The Miscellany of Stewart McCoy

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#interaction design

We often talk about empathy for the user, but standing between your empathy for the user is a long line of co-workers whom you need to empathize with first. Being a good designer means mastering lots of soft skills. It’s difficult to detach yourself from the great solutions you come up with on your own. But your job isn’t to advocate for your solution, it’s to advocate for the best solution to the problem. Keep the problem foremost in your mind as you generate ideas and process feedback, and you will quickly one-up your previous designs. Your co-workers are a well-spring of insight, inspiration, and guidance. And you are the filter for the off-the-mark ideas, and the sculptor for the good ones. 

Design with trust, ask questions

The most important lesson I learned this past year is that when I don’t understand something, I need to ask questions. I’ve found that overcoming any embarrassment, shame, pride, or ego, and pushing myself to ask seemingly ignorant or naive questions is actually my responsibility as a professional. Having the courage to acknowledge my own lack of understanding and relying on my teammates and other involved subject matter experts has created trust between us and lead to more successful outcomes in my work. I wish I’d learned this lesson early on in high school—I might have done better in algebra.

Learning the importance of asking clarifying questions has helped me develop a general framework for my design process:

  • Determine the design problem
  • Ask clarifying questions of subject matter experts
  • Restate and confirm the design problem
  • Draft and critique a design solution
  • Iterate on the design solution
  • Present the solution to users
  • Iterate
  • Launch
  • Support and iterate

My framework assumes that I’m working in a product environment in which I have design ownership, rather than a consulting environment in which project delivery is the goal.

Day to day, I work with product managers, engineers, marketing and analytics specialists, and regulatory and policy strategists, which all have their own vocabulary and assumptions about our products and services. I often find that our vocabularies and assumptions don’t overlap, so I ask a lot of questions. Doing so has helped me broaden my vocabulary and tease out my co-workers’ and clients’ assumptions.

I’ve also found that when I don’t fully grasp a problem, neither do the people I’m working with; they have their own knowledge gaps, and questioning helps expose what is not fully understood, allowing us to acknowledge and resolve those gaps. Going through this process together often makes design solutions clear to everybody involved, allowing me to document a solution for a design problem that already has the support of major stakeholders.

As a user experience designer, my job is to provide people with a coherent dialogical framework. Because products are relationships, and my top priority with every project is to provide the easiest way possible for clear back-and-forth communication. To do that, I need to fully comprehend the problem, which means synthesizing the knowledge of all the business and technical contributors to the project, and determining the form and content that I think will best resonate with our users. Which is with whom the line of questioning continues, because my design work is always a best guess, and presenting that work to users will further expose assumptions my team could not have known about. It is only by embracing this approach that we can design for those short falls and continue doing our best possible work.

IA means defining information structures to answer the question “how does a user find the information they want?” Thus navigation links for a big corporate Web site reflect IA: where can I find directions to the company’s main headquarters? When you talk about content, page hierarchy, and taxonomy, you probably have an IA problem.

On the other hand, IxD means defining system behaviors to answer the question “how does a user take the action they want?” Thus the pulldowns, buttons, and checkboxes in a Web email application reflect IxD: what must I do to reply to the sender of this email? When you talk about action, controls, and dynamic elements, you probably have in IxD problem.

– Jonathan Korman, “The Web, Information Architecture, and Interaction Design”, Cooper Journal »


Could you imagine browsing the web without clicking? Interesting isn’t it? 

I was just wondering if clicking is natural for humans or is it just one of the conspiracy theories for making the browser usable? Well, actually clicking (which equals touching and tapping) is natural for exploring or using something, so it is in the web as well. 

Although one could design supercool navigations without a single click!

Oh boy, how I wanted to click everywhere during this experiment:) 

“The secret is in listening to the words, and arranging, and listening, and listening again.”

– Robert Wallace, Writing Poems