Thursday, September 15, 2011

Need Help with Your Design and Research?

I used to do a lot of design and research for companies. Don't get me wrong. I still do design and research, but I’ve recently made a pretty significant change.

I no longer do design and research FOR companies. I now do design and research WITH companies.

I promise this isn’t just semantic nonsense. It has a huge impact on my relationship with clients, and I think it has some good lessons for people who choose to work with outside UX help.

Give a Company a Fish

Let’s take a look at the typical experience you have when you hire a contractor or an agency. Typically, you give a lot of input to the contractor about what results you want, and the contractor goes off and produces something that hopefully fits those results. 

With a good contractor, you get a lot of discussion and iteration, but at the end, you get a design or a research report that somebody did for you. And that’s all you get.

If you want to change part of the design after the contractor is gone, you run the risk of making major mistakes, because you are very unlikely to understand all the decisions that were made in creating it. If you have a question about the research or want to do a quick follow up about something you learned, you don’t know how to do that yourself.

This means that the next time you want some research or design done, you need to hire somebody to do it for you again. This is great for the contractor, and it’s not bad for companies with big budgets, but it can be especially hard for startups.

Going Fishing Together

Last year, I decided to try a different model. When I was hired by clients, I came in and worked as part of the team. I was still doing the majority of the design and research, but I came in and worked at the office and tried to be integrated into the teams as much as possible.

That worked better than the old agency style I was used to. I had more contact with the engineers and product owners. We could iterate on the design faster because we were all in the same room. I learned far more about the product and users. Sometimes they learned a little about the design process.

Still, with some clients, I found that I was the only person in the room while doing customer research. I was the only one coming up with questions I wanted answered. I was still having to schedule design reviews rather than having everybody involved in the design process.

The worst part was that I was the only one learning anything about the customers. But they weren't MY customers!

Too often, what this meant was, when a project was over, everything at the company went right back to where it was before.

I started to look at why some projects ended this way, while in others, the companies seemed to incorporate good design and research skills into their own development process.

Teach a Company to Fish

Based on what I learned from the companies who improved, I have a different model now for all of my new clients. I’m helping companies learn to do more design and research on their own.

Instead of running a research study, I help product owners figure out what sort of research they need to do. I then help them plan it, execute it, analyze the data, and create actionable designs. If this were a sports team, I’d be a coach, not a ringer.

Of course, this does mean a lot more work for my clients. They have to figure out what questions they want answered. They have to talk to their customers. They have to do design work. They have to understand the process. It’s really hard, and not everybody wants to learn to do these things.

But the beauty of it is, once they’ve done it a few times, it all gets easier. It becomes part of the company process. More people in the company become interested in conducting research and creating designs.

Of course, eventually, my clients won’t need me any longer. It may not be the best business model, but I think it’s the best thing I can do for my clients.

What This Could Mean for You

This means that I can help you learn how to be better at research and design. For example, I can work with you on things like:

  • Which type of research is right for you at any given stage of your product development
  • How to plan that research correctly
  • How to moderate a user discussion properly
  • How to analyze your research results
  • How to create usable personas and write good user stories
  • How to turn research results into actionable designs
  • What changes you need to make to your product based on your results
  • When to use metrics and a/b testing in your design process
  • What to build now, what to test, and what to iterate on later

If you’re interested in any of those things, you should contact me at I’m happy to discuss the process in more detail and explain a typical engagement.