Here Be Dragons: Slaying The Beasts of Confusion

Issue 8

Ever since our ancestors huddled in caves some 30–40,000 years ago, tracing handprints on the walls, sketching animals and other predators, humans have used images to instruct, to initiate others in a kind of learning, to build worlds, and to reveal an understanding. Or maybe a handprint is just a handprint. Let’s not read too much into it.

Drawings, diagrams, and maps — these are tools we use to visually make sense of our world. Even our understanding of the shape of the solar system changed because of a simple drawing (see Copernicus’ drawing of his Heliocentric Model).

Creating visual models is not an exercise exclusive to designers; in fact, all of us benefit from taking a pen or pencil to page to sketch out ideas, convey a problem or challenge. When we take data points and elements of a problem and visualize them, we can move and group information into categories of understanding that we might not otherwise see in a more linear, language-based model.

Mapping and diagramming do something else: they bring people together. Visual tools help us reach a common understanding of a problem, its potential solutions, gaps of knowledge, and areas of improvement. Maps take an abstract or intellectual challenge and make it almost tangible, sometimes instantly recognizable, for groups to react and respond.

While dragons and other mythical beasts illuminated texts and decorated the maps of ages past, the phrase “Here Be Dragons” was likely never drawn on a map. Our UX maps and diagrams reveal and slay the dragons that take the form of team misalignment, lack of communication, complex data and information, projects and players.

1. Visualize Problems To Find Solutions

If you’ve worked in a business long enough, you might feel like you have a pretty good handle on your customers and what they want. If you are working with clients who care about the customer experience, they’ll tell you the same. They got this part covered. They know their customers. And to some degree that’s true.

But we don’t know everything about our customers, especially if we’ve never left the office and observed them interacting with our products. We live in a fractured media landscape where the lines between our offline and online experiences blur across devices and experiences.

Customer journey maps bring data from the outside world into an organization and visualize those moments in time when customers dip in and out of relationships with our products and brands, offline and online. We can see points of interest for users, how that interest drops, where it aligns and diverges from our expectations, and where opportunities exist to improve experiences.

Journey maps encourage empathy and a deep understanding of the customer experience. They also help break down organizational silos. Maps, diagrams, and other visual models are useful tools to facilitate discussion and establish alignment between teams and stakeholders, says author Jim Kalbach.

Jim uses maps in a variety of ways, and not just to visualize data. Maps can be used to align teams around a problem, to visualize how parts of a project will work together. They don’t have to be slick, hi-fidelity artifacts. Teams should be involved throughout the process of map-making, from research and planning to drawing together and following through on what they’ve learned.

Jim recommends completing the visual models you create with teams and stakeholders in a group exercise, and he emphasizes that visual models alone won’t solve your problems. Rather, they encourage conversation and debate among teams.

READ: “Mapping Experiences: Five Key Questions to Get Started” by Jim Kalbach

WATCH: “Mapping Experiences: It’s the Destination and the Journey” with Jim Kalbach

2. Practice Design Thinking

A common misconception about design as a practice is that its focus is on the aesthetic. Just make it pretty, we’ve all heard at one time or another. Designers know, and teams know, that design is about problem solving. The term Design Thinking is a clever way of educating non-designers, and acknowledging in a broader sense, that design is a discipline, a process informed by the work that teams do together.

When we add the word “thinking” to design, we imply the process and intention behind the practice. We move design out of the realm of decoration and into one of outcome.

With Design Thinking, teams work together to solve problems informed by research, customer journey maps, diagrams and other visual artifacts. It’s a rigorous process in which teams work toward validating their assumptions by testing and iterating on ideas and prototypes. Designers don’t stop at their first ideas or solutions, but rather venture far away from their comfort zones to unexplored territory, where they consider a range of possibilities that can be tested, iterated, and evolved into a final product.

READ: “Shh! Don’t Tell Them There’s Not Magic in Design Thinking by Jared Spool

READ: “Jedi Designer Tricks for Exploring Multiple Variationsby Jared Spool

3. Make Collaboration Great Again!

Design Thinking, sketching, map-making, and visualizing problems all require teams to communicate, find alignment, and collaborate well. Collaborating, much like any group activity, requires ground rules to be established for it to work well. Even if you’ve worked with a colleague 100 times before, each project has its unique set of challenges and how you determine the way you’ll tackle those challenges will change, as well the collaboration tools and methods you use.

The way we approach collaborative work also influences how successful the process will be. Dan Brown defines six behaviors and tactics that teams can use to establish those ground rules for collaboration. Dan suggests that teams set expectations at the start, and get specific:

  1. Establish a communications plan
  2. Provide a rationale for decisions
  3. Define roles and responsibilities
  4. Set expectations about performance
  5. Communicate progress
  6. Reflect on performance

Collaborating, says Dan, is an acknowledgment that teams are able to produce something better working together than what an individual could do alone. If we approach our work with a mindset that allows for continual learning, that can see lessons in failures, and can be accountable not only for our work but our behavior, we can exceed expectations as individuals and teams.

WATCH: “Make Collaboration Happen, Even with Stubborn People” with Dan Brown

Here are some examples from history of visual communication that changed the world.

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