A story about what I call “Real world design” that depicts my journey within a non focused corporation.

Once every odd week, the design team gathers for the latest updates in our life at work. While sipping from a cup of overpriced coffee we gossip *cough* discuss about all the changeless, achievements, projects and weird manager discussions we’ve had for this past year. It’s our last gathering as a design family before heading out for the holidays and conclude the year.

December last year I was out of a project and restless for the winter vacation. I remember seeing the upper management guiding a visiting client to one of the conference rooms. Not long after I notice the jumping messenger window that was about to change my path within the company.

You see, we don’t exist as a design studio. The profit is brought in by the development teams. We exist as a design team just because we choose to get along with one another and share our war stories.

As consultants we tend to get into a project way after the planning is done. We’d fly to the client for a few days evaluate the requirements, see what the client thought he needed and move on to wireframing and UI. Then on to the next project. All this took no longer than two to three weeks of engagement.

“Hey Adrian, could you get in here and tell our clients a bit about how UX works and how do we approach Design Thinking?”

Is what the message in the virtual bottle said. 
Two weeks had passed and as soon as 2018 set in, four colleagues and I were on a plane to Germany. An architect, two front-end developers, a tester and me; the UX .

The client had this app that they poured six figures in and was not even close to working. On the sixth month mark the app was still in concept without any of the features working. Our challenge? Deliver a proof of concept within a month with daily builds.

Within our first week we delivered our first stable build working with mocked data. More than this, the app had the UX reworked and a UI that was good enough to take the app seriously. We had this rule that we’d push a build by 6 PM regardless of the state and then move to a restaurant where we’d fuel our minds and body and continue working. 
What wowed our client wasn’t the quickness or the knowledge. It was synergy. Even though it was the first time we’d work together as a team, everything was so seamless. We would call in meetings to explain the code, why we went with hybrid, why the UX works this way and how it will plan for the future.

In the environment where our client was working with different contractors and freelancers that never met and would drop out at any time, we brought in a completely new way of working and delivery speed that extended the contract for 3 more months and a new app. Now this is where it gets interesting for UX.

Bored yet? Good. Let’s continue.

The way things really work.

You read all these user experience articles about how all these designers do research for three months, interview users and explore all these ideas before deciding on a direction, review design and hand over to the developers. Well, in my world all that was a nice fairytale. 
Profit driven agencies don’t care much for time to research. They sell quick solutions.

You get one, two weeks if you are extremely lucky, to study the product, the market and whatever ideas one might have. After which you quickly build some wireframes, check them with the client and move to doodle the UI and prototype in invision. Because that’s what a UX/UI designer does. Right? I ask sarcastically.

The above might paint a picture where I complain, but it also allowed me to grow in such a way where I quickly have to analyze everything and discard ideas really early. Think of a formula one driver that has to make all those split second decisions.

Low skill, low band teams.

I actually heard this being said in one of the management meetings. At first I thought this was mockingly being said but it turned out to later become the business model. This means hiring interns and make use of their knowledge and learning capability while charging the client the minimum agreed rate. Now this means 0 investment, because the government pays their salary, while turning maximum profit. Quite smart if you think about it. 
The intern is happy to learn and the company is happy to turn a profit while seniors are happy for being under the impression of leading a team. Other people might call this mentorship. We call those people haters; haha!

Once we got back home from the client our unit quickly grew with the new recruits. 
At first I was frustrated by this. Mostly because I kept expecting them to know what they were doing and how to work with me (the designer) and what their role within the team was. My hubris was the assumption that these new recruits went through some sort of bootcamp before landing in our team. 
I was wrong. As soon as they signed the contract, they were thrown directly into a project that was already on full speed ahead. 
As the “as you sow, so you shall reap” saying goes, it’s always a good idea to train juniors and inters yourself. It’ll be a lot easier for you in time.

We changed three product owners by the time I started doing version two of the UX; the one intended for market release. Somehow we didn’t stray from our course and kept maturing it.

We had the core team and the new recruits but we were missing key ingredients to bake this cake properly: a business analyst, a project manager, a project officer and a team leader.
As the mother of invention is necessity, our tester turned BA, and a quite dedicated and gifted as it turned out, while the architect turned Team Lead. We ran like this for a while and later the PM and PMO joined.

Soon after I would jump on a plane and travel to the client two weeks out of a month, sometime more, for meetings and UX reviews for all the different opportunities the client was throwing at us. One of those UX reviews generated the next app under this mobile factory. With all this happening, it was eating a lot of my time and I found myself in need of some help. So we hired another designer that would split the workload.

The Cyber app

Same story as before. They had invested six figures into an app that ended up being rejected by the buyer the third time. Three different product owners, each with his own idea on what the app should be.

First step here was for us to agree that in order for the app to move on we had to choose only one product owner. After a few meetings we had our product owner.

This app was supposed to be a kind of assistant for small companies that would help you keep protected in case of cyber attacks and loss of data.
Our first problem was on how to get the users to sign up. My thinking was that we needed to create an incentive, a sense of doubt about the state of your cyber protection. As soon as you open the app the first thing you see says:

Is your business protected?

And a big button labeled “Find out” Once you tap “find out” you would go trough a set of question cards that evaluate the state of your business. 
Those four words made everyone involved in the app understand what the app did and what to expect.

Next step in the process was to work with the product owner to schedule user tests with clients and tweak the app based on the resulting feedback. All this in under two weeks.

The process.

The cyber app is an example of the kind of situation I’d land in and why I needed to create a process.

Flying over to the client and working with a product owner on the UX while holding user testing session became part of a UX process that I would use for the next series of opportunities.

Over the course of a few months we would get new applications and websites to work on. 
We’d have a kick off meeting followed by a design thinking workshop. I simplified the workshop in two steps. I eliminated the personas and empathy maps as I already had the users and business in the room. As most projects existed in some sort of form, I’d skip to the As-Is and To-Be steps. For each of the as-is steps we’d use posts it’s to identify pain points and opportunities, which we would later transfer to the to-be. The to-be had to have a maximum of 6 steps. This encapsulated the opportunities and the business needs. At the end of the workshop we have a pretty good idea of how the app should work.

Back at the office we create a digitized version of the workshop under a UX map. Once that is validated to make sure we didn’t skip or miss any step we create the wireframes and a prototype. Usually with invision. Once we have the prototype we fly back to the client to test with the users. We iterate this process a few times. Each time with a more complete version of the visual design. At this point no line of code is being written until we have everything in place from the tests and the backlog filled.

With the backlog in place and the design on Zeplin, the project gets quickly developed and delivered. 
I applied this process to all of the apps under the hood of what we’d later call the mobile factory. So far it worked out flawlessly.

It’s important to note that while doing this, most of the ideas come from you; the consultant. You guide the client and users to understand how the app works and why features need to function in a particular way and why business needs to prioritize features and ideas. The key here is that the product owner and client trust you to make the decisions on how the app should work. Also their role as a closest link to the end user and client, a repository of information that back up your actions.

Conclusion

Real world design is a lot different from what you see on dribbble. Easiest exercise is taking one of those top rated UIs and try to design a real app. I’d bet good money the end result will not be so pretty. But this will also make you learn to rethink, rework, prioritize features and sacrifice some pretty UI for functionality while both trying to account for user needs and business.

Doing this for the past 12 months enabled me to create my own way of working but it also unearthed my desire to no longer do the visual design part and focus on what I’d come to call Business UX. Basically ideating and molding the UX from the workshop to the UX map. After which just overseeing and guiding the design work. This would enable me to move on to the next opportunity quickly.

This is my first article and English is not my native tongue. Please be kind 🙂



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