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How I Design?

Jan 26th, 2020

Design is a deep subject, and one can easily get lost in the vastness. Very few designers have an understanding of what they are striving towards whereas, the vastness calls for a personalized meaning to Design. Without clarity, efforts in Design can seem as non-impactful. At times, Design can seem more significant than it is, and at others, we end up ignoring it where it was important not to. 

Below is an introspection on how I see my role in the vastness. I've broken this down into two sections. My role as a design leader and How in the depths of my mind, I approach a design. These thoughts are my current state of mind, and they keep evolving so, you may come back here tomorrow and see something different. I would request you to stick with the latest :)

My Role as a Leader 

As I've matured as a leader, my role has become more and more indirect. Rarely, I do things that directly create value; however, everything I do is aimed at generating substantially high an output as compared to the input indirectly. There are multiple ways in which I try to achieve this. 

  1. Hiring Right: I can create the most value by identifying people who are self-driven, analytical, energetic, willing to grow, visionary, smarter than me and convincing them to join the cause. Ideas or companies don't build great solutions, good people do. In a way, I aspire to be the least smart person on the team. Design is a tiny and transparent industry. More or less, everything I do is directed towards enhancing my ability to hire the best people. My reputation, my network, my brand, my working style, my success and failure and at times my relations directly affects how people perceive my efforts and whether they find me compatible and whether they would be open for collaborating. 
  2. Extrapolate and Interpret Vision: When you have a brilliant team, a sense of purpose and clarity is the fuel, you need. I've been exposed to the senior level of leadership from very early on in my career. I've realized, often, the most strategic projects, are open for interpretation. I see my role as the connecting link, where I help deduce the goal in a manner that's not only easy to interpret but also in a way that it makes where everyone fits in the broader context evident. 
  3. Facilitate Outcomes: With the right set of brains behind a problem and the correct interpretation, the job is only half done. I spend the majority of my time on optimizing the setup. The optimizations include balancing brains across projects, asking the right questions, giving and seeking feedback. It also means creating psychological safety, ensuring harmony, shielding undue outside influence, nurturing the right mindset, envisioning the right incentives, helping interpret risks, brainstorm and at times raising the red flag timely. 
  4. Mitigate Crisis, Manage Risk: My early success in career can be accredited to the flexible approach I had when there was a fire in the house. As a leader, interpreting crisis beforehand is ideal. However, occasionally, you can still end up with competing priorities, scarce resources or at times, situations out of your direct control. During these times, I find my decisions carry a lot more weight and often act as a guiding light for the team. In a crisis like situations, my role can take many forms and mostly, I always work towards making the best possible interpretation in a given context and unblocking people.
  5. Crafting a Culture: I thrive on a good team and a good culture. That also means shaky cultures are a big turn off for me. I don't particularly appreciate regimes that treat people like resources. I depend on my team a lot, and as such trust and transparency become the most important fabric of the culture, I try to create. I put a lot of weight to opinions of people with a closer context to the issue at hand. I actively promote a founder's mentality and a north start driven approach in my team. I celebrate a lot, success or failures (read learnings). I encourage frank suggestions and bold decisions as diverse ideas that have on many counts become pivotal in the projects I have led. Last but not least, I work towards ensuring that my team always keep an eye on the broader horizon as they keep their heads down in day-to-day. 
  6. Push for the extra mile: Going the extra mile is the key to the door of opportunities. While the team is working on a problem at hand, I consciously nudge and push people to go the extra mile. Almost always, the consequences make them thank me for the same. 
  7. Communicate and Evangelize: Often, this becomes the most comfortable role because the results always do the job themselves but if there were a job description, communicating the efforts and outcomes internally and externally would be one of the essential points in there. When it comes to failures, accepting the same and owning the responsibility also is my primary job. 

I'm incredibly fortunate to have worked with the people in my life so far who have all contributed to bringing me where I am today. 

User Interview and Design Demo Meeting (with Philips Amsterdam)
One of the User Sessions with Philips (Amsterdam)

How do I think about the process of Design? 

As my role has shifted, my relationship with the Design has evolved too. Below is a summary of how my thinking proceeds while designing and is a personal approach I take. Design is no longer binary for me, such as good vs bad. I've come to relate to more and more Design through a spectrum. 

