The design decision style of genius design brings tremendous strategic advantages to a design team (Genius Design style looks to the vast previous experience of the team members). Yet we hardly ever hear anyone talking about it. Teams choosing to adopt it see great results, but many don’t consider it an option.

The other design decision styles seem more straight forward. Self design only requires the designers look to their own likes and dislikes about the design. Activity-focused design and experience-focused design have the advantage of a well- documented set of user experience activities to support them.

Yet genius design stands alone. It requires time and effort to achieve, forcing a long-term investment to make work. After all, you need to become so smart about the users, their needs, and the problems you’re solving, that you’re a frickin’ genius. That doesn’t happen overnight.

Making the Investment for the Future

A team that approaches genius design needs to focus on a specific problem that has a big enough market to provide a decent return on the investment. For example, an agency might decide they’ll become the industry experts in building web sites for small community hospitals. Because there are thousands of these hospitals across the country, many of which have pretty poor web sites, this is a market that could be beneficial. By establishing an expertise in this space, the agency could provide a cost-effective tailored solution that works.

This means the agency would need to learn everything they can about the people who run the web sites, the people who use the web sites, and what the web sites need to meet everyones’ needs. If they succeed, they’ll create an internal knowledge that separates them from every other web design agency out there, because they’ll know how to demonstrate their expertise to potential clients.

Taking the plunge into genius design means accepting that the first few projects may be less profitable (or even operate at a loss). The team spends extra resources to dig deep into the research and develop a toolkit that will power future projects. Those future projects will be highly profitable because of the groundwork laid in the earlier projects.

Not Just for Agencies

We’ve met a few internal teams benefiting from genius design. These folks typically exist in organizations where there’s a benefit from tailoring a common experience. For example, a large sporting goods retailer’s design team used genius design to tailor the customer service functionality across different stores. While each store’s systems had the same basic capabilities, the presentation took specialized knowledge about the unique elements of that store and its customers into account.

The team found it hard to find commonalities in the first few stores they worked on. As the team moved from region to region, they started to see patterns in the users and the necessary functionality. As they built up their intelligence about the problems to solve, they found it easier to apply working solutions.

Secret #1: Research Drives Everything

Genius design starts with a thorough research process. In the first few projects, the teams spend more time than they usually might digging deep into the problem space. They learn everything they can about who the users are and study how those users deal with today’s experiences.

The best genius design teams make extensive catalogues of the contexts they find in the research. Those contexts eventually will drive the designs the teams create. Not only does the research start the project, but the teams continue it throughout. They study design ideas as they come up, putting prototypes in front of prospective users. And they look at how well the final design performed to see if it achieved what they’d hoped. As they complete each project, their research will tell a complete story of what they’ve learned in the process.

Secret #2: Looking for the Point of Least Astonishment

When the research no longer surprises you, you’ve reached the point of least astonishment. Reaching this point means you’ve made a big leap towards being a genius designer.

Everyone on the team needs to participate in the research until they’ve reached the point of least astonishment. This includes back-end developers (who will make decisions that will influence future performance and architecture) and product managers (who will make decisions about what’s in future designs and what to leave out). This way every member on the team shares a common view of the users.

Secret #3: Designing From Scenarios

From the research, the genius design team can construct a big picture of what users want to do. These form the basis of the scenario library.

Building a scenario library gives the team a sense of the different ways people will approach the design. It’s a great way to document the nuance and subtlety that will appear in later research. Naming each scenario creates a vocabulary for the team to discuss what they are learning. More discussion makes for more brilliance.

Secret #4: Rich Behavioral Personas

For even more brilliance, genius design teams create personas that describe differences they see in user behaviors. With each project, they see if their research uncovers similar users to those they’ve met in the past, or if they learn about a new type of user they’ve not encountered before.

Describing each persona gives the team a place to catalogue the different behaviors, motivations, and contexts they discover. After a few projects, this catalogue becomes a quick way to identify which design alternatives will work the best. Combined with the scenario library, it forms the basis of the toolkit to arriving at a quick design.

Secret #5: Building Up the Pattern Library

Once the team has compiled a library of personas and scenarios, it can start to match those with the most effective design solutions. The pattern library encompasses the interaction design, visual design elements, and information architecture of possible designs.

The investment of building an extensive pattern library pays off when the team can identify ideal design solutions in record time. Because the library contains proven solutions for the very nuanced personas and scenarios that arose during the research, the team can get to a design very quickly. Agencies charge top dollar for the work, while internal teams deliver solutions as a substantially lowered cost.

Secret #6: Identifying Key Performance Indicators

The biggest payoff comes when the team conducts enough research to discover the key drivers of success. From these, they can show their clients how these performance indicators reflect the improvements in the users’ experience. This helps sell future projects along with teaching the team what design decisions had the best outcomes.

Genius Design’s Payoff

Genius design is a sophisticated approach to making design decisions. Through deep study of similar projects, a team learns what works and what doesn’t. This makes the team more valuable over time, bringing it to a new level with every subsequent project. We’re seeing more teams take the plunge with the genius design approach. It’s a great way to move away from the commoditization of design work, while delivering real value to clients.

jared spoolAbout the Author

Jared M. Spool is the founder of User Interface Engineering. He spends his time working with the research teams at the company and helps clients understand how to solve their design problems.


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