Tag Archives: experience design center

When to Engage an Outside Design Team

8 Jun

Design provides value to a business at any stage, but there are specific points in your company or project where engaging with a design firm provides the maximum amount of value to your organization.

Here are some of the best times to bring in outside support from a design team.

When you need help articulating an idea

You might have specific ideas around the next iteration of your product and are wondering what to do next. Maybe you have some sketches on a napkin that you want to socialize internally or with strategic partners.

At this point, design can help with customer research and validation to ensure your idea is strong and defendable. From there, an infographic, strategy deck, prototype or storyboard can help you start gathering real feedback from your customers or stakeholders.

When you don’t have in-house design leadership

Depending on your company, you might not have sufficient design talent in-house. Maybe you only have access to a small team of designers, but what your project really needs is a seasoned design team to lead the initiative or share the methods and process to inform the organization of a user-centered approach.

Senior designers are capable of seeing the larger project vision. They’re communication double-edged swords: they can keep junior designers on task, while also communicating high-level strategy to stakeholders.

Experienced design teams bring to the table a set of standards and best practices that your team can rely on and reference. The devil is often in the details, which is where a seasoned design team with years “under their belt” can set you up for success.

When there is uncertainty on direction

Have you ever realized that you spend more time talking about what you’re doing than actually doing what you’re doing? If you answered yes, you’re not alone.

This is often a signal that your team is unclear on what you’re building and where you’re headed. Working with a design team at this point helps align the team around a vision — a vision that’s created through the lens of your customers. At this point, design can also help to create a shareable document or prototype to communicate your product’s direction.

There’s too much work and not enough talent

So much to do, so little time — and so few resources. Maybe you just raised money, have a new opportunity or a shorter timeline. Either way, you could use some support to come alongside your team.

Bringing in an external design team, especially one that is accustomed to collaboration, can help give you the extra hands you need while also bringing an often-needed set of fresh eyes.

You’re looking for new ways to serve your customer

There are a million ways to provide value to your customers, but you’re looking to find the one that works best for you. Because you live and breathe today’s version of your business, customers and product, you could potentially use some help planning for the future.

An outside design team is a great way to generate insights, new opportunities and product ideas. They will start by using you and your customers to learn how things are today and then help imagine how they add value tomorrow.

You’re looking for ways to be better

Products and brands can become stale after a while and you may be looking for a refresh. You also might realize that your customers have changed over time and your messaging no longer speaks to them.

Utilizing a design team can help by seeing how you resonate with customers. They can test and gather insights to help with your next iteration.

These circumstances encompass some of the hardest problems organizations face and engaging with an outside design team is an efficient and valuable way to solve them. This inherently collaborative process aligns the key players in your organization to strategically meet your customers’ needs and provide value.

 

Andy Van Solkema, OST Chief Designer

Andy Van Solkema, OST Chief Designer

Functional design systems, and visual storytelling have long been a passion for Andy Van Solkema. From boyhood days of designing a neighborhood baseball league complete with team logos to designing for local, regional, and national companies, his passion has grown and evolved to leading a 12 person studio that is using design for unique outcomes that span stories, systems, processes and experiences.

Andy is a graduate of Grand Valley State University with BFA in Graphic Design and a Master’s of Design from Kendall College of Art and Design. Following graduation, Andy worked as a design consultant in the printing industry, graphic designer and art director in brand communications, and as an interaction design director. He enjoyed the variety of experiences, but ultimately something was missing.

In 2004, he started his own design studio, Visualhero Design. Initially working as a one-person shop in a home office, Andy grew the business in a slow, steady and smart way through the down economy. To differentiate themselves and to offer the most to their clients, in 2006 Andy and his team formally adopted user-center design principles with a research and systems approach to creative problem solving. In 2016, Visualhero was acquired by OST where Andy now serves as Chief Designer.  His team focuses on form, function, and meaning. The scope of work has grown to include graphic recording, data visualization, brand identity, interface design, information architecture, user experience and customer experience. They design brand communication, applications, websites, and business systems and processes that aren’t just easy on the eyes.  More importantly, they are designed for the user today and tomorrow.

Van Solkema has combined a systems and process mind with craft of design and creativity. He spends his time as an advocate for design, creative lead for the team, and managing design vision for OST / Visualhero Design. Although most days are spent directing design, running the business or meeting with clients, he enjoys using his experience helping GVSU Design Thinking Initiative and various nonprofit organizations. He also enjoys leading design workshops at his alma mater and other design education opportunities. 

Andy has been published in design books and publications and received accolades and awards for branding and design. Design has changed and although he is firmly rooted in West Michigan, the clientele has grown to include Amazon, Nest, Apple, Chamberlain, Capitol Studios, GM and a host of local, regional and national corporate clients, a handful of local and Bay Area startups. Well beyond what Andy could have ever imagined back in 2004. 

The design strategy toolbox

21 Apr

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Collaborative exercises to move a company forward

A strategic designer’s toolbox contains many different ways to successfully define problems, align teams, and identify opportunities.

