One thing all startups have in common is low head counts and audacious goals. Throw in a perpetual feeling of time running out and you get tunnel vision – a dangerous condition to be in when you’re trying to validate your big idea.
For the past 6 months, my goal has been to build out a design function at Nory. One that does away with the notion of a design “team” and instead embraces the idea that everyone’s decisions are design decisions, simply because they affect the customer.
This article breaks the process down into three steps, but reality was rarely so linear. I repeated the three-step approach over multiple sprints, always making sure to bring a teammate along.
If you have a feeling that drawing rectangles alone and showing them to your team every other week isn’t really your jam, read on!
Step 1: Read (the knowledge in) the room
I was lucky. The team have been engaged in discovery long before I joined: validating the big idea and speaking to our users and choosers – we’re B2B, after all – about the pain points of running a restaurant. There was plenty of knowledge gathered, but very little of it was structured or validated. Like these deliverables from a persona workshop:
Insights like these require foundational knowledge to be put into action. Also, if you’re a design thinking consultant who encourages participants to think about their persona’s favourite dessert, there is a special level of hell for you.
Empathy maps don’t tell you where the big problems come from, and persona cards tell you next to nothing about the day-to-day. Sure, I saw Austin the Ops Director lacked visibility into decisions on the ground and Isabel the GM couldn’t take a day off without being bothered by her team. Why, though?
Collect the knowledge from your subject matter experts and teammates, but rather than having them think about outputs (e.g. we’re building a persona!) or specific insights (e.g. communication is fragmented), look at broad themes and keep the conversation somewhat basic. What does a restaurant manager do every week? What does a good day look like? A great team?
This makes for a great synthesis workshop. Watch out for questions like “Does it always happen like this?” or “How do they get around that problem?” – it’s your bat signal, calling you out of your office and into the kitchen to talk to people working on the ground.
Step 2: I do, we do, you do
This is the part where you, the employee with “designer” in their title, makes use of our superpower – facilitation.
Some of your colleagues have done discovery interviews in a professional setting. Others prefer informal chats or just aren’t all that outgoing. But even though you’re short on UX researchers (side note: ever seen a startup team that included a researcher?) you still need everyone making good product decisions.
How can we make sure that the quality of the knowledge we gather is consistent and points us in the right direction? Remember the themes you just uncovered? That’s your conversation fodder. And people love to talk about their life so you’ve got your job cut out for you. You need help though – an informal chat can go into tangents in a blink of an eye.
That’s where an interview script comes in handy. It’s best that the designer (or a person with the most interviewing experience) takes a first stab at the script. It’s vital there are always two people from your organisation at every interview – preferably one who’s brand new to customer research paired up with someone who’s done it before. One asks the questions included in the script, the other takes notes and jumps in to clarify the more interesting bits. Taking notes and recording the conversation might feel like overkill, but try it a couple of times and see how the notetakers’ understanding of customer problems grows – you’d be surprised how effective it is.
Ideally, your script will include an intro and an outro, as well as highlights of what to listen out for, when to probe a little bit more and, yes, when to politely ask for permission to record the conversation. In the absence of a kick under the table, this is the part that needs a reminder most often!
Step 3: Everyone’s a designer
The moment you make a product decision, you’re designing the product. In larger organisations, the person with the official title might end up merely documenting others’ decisions using pixels, but at Nory our designers strive for effective facilitation of the design process rather than churning out Figma files.
Gauging teammates’ understanding of the customer problem and frequently reaching out to collect ideas and feedback is a must. Time zones may pose a problem (team stretching from Vancouver to Seoul may be easy to feed with two pizzas but the delivery times are complex), but every single ideation session can be adapted to be run remotely.
Our design studios involve posting pictures of sketches in Miro, wireframing with ready-made components or simply writing out flows on stickies – geographical location and time notwithstanding. A workshop may need an extra 30mins of pre-planning and stretch over 24hrs when done async, but each participant puts in the same amount of time as they would in a face-to-face situation, and the facilitator responds to questions through Slack rather than in person.
We realised quite quickly that the key to running effective remote workshops and critiques was not in-person collaboration, but the level of knowledge each participant has. While setting up a Miro board, the facilitator makes sure instructions are clear and information that may be needed during the session is readily available. This may seem obvious, but once context is there, every participant makes better decisions!
Onwards and upwards
In December 2018, Jared Spool famously rubbed designers the wrong way by proclaiming that “Everyone is a designer. Not everyone is a good designer. Everyone can become a better designer.” At Nory, we embrace this idea wholeheartedly – we’re all building the product together, and should all be doing so with an expert understanding of the people we are building for.