On design variations

When you’re looking to solve a design problem, there’s one obvious solution that instantly pops up in your head, and keeps tapping on your shoulder as you move along. It’s tempting to just stop right there, give in, and say you’re done. But it’s an illusion, and I’ll tell you why.

Unless put to test, design problems can have many solutions, each with it’s own unique angle. But if you are a product designer facing a design challenge, what solution do you test? How do you arrive at the best solution? What solution do you stand behind as your best bet?

You need a framework.

Artiom Dashinsky, the writer of the Solving Product Design Exercises, spent several years leading design at WeWork, and came up with a 7 step framework for solving design challenges. When I first looked at the framework, it seemed to be deceptively simple. But in reality, I found the framework to be a solid design process, which I’ll elaborate on, in a little bit. But first, let’s look at the genesis of this book.

After interviewing many designer candidates, Artiom came up with a set of design exercises that could be used by anyone for their own interviewing needs. However, out of the comments and feedback received, he wrote the book that also contains the 7 step framework.

The 7 step framework

1 Why

A lot of designers fail to answer this question, when given a problem to work on. It’s entirely possible that the problem being handed is not the problem, but a solution pretending to be a problem. This often occurs when business envisage a solution in their head, and they specify the problem in such a narrow sense that there’s only one solution possible. Ask the why. Dig in a little bit. Ask for those searching and probing questions to get to the bottom of the business needs.

2 Who

Unless you’ve understood the exact user cohort(s) you’re designing for, your solution is most likely to be wrong. List the user cohorts involved, and choose the one you’re designing for.

3 When & where

Bring context to the need. Location, event, triggers, emotions, before & after and conditions will give you a set of customer needs you can make a list of.

4 What

Here comes the time to exercise your brain and come up with potential candidate solutions. Not A/B variations, but broad-stroke options to solve the problem at a higher level. If the original goal is to attract more customers, would an advertising campaign fare better or an online conference? List all the possibilities.

5 Prioritise & choose idea

Here comes the heart of the 7 step framework. Map your potential solutions on a Effort vs Impact graph:

Effort vs Impact graph

The heart of the 7 step framework The chosen idea here is the one that carries the most impact, while having a relative balance with the effort required. This would make common and business sense, and product designers need both to arrive at a successful solution.

6 Solve

Solving is all about listing down the user tasks, and sketching against each. It’s a simple exercise that extends what’s in your head, and makes you go through the motions of your intended solution. This exercise is great at pin-pointing any hairy problems in your design upfront.

7 How

This is the brain of the 7 step framework. The how asks you a simple question: How will you measure the success of your solution? Most solutions will have some kind of metrics that could tell you whether your chosen design solution was at all successful. This could include things like user retention rates, engagement, sales, warranty claims and more. It also ties things back to step 1, the why of the entire process. But the variations? Ah, the variations. Remember we had a problem to begin with? Some sort of a statement or brief, or a user story, or an epic, or just a meeting. Something triggered the whole thing. That thing could have various contexts. For example, it’s possible that you’re designing a solution for a specific cohort, but there’s a requirement from branding to stay within a particular type of a new aesthetic they’re looking to launch. Or your boss has advised you that the solution needs to be considered for the Japanese market as well.

All you have to do is to work the 7 step framework for these varieties of business needs individually.

You’ll arrive at variations in that case. One problem, with many valid variations of the solution.

That’s fine. Someone at the helm of affairs will make a call, whether the variations need to be considered now or later, merged or kept in their lanes, or may be they’ll see a pattern and think about changing the problem brief.

You’ll see a pattern too.

If you can see a pattern, you’ve arrived at a general solution. A solution that might work in various contexts, across various sets of needs and applicable to a wide variety of cohorts. You’ve achieved the product design nirvana.