4 Things I Learned in my First Semester at MSI, Umich

Ningdan Zhang
6 min readJan 9, 2020


Now it’s -10°C outside

1. Can you solve a problem without designing a new product?

SI501(Contextual Inquiry and Consulting Foundations) is a required course for every SI student. Every team would work with a real-world client, identify the client’s problem and deliver a recommendation report as the final project. As I started this course, I struggled in understanding the value of consulting: what is the difference we’re making, if all these efforts don’t end up with a new PRODUCT?

After I’ve talked to friends from different background about my confusion, I came to this analogy — Product designers are like medicinal chemists, we solve problems by exploring new solutions. Consults are like doctors, they solve problems by figuring out the best solution among the existing ones.

An analogy helped me understand the value of consulting

For consulting, the solution can be anything: it can be a new product, but more often, it’s about redistributing responsibilities, pivoting business strategy, choosing one tool over another, and in some cases, keep everything unchanged. When designing a new product, all these seemingly irrelevant solutions should be considered as competitors, and that's how we figure out where the core value is.

2. Do the math

September, I took a design jam hold by Adobe XD and IBM, the topic was to designing for global warming.

We decided to focus on the creative process itself, as we all feel guilty throwing hundreds of sticky notes into the dustbin after every brainstorm session. Our solution was a digital post-it app that supports real-time and cross-device collaboration. Here is how it looks like:

It’s called Digi Post :)

The idea sounds kind of cool to me… until I do the math(which we didn’t do back then) —

  • From the point of energy consumption, a tree can make roughly 75,000 sticky notes and a lot of sticky notes are making from recycling materials. An individual can save the same amount of carbon emission of 100 sticky notes by walking instead of driving.
  • From the point of running a business, let’s suppose 1 designer can consume 2,000 sticky notes per year, that’s 20 stacks in total. A 24-stack box of sticky notes costs around $20 on Amazon and $13 in Costco. In order to convince a large group of users to use it, the monthly fee should be as low as $1 per user. Also, consider the long-tail effect: most sticky notes users are not heavy consumers as designers so they will be free riders.

I’ve never liked math for a single moment in my 22 years of life, especially the four desperate years when I studied electronic engineering. But now, for the first time in my life, I find math interesting to play with, for mainly two reasons — First, third-grade math is enough for designers. And second, numbers can be really, really, really helpful:

  • Numbers can test whether a problem is legitimately framed (like I did above).
  • Numbers can make an argument way less debatable than words.
  • Numbers can be a bridge: because scale defines design, different amounts of data inevitable result in different designs, and specific designs can only hold a specific amount of data. That reminds me of a classic design challenge: designing a user interface for an elevator in a 1000-floor building. There are many solutions on the internet, here is how I approach it by doing the math:
How do you design an interface for a 1000-floor building?

3. Look for structures, not data

This is a trick I learned when I was working on my semester-long personal project. At that time I’ve finished the wireframe and was about to start the visual design. Like usual, I opened Dribbble and Behance, taking screenshots for every eye-catching shot and keep them as references.

As I was doing this, my teacher walked over. He suggested I stop browsing and instead, make a list of all the components I needed.

I made the list as he suggested, and magic happened — even if I’m looking at the exact same shot, without that list, I see only attractive color combinations and playful effects. With that list, I suddenly had an opinion on everything I’m looking at: Is this design scalable? How far can I go with this style? What has the designer intentionally avoided?

After that, I no longer take ‘gathering inspirations on Dribbble and Behance’ as an everyday routine. Rather, I only spend time browsing things when I have a bullet list of things that I need to figure out. It helped me save a lot of time. More importantly, I started to have more and more opinions about everything I see.

Now, my ‘looking for inspiration’ workflow looks like this:

To sum up, by making that list, I am able to shift my focus from ‘gather data points’ to ‘find underlying structures’. In academic research, they’re two discrete steps. But the human brain is powerful in understanding other human beings, we can do the two steps at the same time, as long as we know what we are looking for.

4. From an idea-driven designer to problem-driven designer

For a long time I’ve been attracted by fancy ideas: can we build a relationship with someone by raising a virtual pet together? Can we feed everything we recycled to a little, virtual monster so it can grow a unique superpower? Can we use little planets as a metaphor for a social network between introverts? I can feel my internal obsession with creativity is so strong that sometimes I would kill my baby ideas if they’re not ‘creative’ in an eye-catching way.

However, after presented an eye-catching idea in a design competition and didn’t win, I started to question myself and ended up with a sad conclusion: UX is not a creative industry. I even questioned my identity as a designer, when I realized that so many methods we were learning were actually first used by marketing people…

After a lot of cooking, showering and wandering time, I found an explanation that works for me:

  1. Design has two-phase: at the very beginning, designers are driven by great ideas and after that, designers are driven by problems.
  2. People(not designers) often overestimate the effort in generating ideas and underestimate the effort in solving problems. When they admire the wild imagination of a poster, they’ve hardly imagined how much time the graphic designer spent on adjusting the kerning.
  3. UX designers sometimes join the project after the great idea is settled: whereas other designers, like graphic and fashion designers, are more likely to experience the journey as a whole.

Design is about solving problems — Even if I’ve seen this sentence for a thousand times, I still feel different every time I look back to it.

Hope that makes sense to you:) If you’re looking for more information and opinions about the MSI program, feel free to contact me: ningdan@umich.edu