Core design competencies

In his wonderful book ‘Imagine If‘ Ken Robinson talks about the flaws within the educational system.

He argues that what students need from their education is to become proficient in some core competencies in order to prepare them for the economic, personal, cultural and social challenges they will face in their lives.

The competencies he identifies are curiosity, creativity, communication, collaboration, compassion, composure and citizenship.

Here’s how Ken breaks them down in his book :

Curiositythe ability to ask questions and explore how the world works

Creativitythe ability to generate new ideas and apply them in practice

Criticismthe ability to analyse information and ideas and to form reasoned arguments and judgements

Communicationthe ability to express thoughts and feelings clearly and confidently in a range of media and forms

Collaborationthe ability to work constructively with others

Compassionthe ability to empathise with others and to act accordingly

Composurethe ability to connect with the inner life of feeling and develop a sense of personal harmony and balance

Citizenshipthe ability to engage constructively with society and to participate in the processes that sustain it

I’ve often thought about what being a good designer actually means and I think that these competencies would be a brilliant framework to use to help work that out in practice.

When I think about the best people I’ve worked with I realised that it is these things that they’ve been really good at.

As a designer being good at the tools and methods is one thing but if you don’t have these competencies then you’ll struggle.

They aren’t just relevant to designers of course, but feel really useful to help us to recruit people, set objectives and design our own training and development.

I would wholeheartedly recommend Ken’s book, it covers many other fascinating and important subjects such as creativity, positivity, sustainability and systems thinking.

The get a feel for his work check out his TED talk on ‘Do schools kill creativity‘.

Questions are the answer

Ben Holliday’s UXBristol talk about ‘Asking Design Questions‘ really resonated with me.

As a consultant, you can often feel like you are supposed to have all of the answers.

I think it’s more about having all of the questions.

Every challenge presents a problem to solve.

You can’t understand the problem without asking good questions.

They are fundamentally important throughout the entire process.

You need to question your brief in order to understand it properly such as…

  • Why are you doing this?
  • Why are you doing this now?
  • What do you think are the reasons behind the problem you are seeing?
  • What is the cost of the problem to the organisation today?

Successful early meetings are grounded on asking questions such as…

  • What problem are you really trying to solve?
  • How will we know if we have succeeded?
  • Who should we involve?
  • What should we know at the end that we do not know today?

Questions, questions, questions.

Our research starts with identifying the big questions that are on our clients minds such as…

  • Why has our conversion rate dropped?
  • Do people understand and value our proposition?
  • What are the most challenging aspects of choosing a university course?
  • Why do people choose our competitors over us?

We explore the business context of our work by interviewing senior stakeholders and asking questions such as…

  • What are you trying to achieve as an organisation?
  • How does this piece of work contribute towards your vision?
  • What is the impact of this problem?
  • What do you want to get from this project?

Questions, questions, questions.

We explore these within our research with people by asking them questions such as…

  • When did you book your last holiday?
  • What are you looking for in a new car?
  • How do you go about choosing a new savings account?
  • How do you find out about planned changes to your local area?

Once we’ve completed our research we’re still asking questions such as…

  • What have we learned?
  • How can we communicate our learnings in the most effective way to the people who need to hear them the most?
  • How can we apply what we have learnt to improve what we are working on?
  • Which problems should we tackle first?

Questions, questions, questions.

When our work comes to an end we’re still asking questions such as…

  • What went well?
  • What would we do differently next time?
  • What have we learned?
  • Which of our initial assumptions and hypotheses proved to be true?

But it’s not just the project team who are asking questions.

Our customers are full of questions that they need answers to before they can complete their everyday tasks such as…

  • Is it good quality?
  • Do I like the look of it?
  • Do I trust them?
  • Can I return it if I don’t like it?

The best products and services second guess (and then answer) the questions of the people who use them.

What’s the most important question you need to answer to improve your own project, career, product or service?

Questions are the answer.

What ‘experience baggage’ are your customers carrying?

I recently finally cancelled my Abobe Lightroom subscription after years of putting it off.

I’ve been paying £9.99 a month for it ever since and not really using it.

Every month I saw the money leave my account and kicked myself for not cancelling it.

The problem was I knew just how difficult they were going to make it to leave and I just couldn’t muster the energy to do it.

I put it off because I expected it to be difficult, annoying and frustrating.

I must have looked at a reminder to cancel it on my to do list every day for years.

When I finally cancelled it I was amazed that it only took me a minute to do and was absolutely no hassle whatsoever.

My preconceptions of how hard it was going to be were unfounded but had cost me at least two years worth of subscription fees.

These preconceptions (both good and bad) are built from hundreds of previous experiences that we then bring with us to everything we subsequently do.

I’ve been thinking about this as ‘experience baggage’.

Woman looking at her phone pulling a suitcase
What ‘experience baggage’ are your customers arriving with? (Illustration from storyset.com)

This experience baggage moulds our preconceptions, anxieties and expectations of what an experience will be like and as such influences our behaviour.

As such it’s a critical thing for designers to understand and try and mitigate in our work.

By conducting user research you can identify the experience baggage your customers and potential customers are arriving with when they use your products and services.

Armed with this knowledge and insight you can then deliberately provide experiences that serve to dispel customers preconceptions that will surprise and delight them instead.

Now that I know it’s easy to unsubscribe from Lightroom for example, I’m more likely to re-subscribe in the future.

That’s the sweet spot of experience design, creating something that is both good for the customer and good for the business.

So consider what ‘experience baggage’ your users are arriving with and what you can do at all of your touch points to encourage them to leave it at the door.