These tools can include workshops, facilitation strategies, or human-centered or design thinking tactics. In the hands of a talented designer and an engaged audience, these tools can craft an invaluable understanding of a customer, create widespread alignment around an initiative and define an organization’s short- and long-term strategic plan—all in a creative, non-traditional meeting environment.

Many of these tools make up the engine that drives Visualhero’s Strategic Design practice. Depending on the organization’s goals or project focus, we may utilize one or more of the following workshops:

Defining the customer

User Understanding Workshops

As an experience design firm, everything we do is focused on meeting the needs of the people, so naturally we often begin a project with a user understanding workshop.

The two most common exercises in these workshops are personas and journey maps. Separately, they each uniquely shed light on the user’s perspective of your product, business or brand, and when viewed together, they create a full picture of who you’re designing for.

Personas – Representations of your customers

Personas have become very popular in businesses over the past few years–and for good reason. A persona prototyping workshop involves having key stakeholders from across a business gather to discuss specific customer pain points, technological sophistication, habits, trends and other characteristics relevant to the project.

Journey maps – Illustrate a customer’s experience with your brand, across all touchpoints.

Journey maps are important both for what they show, as well as what they do not show. Journey maps identify a customer’s full experience, from gaps and relationships to detailed touch points of a customer’s experience. If a journey map shows a lot of customers are behaving in a certain way, but your company is suited to support such activity, they can lead to further product development or feature enhancements.

Journey map workshops, sometimes known as experience mapping or blueprinting, are used to visually depict a customer’s experience across the course of their interactions with a company. We recently ran a series of workshops with a consumer product company to understand their customer touchpoints, then to map them out visually to create internal alignment. We analyzed the current state of their customer experience, from initial research to final research and beyond. From there, we identified gaps in their current customer experience and brainstormed opportunities to fill them. Finally, we synthesized all the workshop findings and potential opportunities into a PDF deliverable.

User Research – Validate personas and journey maps with external data.

Go out and validate the boardroom assumptions you made with the personas and journey maps with real customers who match the profiles. Qualitative research methods such as customer interviews and observations will prove that you’re right, prove that you’re wrong or prove that you nailed a few things, but missed some others.

Throughout the design process and beyond, continually reference these documents to ensure you’re on the right track and designing with your user’s needs in mind.

Who are you, anyway?

Brand Definition Workshop

Not only is strategic design useful in understanding who you’re designing for, but it’s also valuable in defining who you are as a brand, organization or product. For these types of challenges, brand definition workshops come in handy, and can take many forms.

Brand Attribute Exercises – An interactive discussion used to assign descriptors to an organization or product.

This exercise centers around “who is [brand, company or product]?” and “who is [brand, company or product] not?” This discussion creates a shared consensus around brand values that influence branding and logo design, written copy tone, or future product development. For example, a brand that answers “who are we?” with “friendly, warm, engaging and inclusive” would steer clear of cold colors, aggressive looking logos and a voice that’s sarcastic. Understanding who you are, and what makes you who you are, will allow decision making to be a much more natural process.

Brand Attribute Radar – A tool to prioritizes key brand attributes.

Using a large circular, dartboard-looking graphic, participant’s place each of the brand attributes on the radar, from the center out depending on its relevancy to the brand. Using the “friendly, warm, engaging and inclusive” example from above, something like “edgy” may fall very far away from the core attributes. The closer the attribute is the core, the more important it should be to the brand. If there’s disagreement, great! Let’s discuss.

Love & Breakup Letter Exercise – An opportunity to be honest with your brand.

In this exercise, participants write a letter to the brand detailing all the things it does to delight them, just as one would say to a loved one. In the second part, participants break up with the old brand, and talk about why they’re moving on. When viewed side-by-side, these letters highlight what’s working and what’s not, opening the door to a conversation about how to improve. In addition to being a fun, icebreaker-type exercise, it also gets participants to acknowledge that brands can cause true feelings, both good and bad.

Let’s get on the same page

Alignment Workshops

Imagine you’re in a kickoff meeting, but the project’s key stakeholders can’t agree on initial project objectives. Or maybe design and development are on different pages about feature priority. Or, our personal favorite, everyone in the room has a completely different definition of what success looks like for a specific initiative. If any of these scenarios sound familiar, you’re not alone–and the next time you encounter one of these scenarios, take a step back and consider running one of these alignment workshops or exercises.

Remember the future – get the group thinking about where they want the business to go.

Each participant is given a blank magazine cover (Tip: choose a magazine relevant to your industry) and given the following prompt: “It’s 2020 and your brand is being profiled on the cover of this magazine. Draw what has made you stand out so prominently in your industry.”

Participants will answer with what they feel sets the company apart from competitors, which can be valuable insight. This type of vision casting also gives insight into the type of company these employees admire, believe in and hope to work for one day. With the list of employee-sourced aspirations, you can then work backwards and together build a roadmap towards these goals.

Stakeholder Mapping – A visual way to understand your stakeholder ecosystem.

If complete and blissful alignment just isn’t an option because of the intricacies of an organization, it’s still important to understand what key stakeholders will require from your project or product. This understanding will frame how you speak or pitch to them, and better enable you to leverage their needs to support your cause.

