You've likely heard this before: designing is problem solving. In The Shape of Design, Frank Chimero elaborates on what it means to design, reminding us to be cautious when making assumptions and avoid diving into solutions.
The best way to describe design is that it seeks to connect things by acting as a bridge between them.(62)
Chimero suggests that one of the roles of design is to act as the intermediary between the client, who commissions the work, and the audience, who sees or uses it. The product of design is not only shaped by the designer, but is heavily influenced by both the knowledge of the client, and the needs of the user.
As web designers, the sites we build can be thought of as bridges, made to cultivate growth and development in connections between our clients and their audience. Before designing any sort of bridge though, we need to answer some of the usual questions:
- Who are we building this for?
- How much traffic is expected?
- What type of bridge is the most appropriate?
Among this list of questions, none are more important than asking why – why do users need to “cross our bridge” anyways? The answer we’re looking for is never “to simply get from A to B” but rather, we need to know what motivates both our clients and users to connect through the avenues we’ll create for them.
I believe that one of the best ways to find out is to dive into the world of ethnographic research – specifically in the form of a cultural probe.
So what’s a cultural probe then?
A good breakdown of this handy research method has been floating around the web since 2007, in an article by Ruth Stalker-Firth on A List Apart. She explains that:
Cultural probes are a “quick and dirty” way of looking into users’ thoughts. They allow you to capture what types of knowledge and aspects of users’ jobs are important as well as how they feel about them. Probes go beyond classical user study techniques which focus on either what people say (questionnaire and interviews) or what they do (observation studies).”
I find that these probe studies are a breath of fresh air to the design process because they’re meant to explore, inspire, and open up a dialogue with the participants rather than produce “data” or strict “design guidelines.” Ultimately, the results we get from probes can go on to inform the creation of more accurate personas (archetypes of users) and their scenarios for the sites we build.
Cultural probes help us better understand users; in doing so, they allow us to identify and connect with our problem space to see more potential in what our work could offer. Basically, this type of research gives us more confidence in our assumptions about what users want & need and may also fuel our creativity as designers.
So is designing really just problem solving?
Absolutely! However, I feel that we shouldn’t approach every design task with a “design problem” mentality. Instead, perhaps sometimes we should view them as “design challenges” or rather, “design opportunities”. If we’re tasked with re-designing a bridge – we don’t need to re-invent it. The original worked; it had solved the problem already. By challenging ourselves to find gaps in the existing design through some clever research, we simply want to make our iteration better.