, and designers' assumptions are considered in each step of the process. And, because possible implications of solutions are carefully considered, the end result of a well-executed design process is a viable, holistic solution that works in the real world.
So what are these "feedback loops," and how do they work?
Simply put, feedback loops are a term used to define how results, or outputs, are used as new questions or ideas to input back into the process. They help us rethink not only our solutions, but our original problems as well.
Sometimes the data you gather will create new questions, or change existing ones; sometimes, you’ll learn something new about your users; and sometimes, you’ll realize that the prototypes you made were way off base. All of this is great— loop that feedback into the discussion again. Iterate, and use your previous experiences to improve. In the design thinking process, failure is simply another result you can use to create a better experience.
And it’s not just your testing phase that can create feedback loops, either. Maybe, when ideating, you realize you haven’t empathized with your users enough, and so you return to step one. Maybe your prototypes strike inspiration, and you go back to a brainstorming session. Or maybe your brainstorm isn’t productive, and you realize that’s because you haven't yet fully defined the problem. Whatever the case may be, iterating and re-examining previous steps can always be used to continue moving towards success.
How the design process improves UX
Besides the procedure itself, the design process teaches us valuable lessons about how to create UX that is more informed, more efficient, and more effective.
Collaboration: Working with others is a crucial component of the design process. It reminds us that we are stronger together, and that our team extends beyond the immediate people we work with to the people we work for: our larger organization and its users. The design process is inherently collaborative, and this teamwork lies at the crux success. As Diring said in the workshop: "The big part of creating these imaginative and helpful solutions is being able to bounce ideas off each other."
Centering the user: The design process also reminds us that what’s most important in UX is the U, the user. It’s not about quick and crummy solutions, or even whose solution it was anyway. It’s about the impact you have on your users and the experience you craft to create a connection with them.
Considering new perspectives: Living in our own bubbles (especially now, as we socially distance from one another) makes it easy to forget to look beyond ourselves. But the design process has our back. It makes sure that we are always being empathetic to new points of view, thinking beyond our own limited mindsets, and considering all users as we create innovative and inclusive solutions. It asks us to expand our world to include others not just because it will create a better product, but because it’s the right thing to do.
Working smarter: Feedback plays a key role in the design process. Being able to analyze information, synthesize knowledge, and recognize patterns in team and user feedback is crucial to success. By being critical, inquisitive, and persistent, we can achieve great things.
Iteration: Yeah, you were told that "if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again" a whole bunch growing up, but there’s a reason for that. Iteration works. Failing and learning from failure creates growth. As UXers, iteration is the crux of who we need to be and how we can better ourselves and our products.
Our UX workshop for BPS students isn’t the only way we’ve engaged with our community! Take a look at our OpenShift Troubleshooting Workshop and our collaboration with the BU Spark program and see how the open source spirit is at the heart of everything we do.
About the author
Jake Phillips is a User Experience Writing Intern working with the UXD content team at Red Hat. He is a 2017 graduate of UMass Amherst currently attending the University of Massachusetts, Boston as a Poetry MFA candidate. At his internship, he enjoys writing thought leadership articles, working across design teams, and analyzing UX through case studies. Outside of work, he enjoys playing video games, reading books, and—of course— writing poetry.