On a whiteboard, write out all of your stakeholders in a circle, then define who interacts with whom, at what level and with what objectives. Connect similar minded stakeholders, use speech bubbles to summarize their basic positions and challenge the team to think of every possible stakeholder. That way, when you run into them in the hallway, you’ll know exactly how to speak about project X.

Continuums – On a scale of 1-5, who are we?

Using a brand attribute continuum is another easy way to gauge stakeholder sentiment around what defines the organization. Begin by placing a series of descriptive adjectives on the left side of the whiteboard or worksheet. Then, on the right side, write a series of opposite adjectives. For example, one line may have “classic” on the left and “contemporary” on the right. With a number of these written out, participants then select where their brand, company or product falls on the continuums. We have found that a one through ten scale creates too much of a granular discussion, so stick to a one through five scale.

During the discussion or after the workshop, look for areas of vast disagreement between stakeholder perceptions. These are opportunities to align the group and create a shared understanding of who you are.

Miscellaneous tips & tricks

These aren’t necessarily workshops, exercises or methods, but they’re things we’ve learned along the road that help make great strategic design.

Dot voting: In typical business meetings, the loudest voice often gets the most attention, so the cause of the loudest voice often gets the most support–and that ain’t right. Dot voting brings democracy into the boardroom because no matter how loud or how quiet, you’ve only got one sticky dot to place next to your idea of choice.

Always be listening: The value of a workshop is 1/4 what makes it on the whiteboard, and 3/4 the conversation that led to the decision. Don’t be in a rush to reach consensus if there’s valuable conversation happening right in front of you. In fact, as a practice, Visualhero will bring someone along to a workshop to solely document conversation. You’ll never know what nugget of conversation will spark an insight later on–but you likely won’t remember it if it’s not written down.

Get tangible: Use visual props such as sticky notes, markers and whiteboards. Using these types of tangible tools takes personal ownership away from individuals and makes their thoughts a physical object that can be discussed without the feelings. Visuals also help people create shared understanding within the group, which supports alignment and clarity.

Additional resources: As mentioned earlier, these are just our go-to workshops and exercises. Depending on the client, the project or the budget, we may create our own workshop, dive deeply into one specific area, or employ a grab bag approach with many different exercises. There are many, many wonderful resources if you’re looking to learn more about strategic design, design thinking or human-centered design. Here are just a few:

101 Design Methods by Vijay Kumar

Innovating For People: Handbook of Human-Centered Design Methods by Luma Institute

Stanford’s dschool

The Field Guide to Human-Centered Design by IDEO.org

All of these!

As with all schooling, once the learning is over, now it’s time to use what you’ve learned in the real world! These methods can be used for any number of projects, but their underlying purpose is always the same: to using creative problem solving, active collaboration and that three-ish pound of rubbery mass in your noggin’ to help people solve great, big, awesome problems.

And that’s the true joy, if you ask us.

 

Andy Van Solkema, OST Chief Designer

Andy Van Solkema,     OST Chief Designer

Functional design systems, and visual storytelling have long been a passion for Andy Van Solkema. From boyhood days of designing a neighborhood baseball league complete with team logos to designing for local, regional, and national companies, his passion has grown and evolved to leading a 12 person studio that is using design for unique outcomes that span stories, systems, processes and experiences.

Andy is a graduate of Grand Valley State University with BFA in Graphic Design and a Master’s of Design from Kendall College of Art and Design. Following graduation, Andy worked as a design consultant in the printing industry, graphic designer and art director in brand communications, and as an interaction design director. He enjoyed the variety of experiences, but ultimately something was missing.

In 2004, he started his own design studio, Visualhero Design. Initially working as a one-person shop in a home office, Andy grew the business in a slow, steady and smart way through the down economy. To differentiate themselves and to offer the most to their clients, in 2006 Andy and his team formally adopted user-center design principles with a research and systems approach to creative problem solving. In 2016, Visualhero was acquired by OST where Andy now serves as Chief Designer.  His team focuses on form, function, and meaning. The scope of work has grown to include graphic recording, data visualization, brand identity, interface design, information architecture, user experience and customer experience. They design brand communication, applications, websites, and business systems and processes that aren’t just easy on the eyes.  More importantly, they are designed for the user today and tomorrow.

Van Solkema has combined a systems and process mind with craft of design and creativity. He spends his time as an advocate for design, creative lead for the team, and managing design vision for OST / Visualhero Design. Although most days are spent directing design, running the business or meeting with clients, he enjoys using his experience helping GVSU Design Thinking Initiative and various nonprofit organizations. He also enjoys leading design workshops at his alma mater and other design education opportunities. 

Andy has been published in design books and publications and received accolades and awards for branding and design. Design has changed and although he is firmly rooted in West Michigan, the clientele has grown to include Amazon, Nest, Apple, Chamberlain, Capitol Studios, GM and a host of local, regional and national corporate clients, a handful of local and Bay Area startups. Well beyond what Andy could have ever imagined back in 2004.