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“We are all nerds about design and usability”

San Francisco, Nov 21st, 2018

With offices in San Francisco, New York City and London, Momentum Design Lab is a design thinking-based and technology driven,user experience design agency specializing in digital product innovation, customer experience design, and digital transformation.

The agency has a team of thinkers, dreamers and does that want to change the world by helping their clients such as Verifone and Synthesio to grow their products through marketing and brand strategies.

A key part of that team is Sal Chavez, Senior Producer. In an interview with TIA, Chavez gave us an inside look on the agency’s daily work, specifically on the role played by the discovery process and its importance for Momentum.

Could you describe your agency in a few words?

We’re a team of designers, researchers, organizers, and problem solvers that create digital experiences that people want to use every day. We’re all nerds about design and usability and get a kick out of solving complex problems for our clients and especially our users.

What experiences drove you to where you are today?

I actually come from the traditional graphic design world originally. I spent my first few years out of art school working as a marketing/advertising graphic designer doing print production, web design, animation, you name it. Towards the end of my time at my first design shop, we started to get a few projects in the UI/UX space and guess who got the lead on those…

Why should a designer spend time on the discovery process?

I always go back to this quote by Dana Chisnell, a civic design guru who’s work for the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). She said, “Want your users to fall in love with your designs? Fall in love with your users,” which I think sums it up quite nicely. How do we design experiences that other people will want to use? We need to enamor ourselves with who these people are. We need to understand their daily experiences, their frustrations, their wants, needs and everything else in between. Building up empathy with users is key as that’s the only way you know you’re designing for the right problems.

How do you manage the discovery process on a daily basis?

While we’re in the discovery phase it is all about collecting, sifting and organizing as much data as you can gather. Be it from the users, the client, or other outside resources. The main point of doing all this collecting is to build a story about the user. This story is not just about what job your user has or what their title is, it’s also about understanding their frustrations, their goals, and their shortcuts to take an idea from design to a final solution.

To that end, documenting and synthesizing knowledge gained through the workshop discovery process is invaluable. Going through clusters of post-its in the form of affinity maps, value maps or dot voting and knowing what information they provide and how to leverage that information is vital.

What are the steps you take when working on the discovery process?

For me it is all about 3 simple questions; (1) What are we trying to solve? (2) What are we trying to make better? and most importantly (3) Who are we doing this for? Without this third question fully answered, your design isn’t solving for the right things. There are a myriad number of ways to answer this question, but personally, I find the most efficient way is to get everyone in the same room and have a good old-fashioned workshop. This is where the design team and the clients work together to paint a picture of the goals and the user.

However, that is only the first step. Having a game plan once you get the right people in the room is the next step. As a team, we conduct in-person exercises to gather information about the users and the client’s business to inform our designs. This is often an overlooked part of the design as it’s not done on a fancy program or even on a computer. More often than not, clients may think they know what they are looking for or even think that they are on the same page internally, so the workshops are designed to clarify their goals and to align their stakeholders.

Which team members participate in the process?

For the most part, the discovery phase in any project is spearheaded by the design team. However, at Momentum Design Lab (MDL) we’ve been building a design think-tank culture where anyone of our designers can reach out to the whole design team and ask questions, brainstorm ideas if they’re stuck, and use the rest of the team as an extended design resource.

In addition to the hive mind of designers here, the rest of the team will utilize our trusted methodology to help us capture this kind of user-centered research. Our team collaborates on previous engagements where they might have had similar challenges to keep ourselves open to solutions from past experiences.

What outcomes can be obtained thanks to the process?

The discovery phase is essential to building a sense of empathy for your users. How else are you going to design a solution for people you’ve never met or talked to before if you don’t understand them? By doing the essential research first, we can set ourselves up for success in the long run.

More specifically, once you’ve gone through the process by whatever methods you’ve determined to be best, you now have an arsenal of information to base user flows, journeys, IAs, etc. An affinity map can yield features that a client team is thinking of; an empathy map will help the team understand what the user hears and sees, their thoughts and feelings as well as what they need to do; a dot voting exercise may help to prioritize a list of needs. Armed with your knowledge uncovered during discovery, you have a landscape that you can now use to shape the picture of various users. It serves as a launching pad to design an award-winning application.

What piece of advice would you give a recent grad looking to work in digital?

Skip the software tutorials, you can learn the basics of any program by simply spending enough time using them. Really where the time should be spent is on research Immerse yourself in understanding your users’ mind to design an effective application. Look up and understand the different ways that you can begin to better understand your users.

Never conducted a user interview before? Go online and get to learning! Learn how to use affinity and empathy maps to begin to construct a user persona. Get familiar with a Customer Journey Map if you’ve never seen one before. These I feel are the most important parts of design thinking that often get overlooked because of elegant screens or slick animations. The most important thing is to become familiar with these methods of research, to glean the information you need to come to the right solution for the right kind of user.

Thanks Sal!

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