Ingeniously Simple
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Ingeniously Simple

Are designers idealists, path makers, or fortune tellers?

Illustration of man and women piecing together an idea.

For those working in highly agile development organisations, there remains to be pockets of misalignment or certainly a misperception that designing ahead of the team is idealistic or worse still anti-Agile. The idea that prefacing delivery with some work upfront to explore and architect the desired experience will somehow fly in the face of agility. Why is that?

I believe this misperception represents the remnants of the days of waterfall and the hangover of the era of Agile that is yet to embrace the idea that a plan is not a specification and the absence of a plan — or any sense of direction for that matter — leads us to deliver without trajectory.

As Josh Seiden said in a recent article on Agile won’t get you to Done:

“Done” gets you an output. “Validated” gets you an outcome.”

As such, Design’s job is to help guide and shape our delivery efforts, to give purpose and intent to execution and to define and articulate the experiences we believe will influence customer behaviour (outcomes).

The absence of this upfront knowledge-work places an unfounded reliance on Agile and iterative delivery to simply just show us the way. In Agile we trust! But few great things in life are achieved without a plan and some semblance of a vision for where we are trying to get to.

Agile without direction is the proverbial fly with one wing removed. It spins at pace, sure, but with little to no sense of direction or momentum. In other words, all velocity, no trajectory!

Teams can churn out release after release in the hope that they stumble across something valuable, coherent and usable for their customers, or they can use the tools of Design to deliver with intent. You can take a pretty good guess at which approach is going to be more productive, more cost-effective and likely to have a bigger impact.

The reality is Design upfront, to whatever degree, still carries with it negative perceptions of rigidity. But there is hope for those who experience this. The work we do continues to shift these lagging perceptions and debunk any lingering myths that to plan and to project is swimming against the tide of Agile.

Create a Design North Star.

Your first job, as a designer, is to help plant a flag in the sand. As such a vision or North Star serves as a guiding light for product teams, illustrating — from the customer’s perspective — what the future might look like as a result of your product or service. As Julie Zhuo said in the article Design’s North Star:

“A design “North Star” is a visual output (commonly a video, although it can also be a storyboard, a series of hi-fidelity designs, etc.) that explains the high-level narrative of why an idea or concept will improve people’s lives.”

As above, this is often expressed in the form of a piece of design fiction that communicates a desired direction of travel. The absence of vision, or one that a team can reasonably rally behind, causes us to default to short-term thinking and more tactical, reactive planning activities. Our purview is constrained to focus on smaller increments, rather than those milestone strategic releases that pave the way towards an ideal future state.

But remember, visions rarely manifest as reality. They serve to guide our decisions and shape our roadmaps, while providing enough flexibility for the team to learn and iterate as they go. The specifics of what teams deliver are likely to emerge through cycles of discovery and delivery, but the North Star provides the team with something they can always anchor to; spurring them on, keeping them aligned and enabling them to course-correct as needed.

Actively bridge vision and execution.

As above, a North Star is that guiding light, a marker on a map, a summit to climb, but that’s different to a plan. With vision set, the strategies, roadmaps and backlogs that follow (all forms of planning) should help deconstruct that vision into phases or milestones; each bringing the team one step closer to that ideal end state.

While a vision might seem somewhat abstract and on the face of it, quite insurmountable, breaking it down allows teams to work back from the vision, illustrating the key problems to be solved and logical iterations of the experience. It should be clear, as a result, what that next strategic move looks like, as well as the series of cumulative bets that follow.

Near-term, the problem(s) will be much clearer, with the next iteration of the experience inevitably more concrete and likely described in higher resolution. Further out, however, the edges become blurry, the team will likely be operating at a lower fidelity, presenting the bare bones of concept and ideas, where there is both time and scope to narrow down on the specifics.

The key is using the North Star and experience-led planning artefacts (such as User Journeys and Story Maps) to both illustrate the bigger picture and serve as a blueprint; connecting where we are today to where we want to be. The absence of these bridging artefacts can create a disconnect between local, short-term delivery decisions and an intentional, designed end-state.

Iterate and adapt, but maintain trajectory!

I’ve previously written about the role of product discovery in providing teams with trajectory. Here, discovery plays a key role in helping teams refine and iterate around the specifics of their roadmap; identifying and shaping what to build and in what order. Discovery gives teams license to experiment, to learn, to adapt but with their North Star firmly in sight.

