Let’s Build Experiences, Not Documentation

This is an exciting time to be involved in the design and development of web and mobile experiences. While we may have not seen the effects yet, this is a time of real change. Right now, business thinkers, designers and technologists are sharing a common epiphany. They are sensing in one way or another, that the best way to build digital products and services is to iterate with agile, informal methods, rather than structured processes.

Building and Designing To Learn and Valide

The initial cues of this shift are small, casual signs of a larger movement at hand: lean startup conferences, agile UX meetups, and impassioned Twitter and blog chatter. Different groups may have separate nomenclature, from Customer Development to Lean UX. Regardless of the nuances between these terms, the overall sentiment is the same: rapid, collaborative cycles of designing, building, and validating results offers valuable user feedback and results in a better product.

For digital design firms and agencies, this discovery may not be widely accepted yet, but it is especially relevant. In the current agency model, teams bill clients for copious upfront exploration and documentation. Customers and end-users never directly engage with this documentation, and developers and designers themselves are questioning that disconnect. Why spend months in a war room discussing strategy and design concepts internally, when you can instead share a prototype with a customer.

This extends to large corporate IT departments, and even some startups or smaller digital product companies, too. Many have a real need for stakeholder buy-in, and extensive documentation plays into that need. But this begs the question: what do you find more persuasive at the ned of the day, beautiful wireframes, or a rough yet functional coded experience?

Along with a shift in process, there is also a growing acknowledgement that software development is not the same as hardware development, or the construction of static physical structures. For example, once an office building is complete, you don’t then ask the designers to switch the third and seventh floors. Iron and concrete may represent permanence, but code, pixels, and the flow of an experience can always stay fluid.

One Constant in Software Design: There is No Constant

That being said, there is no one ideal approach to web or software development. Every project has its own subtleties. But can the concept of a Lean/Agile movement apply to any scope or budget? Absolutely. Imagine for a moment, building a massive service platform, and contrast that in scope to creating a single-feature mobile app. These two projects have drastically different budgets and team structures, but regardless: the quicker you experiment, test and fail on any one portion, the quicker you’ll arrive at a better solution, and with deeper understanding.

What does this then mean for those of us who work in a UX design role? For a long time, designers have been responsible for delivering static assets. UX designers in particular have relied largely upon the skills of documentation. IA and UX has been treated as a deliverables-based domain, and practitioners have been valued for the quality of the documents they create. Wireframes provided screen-level details, interaction states, and illustrated the hierarchy of importance among these elements. But for any project aiming to build a self-contained digital experience, the final output is an interactive system, not documentation.

It’s worth noting that the digital experiences built today are more complex from a design perspective than ever before. We are crafting experiences that are increasingly non-linear (a variety of entry/exit points), contextual (mobile vs. desktop, discover vs. purchase), and malleable (dependent on user interaction). With all this complexity, no wonder some practitioners are finding more value in prototyping rather than documenting. You simply can’t capture all of the nuanced fidelity and edge cases of an experience in a flat document.

This is About a Shift In Mindset

If we take a step back for a moment, and think about this new lean approach to our work, we may notice an even broader macro context in today’s world. The dramatic shift of economies and businesses around us over the past few years has led to strapped budgets and uncertain futures. The uncertainty of our era welcomes experimentation. It jives with an approach that is quick and agile, ready to shift direction as needed. Agile approaches make sense from a purely more micro team dynamic view as well.

As design leaders, we are responsible for guiding collaboration, and shepherding thinking that will connect a high-level vision down to executional details. It is our responsibility to be curious, open and logical, never dogmatic. Our output needs to shift towards collaborating closely with developers, embracing new approaches like designing in-browser, and making quick decisions in response to unexpected user feedback.

Change can be both painful and exhilarating. All of us surely have strong views about this, one way or another. Let’s keep an open, curious mind. This is an incredibly exciting time to use our design skills and tech savvy to shape not just the end user experience, but also the path that gets us there.