My design compass—research, analysis, and design

What is my design process?

I’ve considered design is a linear and formulated process, which is similar to pure science and allows people to reproduce the outcome. However, after years of practicing and reflection from the time in college and as a UX researcher, to the assignments and learnings at Indiana University, I learned design is a dynamic and organic process. For a controlled environment, it is easy to follow well-established steps to generate a design outcome, but things are always not going that smoothly in a wild environment. Even so, would it be the best outcome?

I take design as climbing toward a mountain’s peak with my road bike. I know where I should go and what I should do. It is not because I’m familiar with the road situation or how confident I am on the bike, but because I know the direction toward the peak and I have a sense of where I am. Same as design, I’m confident in the design because I know where I am. The compass in my mind enhances the possibility for me to achieve the best design outcome.

In short, my design process depends on the project and the situation I face. My compass would lead to my process.

My design compass

In another course Design Theory, taught by Professor Erik, while I discovered who I am and what I value as a designer, one interesting scheme emerged to me, my design compass. Imagining there is a huge map to our projects, there are two areas on it — problem space and solution space. Depending on the project and situation we face, we may be sure about the details on the map or not. Sometimes a fog shows up, and we barely could see the route. In a similar situation, I learned to develop my compass to avoid getting lost in those two huge spaces.

My compass has three marks — research, analysis, and design. They all correspond uniquely to my design projects and drive me to take different approaches, methods, mindsets to deal with the uncertainty.

The research is to understand the pain points and issues, empathize with stakeholders, and realize constraints or limitations. The analysis is to discover possible patterns, build a comprehensive understanding, and define focuses and design goals. The design is to brainstorm ideas and construct interfaces, flows, prototypes, you name them. The compass allows me to have a sense of what can I do right now, and next. Moreover, when we hold our compass and surf in the map, we bounce between the problem and solution space, dynamically and purposefully.

Atomic design methods

In the course Interaction Design Methods, our professor Shaowen mentioned we should view the methods on our hand holistically but not piecemeal, and described the relationship among epistemology, methodology and methods is like a tree, rooting underground and flourishing to multiple branches. To achieve this analysis outcome, I proposed we can unbundle the attributes of the current methods we use and then bundle some of the attributes into a maybe new method, the invented one. There are always at least two attributes in a method — focus and approach.

Focus: What do we want to know? What kind of data do we have? Some examples include behaviors, attitudes, opinions, documents, artifacts, physical traces, the affordance of an object, the relationship between artifacts, and social relationships, etc.

Approach: How do we discover the unknown? Some examples include listening, observing, photoing, filming, writing, program recording, in-person activities, virtual activities, numbering, mapping, modeling, matrixing, etc.

With a combination of selected attributes, we can see a method presented. For example, we have contextual inquiry if we want to mainly focus on people’s behaviors, artifacts, and physical place, with an inquiring approach where the researchers and designers are listening to, observing, and photoing in person. Maybe in the future, we would have a new method that we could actively conduct a photoing activity virtually with the people around the globe to understand their behaviors and relationship between themselves and their artifacts.

No matter we are unbundling an existing method or bundling a new one, we are always defining the two core attributes and have a belief in doing this with people to empathize them better, to help them voice themselves, to empower them to tackle their issues or fulfill their needs.

Methods that surprise me

I would like to nominate methods I’ve learned in the course, and that gives me a fresh look at what I used to do as a UX researcher.

Brainstorming and critique methods: Design is learning. In the program, I had a lot of chances to learn from our cohorts and others. Besides receiving stand-up critiques or virtual feedback, we’ve practiced methods like “yes, let’s”, “metaphor ball”, and “speed dating” to ideate and iterate our idea efficiently and effectively. I used to be a person struggling on being grounded-ly crazy while brainstorming, and these methods help me a lot.

Visioning and futuring: Design is creating possibilities. One of the ambitious ways is to portray the picture of what we think the future is. We’ve learned the concept of speculative design and written design fiction to envision the smart and connected communities in the future. I just realized that I once tried this method in a smart healthcare project I did during my UX researcher experience. Both try to predict the future by studying the social context and technical development. The big difference between both is that the one in this course pictures what could go wrong to provoke audiences’ further reflection.

Nature-centered design: Design is being inclusive. When I talked about empathy, I always related it to human-centered design; however, in this semester we’ve touched the topics from multi-species ethnography to sustainability, which allows me to consider being sustainable is not only a need from humans but a requirement from the planet, the plant, and the animal. Although I still choose to focus on human-centered design in my career development, I will put sustainability into consideration and draw broader stakeholders in my design.

More deep dive can be found in my design notebook, a holistic reflection on 25 design methods—

At the very end, I want to give special thanks to Professor Shaowen and all kind and helpful AIs — Trisha, Yuhao, Ankita for their effort in making the transition to virtual classes smoothly, especially when we all were distracted by the crisis. It’s great to learn with great classmates for the whole semester!

And thank you for reading so far. I would love to learn from your comment. What’s your design compass? Feel free to leave your thoughts below and stay safe and well. 🙌

Aspiring designer studying HCI and design at IUB・