As such, there is agility in the short to medium-term necessary to guide the specifics of what to build, alongside a vision that helps to reduce the uncertainty and ambiguity of the future. The best of both worlds so to speak. And whilst we can’t precisely predict what the future will look like we can describe the experience we’d like customers to have when we get there.

In short, Agile does not have to be at odds with a plan. Both discovery and delivery activities are contingent on an intended direction of travel and an ideal endpoint. That overarching context is critical. It’s the front of the box in your 1000 piece puzzle. We need to understand how the pieces fit together and have a view for the sum of the whole, even though we all accept the need to get there incrementally.

A model for Design Strategy.
A model for Design Strategy.

Find your Design vanishing point.

Design ahead, but not too far! Be guided by your plan and let that inform your research and design priorities, but be mindful of scope. Get too far ahead and too concrete and you risk fixing down the specifics too early; missing the benefits of iterative development, cross-functional collaboration and customer validation.

Equally, failing to get far enough ahead of development reduces the scope to design a more coherent experience. The building blocks of your solution. A short-term, hand-to-mouth, or myopic view inevitably leads to a fragmented experience. Isolated or discrete design choices quickly accrete to create experience debt.

Find the right balance of scope and fidelity. Your vanishing point. Think about the architectural view of the experience, the journeys, tasks and flows that stripe cross a series of incremental releases. In other words, the meaningful, usable slices of customer value that form a significant release and pave the way towards the next phase of your plan.

Avoid convergence of architecture and delivery.

What happens when the concepts of architecture and construction meet? The simple answer is chaos! A workforce executing without a plan or any understanding of the intent, scope, and constraints of a given project. Effectively laying the foundations of a structure without prior understanding and comprehension of the end result. I’m drawing out a very extreme example of the concept, but in principle, it’s the same for design and delivery in a software context.

While the details can be determined and delivered iteratively, the blueprints (journeys, storyboards, and high-level concepts) must be thought through in advance. Some level of design upfront is a prerequisite to making solid architectural decisions that lay the foundations for the experience that follows. For example, whilst aesthetics and interactions can be changed with little consequence, changes to the key workflows — whilst not irreversible — are often costly and likely have many dependencies.

When the architectural decisions of design run concurrent to delivery this creates a pinch point! Designers and engineers essentially end up working on top of each other and are forced to make these structural decisions somewhat off the cuff and in the moment. This can be an unhealthy and highly stressful situation for designers in particular, where they are given little to no time to explore, evaluate and iterate on the designs before they are implemented.

Furthermore, convergence invariably leads us to throw good discovery practices out of the window. Key decisions end up being validated after the event since there wasn’t time factored upfront to explore concepts and ideas with customers. This forces those involved to lead with their first best guess. The compounding of knowledge work and execution is not only stressful but increases the team’s odds of delivering a flawed solution that is likely to have little impact.

So while good, user-centred practices won’t necessarily predict the future, they substantially mitigate the risks of being wrong.

Idealists, path makers, or fortune tellers?

Well, to some extent we are all of the above and that’s why Design continues to play a critical role in innovation, growth, and the resulting success of many thriving companies. Looking to the future is our design superpower! Along with an acute sense of empathy, our ability to project, to cast out towards a potential future state is what makes us uniquely equipped to support the challenges of modern businesses.

Inherently we dream big, but our challenge is often one of translating those dreams into reality. How do we convert these loose concepts on a distant horizon into something real, something actionable? How do we work with our peers and partners to remain resolute in the pursuit of vision whilst being pragmatic enough to embrace flexibility in execution?

But these are not design challenges per se, they are leadership challenges. Peers in Product and Engineering will likely share the same concern when attempting to establish a longitudinal vision and maintain alignment, whilst being open to the details and specifics emerging through Agile development.

Our plans are dynamic, responsive and iterative but a plan nonetheless.

My final and closing point is don’t be ashamed to push ahead. Make it your mission as a designer to do so. If you don’t have North Star, a vision for where the product is heading, grab your nearest Product Manager and get to work. Your job is to be a path maker, to help steer the ship, to break free from what we’ve always done and chart a course to better, more innovative experiences.

Where Agile is optimised for here, now and how, Design is about the who and what of the future. The two mindsets, when applied well, should create a flywheel for innovation.

Remember, a plan without execution is a dream and execution without a plan is mere recreation.

Cover image by vectorjuice courtesy of www.freepik.com.

The UX Collective donates US$1 for each article we publish. This story contributed to World-Class Designer School: a college-level, tuition-free design school focused on preparing young and talented African designers for the local and international digital product market. Build the design community you believe in.

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