  1. Expand the sub-conscious: This is an evergreen process whether you are working on a design problem or not. Ideas never come magically. They are thoughts hidden somewhere in the subconscious. I work on expanding the scope of my subconscious with how I approach learning every single moment. With repeated practise, when I am working on a problem, sparks from subconscious flow over to the conscious state of mind leading to brilliant and often unanticipated directions. 
  2. The State of mind and Preparation: The best of outcomes have come in occasional moments of burst and brain waves for me. When I get a project, I need to enter a zone of creativity. There are ways in which I prepare for that, and I've become more observant of the same with time. In addition to expanding the subconscious, the practice of mindfulness itself, and an investment into your surroundings (read workstation) also goes a long way for me. 
  3. Deduce: Once I am in my zone, this is the most critical part of how I approach a problem and revolves around understanding goals and circumstances. Unless executed correctly, this step can cause the whole project to cascade into a never-ending loop. There can be three sub-steps. Absorb: Often, the brief is a one or two liner. I dive as deep as I can and pretty much allow anything and everything to act as an input. That includes understanding what we are trying to achieve and why it matters. You can expect me to talk to direct users. At times, possibly unrelated users. I go through interviews on loops, read research transcripts, use-case, persona and scenario documents, picture a mental model, analyze the perspective of different parties involved. Analyze: Towards the end of absorbing, if I'm dealing with a product, I allow myself to research competitors and what the market accepts. Analyzing competitors is also an art, and you want to focus on the stories in customer reviews rather than the appearance of their product. Coherence: Lastly, if I am dealing with an eco-system, this is an excellent time to analyze other factors are dependent on this change.
  4. Frame: Once, the variables are all out in front, I enter a state of mind where I frame what I am trying to achieve. The focus is on cutting the noise out and brutally doing so. Contrary to what most people recommend, in my head, I also start thinking of a story and an associated elevator pitch. It is here that I often scope in elements of the extra mile that I believe will add value. Of course, at this stage, everything is at a skeleton level. The output of this step is a text document. I've come to realize, when writing down points, thoughts become very concrete, and the mind gets into a zone needed for actual execution. This text document consists of three things. A hypothesis. The hypothesis then maps to a cluster of objectives, and each objective then corresponds to high-level steps. Getting feedback from peers at this stage is often a wise move. 
  5. Evaluate: I often tend to sleep a couple of days over this document and shut the distractions away. It allows me time to be a critique of my own. Leaving your ego or dream-ideas behind or for that matter natural biases is incredibly tough and is best done with a relaxed a time-frame and deep questioning. I either go back to step 2 from here or proceed forth. 
  6. The Sacred Lock: Even before I start to think in terms of elements of Design, it is vital to get a stakeholder buy-in. I build a case using the document achieved in the last stage. There are obvious limitations that come in concerning technology and circumstances. As a designer, I find it imperative to break the status quo. As such, it is at this step that we should advocate for our users and fight the battles on their behalf if need be. There will be apparent disagreements at this stage, however, In my experience, if you are asking the right questions, more than often as a group there is unanimous agreement on the best course forward, even if it's a longer route. You don't want to take shortcuts here. There are two possibilities of a stakeholder meeting; you go back to reframing or else you lock in the desired outcome and make a sacred commitment to it. This document acts as the only source of truth after that. 
  7. Designing the Solution: Designing is the easiest step though it's often full of surprises. Before starting, I try and get a pulse on the timeline, and I usually cut it into a third to stitch together the first version. While working with complex teams, frequently ambiguous decisions have to be made. A big part of being sane in a world that seems pitted against you as a designer is to understand that business works in a certain way and the ideal step by step process does not get realized most of the times as there are a lot of variables. There are always a group of solutions, and as a designer, I strive to narrow down to the one most correct given the context and constraints. Everything related to designing right from tools, inspiration, testing, interactions come in at this step. It is important to note a couple of points here. It is easy to get lost in craft, and before you know it, there is no time left to include delight. Also, remember we cut the time in a third? Howsoever thorough the initial steps were, we may all be completely wrong. So, making high-level prototypes and getting them in front of users is crucial and often costs companies millions in revenue and zillions of people hours wasted if not done correctly. Use the remaining two-third to iterate and present again. If at any point in time, the initial assumptions, prove wrong, step back and start again. It is imperative to design with real data in mind as well; otherwise, the fruits will be far off from what you wanted them to be. Once you are confident with the results, add delight. Once the primary objective is in sight, adding delight is excellent. 
  8. The Last Mile: In my career, this is where most of the designers falter. Not everybody sees things from the eye of a designer. Commitment to pixel perfection is our job as designers. It is at this step itself that a designer should start ensuring that they have a reference sheet to measure the outcomes and that the code allows doing the same. People with an analytical side naturally perform well at this step. 

Be humble, respect results and introspect. Remember, Design is a spectrum, and we are on a journey to improve. We are striving to make the world more humane and learning with time, listening to what people have to say and respecting them is how we can achieve that. 

It is effortless to make a recommendation but owning outcomes and taking responsibility is our duty as designers. Also, throughout the process, we are not just designing for users and solving for a business; we are also advocates and should be committed to respecting privacy and diversity through our designs. These are things that can and never should be compromised upon. 

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Toy Face Credit @amritpaldesign