How to design when you can't design everything

How to design when you can't design everything

Innovation in web seems to be slowing down. As the old saying goes, if you have a hammer then every problem looks like a nail, and we see the same thing happening in digital. A typical technology stack of CMS/CRM supported by coding libraries, and an increasingly well-established set of design patterns, are producing web and app experiences that are beginning to look increasingly similar. The methodologies of research of human-computer interaction (HCI) are also pushing solutions in a certain direction, driving the optimisation of experiences against measurable benchmarks such as efficiency in completing tasks and accessing information.

The combination of these two: the inherent complexities in modern personalised solutions and commodified design and technology solutions, means inventing new digital products is becoming a riskier endeavour. To create competitive advantage in design requires new ways of working, in an environment where UI and UX designers have less control of the solution due to the necessary complexity of personalised solutions. Risks in breaking new ground include rejection of the new by users, and organisational difficulties in adapting to new ways of creating and managing content.

These challenges aren’t at all unique to UX and design – they have always been there, for example, in R&D, but in R&D there’s an associated cost-base and acceptance of failure, and we think there’s scope to learn from this approach to research in multimedia.

Research into multimedia tends to be conceptually-led, rather than solution led. A concept could include a way of structuring content, or a hypothesis about how a user interface might be different. Thinking at this level enables product owners in companies and organisations to stop viewing their technology in isolation, validated through the prisms of user needs and user testing. It gives the capability to view technology in conjunction with brand, content and visual language in an integrated fashion. Connecting these ideas with a UX skillset and testing methods, and a licence for design flair, provides a powerful toolset to take a step back and respond to the business problem or opportunity you are facing, imagine a solution and validate it.

What about the risks? You might increase the risks that come with doing something different, but you will reap the benefits of the competitive advantage that emerges from your idea, and you might even save money in the long run.

A modular approach to digital platforms, based on a design system and functional components can, in fact, limit the long-term risk. A system driven by semantically meaningful components which can be assembled by rule-sets, rather than fixed in templates, can enable product and content owners to meet the challenges of personalisation, device-type and channel by quickly deploying reconfigurable pieces to present their content better, and quickly experiment with what works best for audiences and users.  It also allows for personalisation of specific areas, allowing for an endless number of combinations, each one tailored to specific user needs. And finally, it allows designers and engineers to iterate, improve and expand discrete aspects of the platform without the need for complete overhaul.

In the coming weeks we’ll be exploring what this means in practice in specific areas such as content creation and design in complex systems – watch this space.


Michael Frantzis is a Senior UX Consultant at Precedent.