Step 1) Understand the ecosystem – PART 1

Regardless of the steps involved in creating the paper prototypes, an important point to understand is that one has to think visually. We are taught to think in a structured way, question and get answers in a logical way, conditioned to rationalize everything. That’s good. But you have to use imagination too – things that may defy the conventions and make you connect the dots. It’s okay if there are some things that remain unexplained, things that you cannot make connections with. Like all mysterious things, let the discovery awe you in the design process, while designing the product / service. You are not going to get all the answers at one go.

Whenever in doubt, bank upon your imagination and visualize those aspects that make things ‘believable’. When you understand the ecosystem, knowledge is as important as imagination.

Ecosystem could be a vast sea and probably you might be designing a very small yet significant part of it. E.g. In a financial institution like Citibank or HSBC, your design goal could be to optimize the online self-help documentation that will minimize the helpdesk telephone calls (eventually reducing the cost to the company). If you are new to finance domain, you are lucky. You could be in a position to imbibe the best knowledge of the finance world and design solution accordingly.

User experience designers often say that they design technology-agnostic and domain-agnostic solutions, i.e. whether is a life science project or a telecom project or any educational project, their design process & deliverables will remain the same. Regardless of the organization & the market segment, they work ‘horizontally’. However, there is no harm in being a little vertical about the domain. Having deeper insights about technology, undefined rules, sensing the interplay between different stakeholders will always help you.  We call this horizontal and vertical approach as the “T” approach – the alphabet signifying the horizontal direction designer undertakes project-wise (across all departments of the organization) and the vertical direction signifies the direction designer seeks domain-wise (deep probing a specific area). Team up with a systems engineer, a marketing expert, or corporate communications or public relations manager and get those great insights.

This T-approach will help you understand the ecosystem. Understanding is not just asking questions to stakeholders and users. Nor it is just about doing contextual inquiries of the users. It is also about sensing things. It is not reading and deducing the written material. It is also about ‘reading between the lines’. A designer already has the gift to imbibe things, a keen eye and attentive ear, an imaginative mind and visual thinking. To understand the ecosystem is to commission all the senses and orchestrate the data, information and the insights that one gathers from all the customer touch-points.

Remember Sherlock Holmes? Have you read ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’? Have you seen the Jason Bourne trilogy of movies? Its all the detective and spy stuff, which might excite one – all the protagonists of these fictions think and act differently. Their ‘view’ of the problem at hand and the ecosystem is what makes them successful.

So what is actually an ecosystem? It is the designer’s view of how he/she looks at the things that influence the design. This will tell the designer how certain things work. Who makes them work? What happens if a certain parameter is missed out? What will happen if the output is overshot? Will users abandon the ship if a certain task is vaguely defined?

There are many questions that one comes across in designer’s mind. As discussed earlier, there might be answers to few. For unanswered questions, it’s good to use your imagination. Some questions might be answered during the later stages of design (prototype iterations or user testing).

As a designer, you either facilitate or make a disruptive change to the system with your designs. Most designers take the pleasure in breaking the system by being in the system. That’s what ‘T-approach’ is all about.

In the next post, let’s look at some examples of mind-maps that define the ecosystem.