Why Design Thinking?
Since the rise of User Experience Design in software development, the practice of “Design Thinking” has become widely applied in every aspect of the business. Design thinking is not a methodology used by only artists (don’t let the word ‘design’ fool you), but also by everyone who solves problems with a human-centered approach. The rise of this field can be explained by the rapid advancement as well as the saturation of new technology. As end-users of technologies, we have come to realize that fancy-looking tools cannot guarantee our satisfaction because we have barely spent enough time to study our actual needs and goals as well as our thinking and working habits. Most of the time we don’t know what we really need because we lack the tool to get beyond our words and into our unconscious behaviors. That is where design thinking comes into the picture.
In the business intelligence world, user experience plays an even more important role. First, both IT and business users are overwhelmed with tool options, which are, more often than not, costly to implement and complicated to use. BI Vendors are good at creating ‘buzz words’ and promising new fancy functionalities. It becomes very important for organizations to then really understand their users need to pick the right tool and make the right investment. Secondly, most BI end-users are still consuming a large amount of data and spending a lot of time crunching the data manually to get to their answer. If only they could spend more time using the insights from data to act on what they are good at! User experience is the missing piece that improves the efficiency of the collaboration between IT and business.
The good news is the concepts in the field of user experience design are no jargons to anyone. Those are the very basic and intuitive, yet critical points that we often forget to dig deep into. Here are some of the elements of UX that you might want to focus on in your next requirement gathering session:
You are a designer with creative power whether you admit it or not. You have been doing it unconsciously every day of your life. You are the designer of your day: waking up early to catch the morning meeting, eating a little less to keep your weight under control, or hanging your keys near the door so you don’t forget it etc. Most of your behavior in your daily life is designed by you to achieve a goal, whether small or big. Goals and objectives are very important guidelines in a design process and they are the first things you need to get right. This might sound like a paradox, but to be creative, you need constraints. In other words, to think outside the box, you first need a box. These constraints will make sure your creative efforts are spent towards a practical and meaningful purpose. The focus on human needs in UX implies that we are starting to realize the only thing we need to focus on, in our creation: values for users.
What usually goes wrong in BI projects is people lose track of their objectives – Why did we do this in the first place? The only way for these objectives to stick is to make them relatable to everyone involved. In other words, those objectives need to solve users’ current problems and more importantly, they should be deeply aware of that.
While identifying the goal and objective of a project, we should not include the tool. The objective is not “create dashboard/report for the Marketing Team”. It should be something like “Provide real-time access of Marketing Metrics across Brand Management, Demand Creation and Fulfillment to the Marketing Team”. The value of the final product needs to be recognized upfront.
Here are a few points to keep in mind while identifying goals and objectives:
- Spend a lot of time clarify the scope, goals, and objectives of the project. Try to use simple verbiage to make sure everyone can relate to it.
- Identify users’ specific problems from different perspectives. The solutions to these problems need to be addressed in the objectives of the project.
- Make sure all project stakeholders understand the values of the solution you are designing, whether it is to save time or save money. More importantly, they need to understand their personal gains. For example, business users can have more frequent access to data and data analyst can save time on manual data extraction and aggregation tasks.
- Keep the list of objectives to a maximum of 5 and prioritize them according to users’ need.
Iteration is a critical part of the design process. It helps teams realize that the design process is cyclic and that the solution is constantly evolving. This idea encourages team members to generate feedbacks and ideas contributing to improving the product. The core of iteration dictates that there is no final solution but iteration. But of course, we cannot count the success of the design by the number of iteration cycles. Gathering and analyzing feedback is also important for the final solution to move in the right direction. To achieve this, goals and objectives need to be clearly defined at the beginning and constantly reflected upon. These constraints should also provide guidance on what is a good enough iteration that can go live.
Thinking Out Loud
For the chosen iteration to work, we need a way to communicate our ideas and test our actual behavior with a product to generate useful feedback. That is why wireframes, mock-ups, storyboarding and prototype play important roles in the designing thinking process.
Putting down your thoughts on paper is a great way to think. Never underestimate the power of a pen and a piece of paper. It lets you see and evaluate your thoughts from a different perspective – an outsider. Drawing out your thoughts also helps others understand it better. Why spend a lot of words trying to describe when you can use the skill of kinder gardeners to draw some shapes and lines. Once you get your idea out of your head and create a tangible object – like a sketch, you make it open-source. It means you welcome others to develop and iterate upon your idea. Don’t be afraid to sketch, you have a better chance of keeping people’s attention by drawing rather than speaking only.
Sketches are used to generate quick and simple ideas such as visualization. Each sketch is to address one specific problem to be solved.
- If possible, make whiteboard, paper sheets, markers and sticky notes available during your meeting. Be a leader and initiate this visual thinking
- Encourage everyone to express their ideas by improvising upon each other’s drawing
- Take pictures or document all these artifacts to reflect on the ideation journey later
When you combine small ideas to make a more comprehensive and structured product, you create a wireframe. The wireframe also shows how you organize the content, components as well as functionalities within the dashboard. It provides the big picture of your UI. Structure and coherency are the keys in a wireframe: how you combine small answers to make a comprehensive solution.
This approach frees the human’s creativity by combining a psychological helper: story-telling. This story is about your users. A lot of times, the focus of the developer is on how this application functions, while they need to think more about the user’s journey. Storyboarding starts with interviewing your users about their daily tasks performed along the scope of the problem your dashboard is trying to address. There are a few questions to consider:
- What do they need to accomplish with the data given?
- What questions do users want to answer with the data?
- What insights prompt them to act?
- What actions do they take?
Then attempt to write a short story describing the process that users go through like a narrative. Here is an example story of a Product QA Manager:
When a certain product has defects and has been sent back for the quality issue, the quality manager would start by searching for the serial number. This search will return the Part Number related to this product. His experience will tell him which part component to investigate, given the reported issue. The user then looks for the testing history of this part: on which production lines, which testers, and what were the errors that occurred. He needs to contact the testing engineer in charge regarding the errors. To do that, he needs more details from the error log: which gives him the detail of who oversaw testing in that line at the time when the error occurred.
It will even be more effective when you can get the user to tell the story with specific names as an example. That way users will feel more involved and can relate more easily to the story.
The next step is to illustrate the story through a storyboard, which consists of different screens to illustrate the steps that users go through. The focus of storyboarding is the flow, which needs to follow the users’ task-flow closely.
A further step is to build a prototype. In the scope of our discussion on BI, this refers to an interactive application. The focus of the prototype is the users’ interaction with the tool, from which we can learn about their unconscious behavior as well as how the tool can help users achieve their goals more efficiently. Because prototyping is a part of the iteration process, we need to churn it out as quick as possible. Therefore, our focus is not on aesthetic elements or quality of code, but rather, on demonstrating interaction and workflow. The closer the content of the prototype is to the real-life scenario, the more useful becomes the feedback from users, because they can better relate to it.
All the methodologies listed above serves two purposes: encourage individual creative confidence and facilitate collaboration. The first initiative to take part in the design thinking revolution is to believe in your own creativity. It might have been a long time since you last built something out of Lego bricks or made sketches, but it is human nature to create and it will always be there. Furthermore, communicating ideas verbally and visually is an essential skill that helps you evaluate your own ideas as well as collaborate with others. At the end of the day, well-defined goals and objectives will keep the creative process on track towards the creation of meaningful values.