Friday, November 16, 2007

A Scientific Method of Designing

  1. Finding Need in the Market
  2. Targeting a Customer Segment
  3. Identifying Use Cases of Ideal Solution
  4. Prioritizing via Functional Limitations 
  5. Creating an Information Architecture
  6. Modularize Layout of UI
  7. Designing Efficiency of Interaction

Let me cut you off right there. You are correct. There is no hard science behind design. However without some framework, design is downright impossible. Let’s leverage the best practices of business, engineering, and visual arts to deliver the richest experience to our end-user.

A Seemingly Useless Epiphany

People need a place to live.

   Let’s face it. We encounter so many problems every day. Technology hasn’t made us less stressed or happy; rather, it has given us higher expectations of what the world should deliver. Lucky for us designers, technology only creates more opportunities for innovation. There is no shortage of problems and neither is there a shortage of ideas. Thus, finding a need in the market is really a matter of identifying a single group of issues that can be met with an innovative, elegant solution from technology.

A Need in the Market

People need to be able to find a place to live.

   More than likely, you’ll find almost everyone can benefit to a solution to the problems you encountered. Well due to evolution or some higher power, we are not all created equal but somehow we fit into nice groups we can call demographics. Each demographic has it’s own constraints, whether financially, technically, or even accessibly. By “discriminating,” you now have the ability to target a niche. Thus you have the upper hand to compromise less and deliver the highest utility to the select rather than compromise completely and deliver a lower utility to everyone. All in all, your goal is to compromise the least in order to provide that rich experience to as many users as possible.

A Customer Segment

American technical 20-somethings need to be able to find a place to live.

   Now it’s time to think big. You must identify all the circumstances and objectives you can satisfy with your innovation. By targeting a customer segment, you have the ability to cater to their needs and wants. At this point, you should not get bogged down in the details but instead identify objectives, features, and other consumer-friendly uses of your ideal solution. Remember, for each problem you solve, consumers will want to reach that solution more efficiently and effectively.

Use Cases of an Ideal Solution

These people want to be able to access an online tool 
to find a place to live optimized for their 
finances, activities, locations, fun, and overall happiness.

   Then, it hits you. You remember you’re still living in the blossoming present, not the rosy future. (Municipal Wi-Fi is still five years away like it was five years ago.) The use cases you identified are what your target customer wants. Since you have a target customer, his or her use cases are not a result of any compromise yet. Instead, you have the ability to prioritize the use cases based on functional limitations. Not everything can be done with the technology of today. However by prioritizing what you know what you can deliver today, you have essentially identified what you may be able to better deliver tomorrow. By now you have created a matrix of use cases, ordered by importance to the user coupled with the roadmap of when you can deliver on those solutions.

Prioritizing via Functional Limitations

There is no measure of happiness but there is a measure of finances 
e.g. personal online banking information.

   With a fixed set of use cases, you can figure out the most efficient paths for users to achieve their end result. By crawling into the mind of our target user, we can trace the steps he or she would take. Many of the use cases will have common steps and lead toward a complex web of information. By creating a hierarchy of these steps and connecting commonalities, information architecture will follow.

Information Architecture from Prioritized Use Cases

Housing > Finances > What I can afford > With Loans > With Interest
Housing > What I can afford (with loans with interest)

   Here’s the tricky part. A path for a common use case may have a long series of steps. If you were to directly map the information architecture into a hierarchy-based UI, your user would be very inefficient in achieving this task. One solution is to minimize this issue, by providing a “shortcut” to this action (or actions via a group). Each of these shortcuts take away from the organized structure you tried to map from your information architecture. However, these shortcuts are a necessary evil. By modularizing your UI, you can properly distinguish your shortcuts (and groups of shortcuts) from your hierarchy to help users gain quick access to solutions to common use cases while at the same time providing a logical path to other solutions.

Modularization of the UI

Hierarchy: Optimize finance, Optimize activities, Optimize distance
Shortcuts: Automatically optimize everything based on my online information

   Just by segmenting the layout of the UI, the interaction does not automatically become optimized for efficiency. This is where usability and benchmarking takes place. Obviously, we are not the target customers so we should not take our own wisdom as the final say. Getting target users involved early in the process leads to more user-centered design. This prevents usability “fixes” and supports an elegant solution from the beginning.

Each of these six topics may deserve their own blog post but at the same time, it is necessary to have a general yet clearer idea of the issues that must be considered in design. By communicating a process, I hope to initiate discussion of the larger topics that fit into each step. This framework may be referenced in future threads as a starting point for further discussion. 



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