A design facilitator’s playbook

As agile software delivery becomes mainstream, it is interesting to see the impact it is having on UX as a discipline.  It seemed like agile started off with an almost complete indifference to user-centered design, but, as it gains maturity, there is more commitment to making design work within agile delivery, so much so that “lean product development meets user-centered design” is the new mantra for product success.

It now seems widely accepted within the agile/lean community that there is a need to nurture design facilitation skills.  So, what is expected out of a design facilitator in a software delivery organization: Making it easier for the team to come up with high quality of user interface designs.  Traditionally, design has been the forte of some people considered to be creative, and has been somewhat intimidating to the logical mind of an engineer.  A design facilitator’s role is to help the team overcome this intimidation, and make sure that the disciplined application of methods and tools that inform the design process, and lead to a good user experience.

Many interaction designers who’ve experienced success with agile delivery seem to be making a move towards being a part of software delivery organizations, and are taking an active role in coaching delivery teams in lean UX principles and practices.  I notice this trend with some leading names in design – Jeff Gothelf’s role at New Context, Lane Halley’s move to Carbon Five, Tim McCoy at Pivotal Labs, Janice Fraser’s work at LUXr – there’s a pattern here – they are all evangelists of lean UX, and I hope they will play strategic roles as design facilitators in their organizations.

A good number of design facilitators come from other areas like product management and engineering as well – those that have had the skills and the passion for design, but, were restricted in their contribution due to strictly defined roles and titles.

There is a need though to coach and help more designers in becoming design facilitators. Towards this, I suggest focusing on five areas of facilitation, to start with:

  • Facilitating education
  • Facilitating empathy
  • Facilitating collaborative design
  • Facilitating the UX roadmap
  • Facilitating the feedback loop

Facilitating education

Interaction design calls for a disciplined application of methods and tools used to gain customer insights, for modeling all the information that become available, to communicate design, and to test for usability.  A design facilitator can help select the right methods, and educate the team on applying those methods to the design challenge at hand.  Some methods need more practice and immersion than the others.   But, a design facilitator should take the effort to help the team understand what goes into the design process and help the selection of methods and tools to support the various parts of the process.

Facilitating empathy

This, in my mind, is the single most important role of a design facilitator.  Some of my favorite empathy tools are Empathy Maps, and Personas, but I have used several others from IDEO method cards, Luke Hohmann’s Innovation Games and Dave Gray’s Gamestorming.  It can be a lot of fun and learning when the team works on those methods together with someone facilitating the activity.  Both Luke Hohmann and Dave Gray conduct classes for facilitators, they are immensely helpful in growing into a facilitator.  By the way, I think Luke is particularly a master facilitator himself, attending his Innovation Games facilitator class was one of the best lessons I have had in becoming a facilitator myself.

Facilitating collaborative design

Steve Jobs was not a designer by education or profession.  Neither was Aaron Patzer of Mint.com, who did masters in engineering.  It is the design facilitator’s role to help the Steve Jobs and the Aaron Patzers of every organization to contribute to the design process, through collaborative design techniques.  Collaborative design also helps in the synthesis of design ideas from a varied set of participants.  Facilitating collaborative design with customers/users if often a powerful means of getting customer insights that are often missed during verbal communication.

Here are some good references on collaborative design (please share any others you have)

Introduction to design studio: http://uxmag.com/articles/introduction-to-design-studio-methodology

On keeping ownership and egos out of design: http://uxmag.com/articles/humble-experience-design

Frog design on how they collaborate with their clients during the design process: http://www.slideshare.net/frogdesign/making-clients-part-of-the-design-process

Remote collaborative design session by Jeff Gothelf: http://www.jeffgothelf.com/blog/remote-collaborative-brainstorming-and-sketching-part-i/

Facilitating the UX roadmap

In a fast, iterative development environment, teams are often challenged by not being able to visualize meaningful releases. This is why many agile teams struggle with creating shippable software with every iteration – features are not shippable unless they help the user carry out a goal. A design facilitator can help define the features that support a meaningful user experience.  I use a combination of Adaptive Path’s Sketchboarding (http://www.boxuk.com/blog/using-sketchboards-to-design-great-user-interfaces) along with Jeff Patton’s Story Mapping  (http://www.agileproductdesign.com/presentations/user_story_mapping/index.html) as a means of driving the product vision and the UX roadmap.

Facilitating the feedback loop

The success of agile delivery and lean product development hinges on the team’s ability to receive feedback and iterate on it.  Be it through site usage analytics, usability testing, or any other means of feedback to the team, a design facilitator has a key role to play in helping the team understand and appreciate the usability challenges with the product, and in coming up with solution to usability issues.  If the design facilitator can select and apply the right feedback mechanism to engage the team in the feedback process, the results can be amazing.