A couple weeks ago I woke up at 3:00 a.m. from a cat paw lightly tapping on my face in desperate hopes I might think it’s breakfast time. First of all, my cats are total jerks. Second of all, they sort of changed my life that morning. Somewhere between a Seinfeld episode and the lack of sleep I got the courage to enroll in the Springboard UX Design program.

The decision to study UX design isn’t something I made lightly. As a front end developer for the past few years, I’ve been lucky enough to observe and work alongside a crew of talented UXers that bring immense value to every . They ask a lot of questions. And those questions are really good questions that sometimes change the course of a project altogether (and save money).

What does this product need to do? Who are your users? Why will they care? What are your goals? How are you different than your competitors? What research has already been done? What problem are you trying to solve? Who are the primary decisions makers for this project?

My friends and family often make fun of me for asking so many questions, so I naturally gravitate towards UX personalities within various teams. I think it’s a fairly common trait—we ask questions because we genuinely want to create meaningful connections with other people and learn how they navigate this ginormous blue planet. Goodness knows none of us know how.

What the Frack is UX Design?

So what’s UX design, then? The various definitions cause a lot of confusion because UXers often dip in and out of many roles on a daily basis. Some of them have even re-labeled themselves as UX Architects, UX Engineers, or UX Strategists to avoid being marginalized as only visual designers. Others simply go by Experience Architect/Engineer/Strategist. However, the end goal is always the same:

UXers seek to find the balance between logic and emotion by creating a logical structure for the experience while establishing an emotional connection between the product and its users.—Springboard

Through the process of design, research, and strategy, experience designers strive to create an emotional connection between people and technology. There’s a lot of paraphrasing going on here because words are hard and my whiskey glass is almost empty, but I hope it’s starting to become more clear. For further reading, I suggest the following:

The Gift-Giving Project

The first design challenge in the course is adapted from the Standford d.school Gift-Giving Project and demonstrates the value of design thinking and UX as a whole. The goal of this exercise is to experience a full design cycle to develop a solution that “redesigns the gift-giving experience” for your partner that’s meaningful and useful to them.

The Design Thinking Process. The Center for Innovation in Teaching & Learning (CITL)

You can follow right along with the d.school’s video. Absolutely no design experience is required! General format for reference:

  1. Interview your partner (4 mins): Gain empathy for your partner and find out whats important to them.
  2. Dig deeper (4 mins): Build off of the first interview and dig deeper. Now’s the time to ask “Why?”
  3. Capture Findings (3 mins): With what you already know, write down a few needs that your user is trying to accomplish—these should be in the form of verbs. Add any insights/discoveries that might be useful when creating solutions.
  4. Define a problem statement (4 mins): Based on your findings, clearly state the problem that you’re going to try and solve.
  5. Sketch to ideate (4 mins): Sketch at least 5 potential solutions to the problem you defined above. Be quick. Don’t worry about drawing well. Go for volume!
  6. Share solutions and capture feedback (4 mins): Don’t defend your prototype. Listening is key.
  7. Reflect and generate a new solution through iteration (3 mins)
  8. Build solution (10 mins): Use whatever you have around your house. Paper, foil, tape, post-its, staples, whatever!
  9. Share your solution and get feedback for testing (4 mins): Same as number 6.
  10. Write down what goes well, what could be improved, and any questions or ideas that arise.

My Project Results

I was really outside of my comfort zone with The Gift-Giving Project. I’m sort of a perfectionist, so time limits give me anxiety. But it was challenging (in a good way) and forced me to think outside of the box and not be so self-conscious of my own ideas.

First Interview Notes:

  1. When was the last time you gave a gift? Watching Bears football game 3 weeks ago w/ brother. During game bought jersey of popular player online for brother.
  2. What prompted you to buy the jersey? Going to first game together at Soldier Field soon and knew he would appreciate/be excited to wear it for the game.
  3. Why did you choose the jersey? It’s a practical and useful gift that he can enjoy for years.
  4. What do you struggle with when choosing a gift for someone? Takes time to determine what to get for someone. Wants gift to both be a surprise and something he knows they want or might not know they need.

Second Interview Notes:

  1. How do you determine what gift to buy for someone? Takes many mental notes on things they may mention or issues they are having. Ex.) “Ugh. I keep tripping on this hole in my yard!” — would buy them a helpful tool/supplies as a gift to fill the hole w/out asking. Very observant of others.
  2. Why do you like to give gifts as a surprise? Takes the attention off of him. Enjoys the excitement of surprises.
  3. Why don’t you like the attention? Gift giving is more about the person than him. Making others feel appreciated is rewarding and meaningful to him.
  4. Do you give gifts often? No. More thoughtful when can make informed decisions about what person may need, want, or find useful.

Needs and Insights:

Based on my observations and the above interviews, I wrote down a few “needs” (in the form of verbs) and insights about my partner.

  • Needs: observe, research, help others, surprise, be thoughtful, show appreciation/love, make meaningful connections with others
  • Insights: Wears smart watch daily, heavy technology user, doesn’t like to be center of attention, calculated personality, well informed and observant of those around him, genuine and authentic when it comes to gift giving, researches and spends a lot of time to find the perfect gift. Quiet, inward, and makes thoughtful comments.

Problem Statement:

I struggled to synthesize my findings into a clear problem statement, but ultimately came up with the following:

Griffin [my partner] needs a way to research and discover more information about a person’s wants, needs, and interests because he wants to feel confident that the gift he buys someone is useful, meaningful, and demonstrates his thoughtfulness.

Sketches and Feedback (Round 1):

I came up with some pretty outlandish ideas here, but the feedback session with my partner is where the real magic of design thinking happened. I won’t go into too much detail about the ideas themselves, but I was trying to think of radical ways an application could collect data about my partner’s family and friends to inform him of possible gifts they would find useful.

As I was explaining the panels to gather feedback, my partner had positive reactions to panels 4, 5, 6 and began to talk about how they all related to one another—something I didn’t even realize. He’s likes technology and loves his smartwatch, headphones, phone, thinks robots are cool (duh), and relies on notifications from various applications to take important actions throughout his week.

Sketch and Build Final Solution:

I took my partner’s feedback from round 1 to sketch a prototype of a smartwatch application that fits more within his lifestyle. This application also has a web interface where he can log on to modify and view additional settings. Currently, he spends a lot of time listening and observing his friends and family to identify potential gift options. So I wanted to create something that would help alleviate that manual research process.

The below sketch is an application that could gather data from peoples’ media activity and prompt users whenever it identifies potential gift opportunities. For example, the below states:

“Sauron said he was interested in attending the Bears game. We found two tickets! Want to purchase?”

I gathered some materials from around the house to build the final product and below was the end result:

I decided on the name Re-Con (should actually be Recon, eh? oops!) to make a connection with the word reconnaissance. My partner said this application would improve his gift-giving experience, because currently he manually keeps track of and observes what his friends family may want or need, and this application does the “recon” for him, so to speak. We came up with ideas on how it could be improved, too! Machine learning, personalized data, headphone and mobile integrations…

I wouldn’t have been able to develop this solution without the collaboration of my partner, and that’s what I found so fascinating and wonderful about this UX exercise. My prototypes created a snowball effect of more ideas, which drastically improved the application based on the user’s real needs and interests. The collaboration was really positive and energetic.

I encourage everyone to grab a friend, co-worker, or gather a whole team and work through this challenge to help understand the value of user experience and design thinking!

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