Investigate First, Design After

Problem solving as a junior designer

As designers, we are all problem solvers. And from the view of building out the problem space, there are different roles to perform. Exact details can vary depending on your team and the project, and the following is a general definition of these roles.

There are interesting aspects to talk about for each of these roles, and I felt it may be fitting to start from what it’s like for a junior designer. What’s expected of as a junior can sound relatively straightforward. But it is just as easy to miss it, because many designers feel comfortable jumping straight into their favorite design tool as the first step.

But what if I think better by starting from sketching?

This is natural, because many of us are visual thinkers. However, the problem is that the knowledge you need to be aware of before starting the design may not be fully apparent from the get go.

“When you are a junior designer, the scopes of the problem that you are to own and solve are often defined already. But it is up to you to go out there and put these pieces together like a puzzle. You have to become an investigator before becoming a craftsman.”

Here are a few reasons why I’ve found this to be important.

  1. People aren’t going to walk you through everything you need to know.
    This isn’t out of ill will from others. Given the projects’ pace and how each project member can look at the same problem with varying perspectives, it is simply difficult for someone to have an understanding from your perspective and the time to walk you through everything. If you start designing with just the context you were prompted with, it may result in solving for only a portion of the problems.
  2. Investigating builds a sense that becomes increasingly important as you mature as a designer.
    Ability to lay out the experience holistically and making connections is an important trait for a designer and becomes increasingly so as you mature into a more senior role. Observing and investigating the problem space is a natural way to get better at that.

“If you start designing with just the context you were prompted with, it may result in solving for only a portion of the problems.”

How to start and what to look for

If the design phase is like putting together the pieces in a jigsaw puzzle, the investigation phase is like gathering these pieces beforehand. The pieces you find will serve as the baseline of what you can work with, and the way each piece is shaped will hint at how to correlate and connect the constraints for the design phase.

Here are some of the areas that I’ve found to be simple and informative to start on, and what to look for in each.

  1. The higher-level goal overarching your assigned task
  2. History
  3. Timeline
  4. Existence of technical constraints
  5. Your partners

Step 1 : Understand the higher-level goal

What you are tasked with likely falls under a bigger agenda. Find out how your work builds towards that agenda, so that you can take into account how to impact the short term outcome for the delegated task and the long term outcome aligning with the higher-level goal. This increases the likelihood of making your output more lasting and relevant further down the road.

Potential starting points:
Vision memo, Project wiki or spec, Conversations with project lead.

Step 2 : Investigate the history

Catch up to speed on what has been discussed so far, what has been attempted, and what has & has not remained in the current state. It’s valuable if you are able to identify what hasn’t worked and the reasons behind it. And when doing so, look beyond the idea details. Try to dig in and understand the background context behind why that idea did’t work. Then when you come up with another idea that may come off as a similar solution, you can find your way around its blocker.

Potential starting points:
Previous design proposals, Telemetry data and shifts in metrics before & after related changes, Conversations with designers & partners who have been through previous idea pitches.

Step 3 : Investigate the timeline

Missing the milestones makes your idea irrelevant. Talk with the project lead, get a sense of the key milestones, and understand how the team’s work is staged per milestone. Then identify where your work would be most relevant and lead to maximum impact. If your work is a blocker for another work to follow, make sure to identify it and take that into account.

Potential starting points:
Project wiki or spec, Conversations with project lead, Update the status of your work at team shareouts for other key stakeholders’ awareness

Step 4 : Investigate existence of any technical constraints

A screw driver can’t be used to bend objects like a wrench can, but it is much more effective in screwing & unscrewing components compared to a plier. You don’t need to know how to code. But having a general understanding of the technical constraints helps you know what you can leverage to effectively come up with a creative solution.

Potential starting points:
There are vast number of content and places to start from, but many of them are difficult to pick up from a quick reading or an overnight studying. I found it to be effective to think of this as a long-term learning process.

  1. Develop a close relationship with your engineering team to be able to discuss ideas freely, and learn what works & doesn’t from every conversation and progress you make together.
  2. If there is a medium that you know you will work primarily on, carve out time to learn about it even if there isn’t a pressing assignment related to it.

Step 5 : Talk often with your partners.

Communicate with your product manager, engineer, design peers, and other key stakeholders you are working with. More you are in sync, more light you can shed into the problem space. Often times, I’ve found it to be more effective to start with spontaneous on/offline conversations involving everyone rather than starting with 1–1 conversations. For deeper discussions, 1–1 conversations work but doing that from the start can lead to keeping each other in the dark inadvertently.

As you learn more and more about what surrounds the problem you need to solve, you will quickly realize that many of them are intertwined with each other. Figuring out how you balance, fit, and connect these understandings like jigsaw puzzle pieces will help set a good focus on what type of ideas to imagine and to create designs for.

Don’t think of your findings as constraints that will hinder your imagination. Rather, think of them as getting to know the fabric that you will be designing with. Understanding the space first will empower you with knowledge to elevate and augment the impact of your ideas. It’s not late to start designing afterwards.

If there are ways you’ve found to be effective, I would love to learn about them also.

This article was originally published on Steve’s Medium Page.

Head of Incubation Studio at NAVER. Product design leader & creative developer. www.damkee.com

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