The product designer’s superpower

Jaye Hackett
Dec 1, 2019 · 2 min read

Handwavium is a word I love.

When you’re reading/watching a speculative fiction story, and the writer throws up their hands, waves them around and says, “portals between worlds” or “faster than light travel” — that’s handwavium. 👋

I see it a lot in a work context too.

On a recent project, we found ourselves going in circles, discussing the same buzzwords over and over. Here, the value-add was was “personalisation”, which you can replace with “AI”, “blockchain” or any other trendy tech concept.

It soon became clear that we all had different ideas of what that was. There were four questions that became my own personal mantra:

  • “How will we personalise that exactly?”
  • “What will we know about the user by this point”
  • “How are we going to collect that information about them?”
  • “If we’re collecting that information openly, how do we explain the value upfront?”

But being faced with these again and again makes a team weary. It also quickly gets me an unhelpful reputation as a pessimist (I’m not).

The normal definition of a prototype, in the UX/design sense, is a quick, disposable version of an idea that we can use to test assumptions with real users.

But visualising ideas also focuses a team’s attention and shapes their conversations. It makes constraints obvious, both in terms of what’s logically possible, and what users will accept. It’s probably the very best way to do those things.

Seeing the different ways we could collect data about user preferences (a swipeable stack of “I feel…” statements? a “was this helpful?” prompt at the end of every chunk of content?) drives handwavium out of the project.

In this case, making those prototypes showed us exactly where the creepy line is, so we could be certain not to cross it.

This is why it’s vital to have visual people (read: product designers) on your team early on, even in the problem-scoping discovery phases.

We’re the ones most likely to show, rather than just tell — it’s our superpower.

Jaye Hackett

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