Proactive UX Design: A Big Leap Requiring Baby Steps

by Jared M. Spool

These days, we’re seeing more teams successfully bring more proactive user experience design into their projects. It’s not easy, but the results are worth it.

When teams engage in proactive user experience design, they deliver better products. Proactive UX design tackles the bigger challenges faced by the product’s users. By delivering a better design, the team contributes more to the organization’s overall success.

Reactive UX design is where most design teams start. Reactive UX design is just what it sounds like: reacting to a problem in the moment. “Oh, can you fix this?” “Help! Users are complaining this is too hard! What can we do?”

Without also having proactive UX design efforts, the design team is only fixing problems caused by decisions the product team has already made. These already-made decisions are about what the product will do, how it will work, and what its underlying architecture will be.

By the time the design team is brought in, these already-made decisions are cemented into place. They present the design team with huge, often challenging constraints to work under. The design’s problems need solving, but the options for solving those problems are very constrained.

When Design Teams Get Comfortable Reacting

Despite challenging constraints, reactive UX design is often a comfortable place for teams to find themselves. It’s clear what the team needs to do. The team’s UX designers create wireframes, communicating how the screens and pages should look. They conduct usability tests, ensuring users can easily interact with the design as it’s being built.

For those product teams that previously didn’t have serious design efforts, reactive UX design feels like a huge improvement, and it is. The organization sees happier users from the better designs.

Unfortunately, it’s an easy place for design teams to get stuck. The product leadership, seeing the benefits of good design work, wants more of it. Yet, all they know is the processes and deliverables of reactive UX design. They like the wireframes and usability tests.

They believe this is what design work looks like. They believe design work always happens at the end of the process. Accidentally, the design team’s behavior reinforced this belief.

The leadership doesn’t realize it could get something better. They’ve never seen the benefits of proactive UX design. (To be fair, they likely had never seen the benefits of any design until the design team started their reactive UX design efforts.) This is all they’ve ever known about design.

The Benefits of Proactive UX Design

When a design team is engaging proactively, their research efforts are exploring the users’ experience in more detail. They go beyond usability testing by heading out of the building to on-site visits, seeing customers and users in their natural habitats. These observations bring back a larger context of what the users’ challenges are. These challenges aren’t often addressed by any competitors, let alone by the organization’s own products.

The design team can use these insights to suggest alternative directions for the product. These directions are informed by actual user needs, not by market pressures and guesses about how people might use it.

The deliverables of proactive UX design give substantially more guidance to the product team. The design team can create journey maps and service blueprints to show what the users’ current experiences are. They can craft an experience vision to promote what an ideal, aspirational experience could be.

When proactive UX design is at its best, the rest of the product team is bought into this work. The product team integrates the users’ needs into important up-front decisions. Those decisions prevent restrictive constraints in the product. Eliminating those constraints reduces new design debt later on and makes delightful design solutions easier.

Once product leadership sees what proactive UX design can bring, they love it. Yet, that’s the catch-22. They won’t invest in it until they see its benefits, which can’t happen until they invest in it.

Introducing Proactive UX Design isn’t Easy

The design team has to leave their comfort zone of being reactive all the time. It’s hard to do, because being reactive can be all consuming. If you’re spending all your time reacting to the design problems coming at you, where do you find the resources to do proactive UX design?

The reactive UX design work can’t stop. It’s adding necessary value to the product.

However, the way most design teams handle reactive UX design work can change. Instead of designers doing all the work, they can start to share the burden.

Developers can learn how to design better interactions. They can use techniques like paired design, where a designer and a developer sit together and work through designs of screens or interactive dialogues. In these sessions the developer learns the essentials of good interaction design. Over time, they can handle more of the design work, requiring fewer wireframe efforts.

Similarly, exposing developers and product managers to more user research creates a larger shared understanding of the struggles users have with their product. They start making more decisions informed by what they’ve seen users do in research sessions. The designer’s burden to be the sole advocate of the user diminishes.

None of this happens quickly. It takes time for everyone to come up to speed. It needs to become a habit to work this way.

Proactive UX Design Doesn’t Happen Organically

Without concerted efforts from the design team, they’ll remain doing reactive UX design forever. Proactive UX design requires different work from what a team does for reactive UX design. The design team needs to add this additional work into their daily routine.

Some teams try to sell the idea of proactive UX design to their management, but that rarely works. Because of the catch-22, management can’t commit to a large change in the process. It seems too risky. Also, teams can’t just switch to the new work. They have to keep designers solving reactive UX design problems while they adapt to the new proactive UX design practices.

Instead, the design team leadership has to make changes incrementally. They have to introduce the new work practices one at a time.

The rule of thumb is simple: If the rest of the team can notice you’re doing something different, you’re probably changing too much too fast. Design leadership is a game of patience. To avoid triggering resistance to change, any change has to happen undetected under the radar.

Proactive UX Design is Worth the Hassle

If introducing proactive UX design into an organization was easy, everyone would be doing it. It’s not natural. The team will face many stumbling blocks.

Design leaders who undertake this challenge need to know what they’re in for. For many of them, it’s the first big challenge they’ll take as a design leader.

However, it’s worth it. The research insights of who the product’s users are and what they need should inform every decision in the process, not just the decisions that come at the end of the process.

Everyone benefits from taking the time and pushing the organization in the direction of becoming more proactive. Product management gets a vision informed by user research that shows how the product could be a market leader. Development gains the skills and insights to produce better designs. The users get a better, more thoughtful experience.

Design and research can now influence every decision about the product. Design gets its metaphorical “seat at the table.”

It’s a big leap for the organization, even if it took many baby steps to get there.

About the Author

Jared M. Spool is a co-founder of Center Centre and the founder of UIE. In 2016, with Dr. Leslie Jensen-Inman, he opened Center Centre, a new design school in Chattanooga, TN to create the next generation of industry-ready UX Designers. They created a revolutionary approach to vocational training, infusing Jared’s decades of UX experience with Leslie’s mastery of experience-based learning methodologies.

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