The Eternal Question of the Design Process

Design is not simple. At every step of the process there are dozens of activities you could be doing.

Exploratory Research Techniques

When you need to learn about the problem space, you have a binder full of exploratory research techniques to employ. When you start transitioning your research data into an analysis document, you need to decide how to capture everything you learned. When it’s time to create draft solutions, you can choose any number of tools and approaches to capture your thinking.

For every tool, methodology, and technique out there you can find several thousand advocates telling you why you should be using it. There are myriad blog posts and twitter threads selling us on the virtue of one approach over another. With all this chatter and noise in the world, how do you possibly choose what you should use for a particular project?

Since there is no ‘one’ answer for every situation, you need a touchstone. You need something that can keep you grounded and thinking about the context of your particular project. For me, I look at what I call ‘The eternal question of design process’. Whenever I am about to embark on an activity or plan out a project, I continually ask one question to make sure I am setting out on the right path:

“How does this help me move towards a solution?”

That’s it. It’s simple but something that I still have to force myself to consider nearly every project. And asking this question repeatedly will have lots of positive implications on your product.

Intentional Effort

The high-level goal of everything we do is to get a product or service in the hands of users to make a positive impact in their lives (and the world at large). This is really the point of the eternal question. Every work activity we engage in should be driven towards that goal (socializing, networking, etc.. fill other personal life goals and are also important, but not related to the point). Activities that don’t help us achieve that goal are time wasters and can lead to inferior, more costly products.

How many meetings have we all toiled through with no tangible impact on the product? If you want to get rid of meeting waste, start with the eternal question. If you schedule a meeting, declare in the invite what you intend to accomplish (the goal of the meeting) and make sure you accomplish that. If you can’t come up with a great goal, that might be a good indication that your meeting will not be helping you come to a solution.

If you schedule a meeting, declare in the invite what you intend to accomplish (the goal of the meeting) and make sure you accomplish that.

If you are invited to a meeting, ask the meeting owner what the goal is. If they can’t come up with one, push back on the reason for the meeting. If they have one that doesn’t involve your skill set or may not have tangential relationship to helping you move towards a solution, it’s probably a good idea to sit it out. Both of these are a bit uncomfortable actions to take, but they will help the team over all.

Similarly when you are planning out an activity, consider what you will do with the information. For example, let’s say that you are ready to do some research. You gather some people together and hold some interviews. You decide that journey maps have been useful for you in the past, and figure that’s a good way to capture what you learn. Now think towards the next step. What will that journey map help you accomplish? How will this move you closer to a solution?

If you don’t have a clear idea in your head, perhaps the journey map is not the right decision for this project. Maybe you should be capturing your insights in another manner. Focusing on the eternal question helps prevent the production of artifacts for the sake of producing artifacts. Every thing you generate should have a purpose, whether it is to communicate, to drive a decision, or persuade someone on a course of action. It is important to move forward with intent rather than aimlessly wander through product design.