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  • Writer's pictureJohn Bowie

The Design Mind #2: The First Question

Here’s the scenario: you come into work one morning and you get an email from your boss assigning you to an exciting new project that you get to design from scratch. Later that morning, you go to your first team meeting with all the usual suspects, and the product manager launches her PowerPoint presentation describing the product vision:

Build a next generation <thing> that will delight our customers and dominate the market!  

Immediately, everyone in the room has a picture in their mind of the <thing> and starts to brainstorm all the features it should have to beat the competition.  

This is the way businesses think, but it should not be the way designers think. If you focus on the “thing” now, so early in the project, you will be drawn into all the common mistakes that business teams make when “designing” a new product. Mistakes like asking, “What should this thing look like?” and “What should this thing do?”  

These are the wrong questions. They will lead us too soon down the road to functions and features and appearance, and before we know it, we’ve slipped back into the traditional product-centered mindset even though we’ve convinced ourselves that we’re employing design thinking, Lean UX, or human-centered design.  

Let’s step back a minute, wipe the slate clean. For the moment, let’s forget personas and user stories and journey maps and wireframes and mockups and prototypes. Rather than approaching the design of the <thing> as a process with sprints and backlogs, patterns and tools, activities and artifacts, think of it as a sequence of questions we need to answer.  

Think about it…if we are truly designing an experience, we’re not designing a product – a “thing”; we’re designing a better “way” for someone to get all the outcomes and results that they care about.  

So, the first question we must ask is: How can we design a better “way” for a person to achieve the outcomes and results that they care about? The “way” might indeed be a product. It might also be a service. It could also be an ecosystem comprising both products and services, or it might be something else we haven’t even imagined yet. 

The person’s experience of the “way” will determine whether she succeeds or fails to achieve the outcome, which in turn will determine your success or failure as the designer, and ultimately will determine the success or failure of the company you work for. 

That our success is contingent on our customers’ success is so obvious it hardly seems worth stating. Why then is it so often ignored? It’s ignored when the project team decides that requiring users to be “trained” to use a product is an acceptable solution to complexity. It’s ignored when user experience defects are classified as “enhancements” and given a low priority. It’s ignored when the company executives and project stakeholders obsess over making the <thing> pretty instead of making it simple. 

No, we cannot afford to lose sight of this central question at any point in the product development life cycle. It is our responsibility as designers to constantly realign the team’s focus back to this question when the focus drifts toward features, functions, and appearance.  

But enough preaching to the choir; let’s get back to our story. You’ve convinced the project team to momentarily abandon their product focus and to instead ask how you, the project team, can design a “way” for someone to accomplish the outcomes that they care about. 

This initial question seems simple enough, but it is actually an incredibly loaded question that you cannot possibly answer yet. Why? Because this question is your project. It is your entire project! This question generates a cascade of other sub-questions that must each be answered before your customer – and thus you, your project team, and your company – can succeed: 

  • How might we design... This is the thought process you will use on the project. This is the also the essence of design that we are trying to discover (the design mind thought process). 

  • …a better way... This is the final deliverable of the project, the experience we want to provide to our customers. 

  • …for a person... Who’s the person? Who are we designing for? We must answer this before we can design the way. 

  • …to get the outcomes and results… What outcomes do these persons want? What does success look like? And what are the variations on the outcomes and the prerequisite results?   

  • …that they care about? What makes them care about it? What events happen in their lives to trigger their need or desire to achieve this outcome and these results?

We need the answers to all these sub-questions before we can even start to design the “way.” Exploring the various ways that outcomes and results can be achieved must precede designing the experience of pursuing each way.

Design is a process of asking and answering a cascade of questions; lower-level questions must be answered before we can answer the higher-level ones. The good news is we just need very simple and general answers right now – answers that we will refine and embellish as we move through the project. 


“It is difficult to answer when one does not understand the question.”

      --Ambasador Sarek, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)

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