Customer Experience and Design

Thinking vs. Knowing: Research and Design for Project Planning

shutterstock_271851098-350We all know how important it is to gather user feedback during the discovery and development phases of a project. Taking the time to determine business requirements seems to be a standard practice when planning large-scale development projects. What are the business goals? How much will it cost? What are the technical requirements? How long will it take to build and deploy?
Since user feedback is so valuable, why not take another step back and gather user input while the idea is still a seed, even before the project is fully formed? Before development, before discovery, while the project idea is being tossed around, why not use those insights to help define what the project should be?
Research is often introduced during the discovery phase, after the business has figured out what type of project is needed and early decisions have been made. However, there is value in introducing research and developing design concepts even earlier in the process. Before making a decision about the type of project or a solution, there should be a solid understanding of the problems to be solved.
Sometimes user input is viewed as not as important, often perceived as less valuable or separate from business needs. Larger projects are often planned with minimal user insight and consideration because user input “takes too much time” and “is good to know but not so important.”
Gathering user perspectives prior to deciding to plan a project, discovering user needs and exploring possible solutions is more than a nice-to-have. There can often be a resistance to pursuing user input, to taking the time to uncover user needs and requirements. But to truly understand the user’s journey doesn’t require massive effort. Taking a few weeks to explore, plan and define can save much rework and frustration further in the process. Omitting research from the project planning phase means you could be designing a solution that only addresses part of a larger challenge. Knowing as much about a challenge prior to designing a solution is helpful. Even if all issues can’t be addressed, it’s good to be aware of them and consider how your solution will impact those broader issues.  Then, during project discovery, a deeper dive into a specific project area, digging into the “problem space” can be done through additional research and design efforts.
Stakeholder and user input through process and journey mapping and contextual interviews help uncover tasks and processes within the organization that will impact the application. Understanding a user’s journey is critical during the planning phase. Understanding an organization’s culture is also important because it has a direct impact on processes and perception. Stressing the importance of exploration and keeping an open mind, not trying so much to define a problem and solution, but simply allowing freedom and flexibility to uncover and explore challenges lends itself to more creative, innovative solutions.
During the planning phase, there are a few activities and perspectives to consider:
Stakeholder and User Input. Interviews with potential project sponsors, advocates and users allow them to articulate their vision, have a voice and understand the process. What should be accomplished? What is the perceived need? This is the starting point, where the planning process is fully explained and expectations are shared and aligned.
Ecosystem mapping. Process mapping describes the business process end-to-end. What actions are required to achieve a goal? How does the user interact with the system? What rules must be applied for a successful outcome?  What decisions does the user make during the process, and how will the system respond? Ecosystem mapping goes beyond the basics to understand the entire system, not just a single workflow or a few tasks. A holistic view of the system environment and decisions that must be made will better define the solution.
Ethnography. Site visits and user interviews add a layer of depth and provide additional context for tasks and processes discovered during journey mapping. They also provide insight into how users work, the environment for performing work, what is most important to users and why. Understanding the “Why” is important to figuring out the best design solution. Spending time with users, observing them and gathering more information about challenges and ideal experiences is critical to design. Ethnography allows you to develop a deep and rich understanding of the problem space that users encounter to create a user experience that not only solves their problems but that they recognize as solving their problems because it matches their expectations. Often, this information is discovered during usability testing, much later potentially too late in in the process, after considerable time and resources have been invested.
Exploratory Design. Storyboarding, future state journeys and conceptual designs. This is where ideas come to life. Users and stakeholders can experience the visual representation of an idea and react to it.
Every project should include some or all of these approaches in the planning stages. We know we should incorporate user feedback during the project discovery and through the design phase. The earlier the conversations start, the more likely you are to learn valuable information that will guide the planning and development of a successful solution. Knowing rather than thinking you know can make a positive impact on your project for the business and your users.
 

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