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Contextual Design Process
The Contextual Design methodology, developed by Karen Holtzblatt and Hugh Beyer, is a customer-centered design process which uses extensive field data as the foundation for understanding users' needs, task, intents, and processes in order to design products that meet both users' and business' needs. To learn more about Contextal Design through our books and publications, see Design Resources.
Talk to customers while they work
The first challenge of design is to understand the customers: their needs, their desires, their approach to the work. Yet work becomes so habitual to the people who do it that they often have difficulty articulating exactly what they do and why they do it.
Contextual inquiry uncovers who customers really are and how they work on a day-to-day basis. The cross-functional design team conducts one-on-one field interviews with customers in their workplace to discover what matters in their work. Team members observe people as they work and inquire into actions as they unfold to understand motivations and strategy. The interviewer and customer, through discussion, develop a shared interpretation of the work.
Interpret the data in a cross-functional team
Team interpretation sessions bring the design team together to hear the whole story behind each interview and capture the insights and learning relevant to their design problem. An interpretation session presents all team members' unique perspectives to the data, sharing design, marketing, and business implications. Through these discussions, the team captures issues, draws work models, and develops a shared view of the needs of the customer whose data is being interpreted.
Consolidate data across multiple customers
Systems are seldom designed for a single customer. But, designing for a whole customer population — the market, department, or organization that will use the system — depends on seeing the common aspects of the work various people do.
Consolidated flow model
Consolidation brings together data from individual customer interviews so the team can see common patterns and structure without losing individual variation. The affinity diagram merges issues and insights across all customers into a wall-sized, hierarchical diagram to reveal the scope of the problem. Consolidated work models combine each different type of work model separately to reveal common strategies and intents while retaining and organizing individual differences.
Together, the affinity diagram and consolidated work models produce a single picture of the customer population a design will address. They give the team a focus for the design conversation, showing how the work hangs together rather than breaking it up in lists. They show what matters in the work and guide the structuring of a coherent response, including system focus and features, business actions, and delivery mechanisms.
Invent solutions grounded in user work practice
Any successful system improves its users' work practice. A design team's challenge is to invent and structure a system which will improve customers' work in ways they care about.
Work redesign uses the consolidated data to drive conversations about how to improve work by using technology to support the new work practice. This focuses the conversation on how technology helps people complete their jobs, rather than on what could be done with technology without considering the impact on real lives.
The redesigned work practice is captured in a vision, a story of how customers will do their work in the new world we invent. A vision includes the system, its delivery, and support structures to make the new work practice successful. The team develops the details of the vision in storyboards, "freeze-frame" sketches capturing scenarios of how people will work with the new system.
User Environment Design
Structure the sytem to support the new work practice
User Environment Design
The new system must have the appropriate function and structure to support a natural work flow. Just as architects draw floor plans to see the structure and flow of a house, designers need to see the "floor plan" of their new system — hidden behind user interface drawings, implemented by an object model, and responding to the customer work. This "floor plan" is typically not made explicit in other design processes.
The User Environment Design captures the floor plan of the new system. It shows each part of the system, how it supports the user's work, exactly what function is available in that part, and how the user gets to and from other parts of the system — without tying this structure to any particular user interface.
Use cases and object models have a customer-centered foundation in storyboards and the User Environment Design.
With an explicit User Environment Design, a team can make sure the structure is right for the user, plan how to roll out new features in a series of releases, and manage the work of the project across engineering teams. Using a diagram keeps the system coherent for the user, counterbalancing the other forces that may sacrifice coherence for ease of implementation or delivery.
Iterate with customer through paper mockups
Testing is an important part of any systems development. It's generally accepted that the sooner problems are found, the less it costs to fix them. So, it's important to test and iterate a design early, before anyone becomes invested in the design and before time is spent writing code. The simpler your testing process, the more iterations you can do to work out the detailed design with your users.
Paper prototyping develops rough mockups of the system using Post-it notes to represent windows, dialog boxes, buttons, and menus. The design team tests these prototypes with users in their workplace, replaying real work events in the proposed system. When the user discovers problems, they and the designers redesign the prototype together to fit their needs.
Rough paper prototypes of the system design test the structures of a User Environment Design and initial user interface ideas before anything is committed to code. If you've built a User Environment Design derived from customer data, your base structure should be sufficient and you'll quickly be able to focus on the user interface. Otherwise, you'll spend longer working out the base structure in paper.
Paper prototypes support continuous iteration of the new system, keeping it true to the user needs. Refining the design with users gives designers a customer-centered way to resolve disagreements and work out the next layer of requirements. The team uses several paper prototype sessions to improve the system and drive detailed user interface design.
Transition to Implementation
Work with the development team to make the design a reality
Modified QFD prioritization matrix supports team discussions and customer-centered rollout decisions.
Design is only the first step to delivering a new system, but it's the critical step. Once design is complete, your team has a stable, consistent, and useful description of the system to build, and is ready to make the transition to a planned implementation. A variety of techniques can be useful:
Prioritization plans your system rollout over time. A well-defined process walks you through a design and breaks it into coherent delivery units, each of which delivers value to your customer.
Personas capture key customer characteristics so that your users become alive for your development team. Each persona represents a class of users as an individual with a name, face, goals, and tasks.
Agile development depends on a clear, confident user or customer role for the system being built. User stories or use cases are easily written from the User Environment Design and paper prototypes, and developers' questions are easily answered.
Functional Specifications are, for some teams, still the most comfortable and complete representation of a design. The User Environment Design and paper prototypes provide exactly the needed information to write unambiguous, complete functional specifications.