What is The Holy Grail of UX Design?

This week in my mentorship session with James Box, my good friend and design mentor, we discussed what he considers “The Holy Grail of UX Design’.

The Problem

One of the problems I have been facing in my work at Peak Democracy recently is that I’ve conducted almost a dozen user interviews in effort to build empathy for our users, but I don’t know the best way to uncover meaningful insights from those interviews. I have almost ten hours of interview recordings and troves of notes that I wrote while users spoke.

I asked James to help me with this problem. Jame used an extended metaphor of wood and ‘wood grain’ to illuminate a process which he describes as “The Holy Grail of UX Design”. He said that wood grain is akin to unmet user need. He used woodworking as an extended metaphor to draw the role of research within the bigger picture of good human-centered design.

What is The Holy Grail of UX Design?

The Holy Grail of UX Design is the process of discovering unmet needs, developing empathy, and creating products that solve real problems for real people. But how do you do that?

After spending some time thinking about what James said, I’ve applied the experience I’ve had working with wood to refine his extended metaphor a bit and put it into my own words.

Woodworking as a metaphor of human-centered research

In the same way that traditional woodworkers cut down trees and end up with a massive trunk of wood, designers perform research and end up with an enormous amount of information. This information is the raw material from which design evolves. The process a designer goes through can be compared to the process of a woodworker starting with a tree and ending up with a piece of furniture.

Diagram showing different ways to mill a tree

Transform Into Smaller, Usable Chunks

First, the woodworker has to ‘mill’ (cut) the tree into smaller parts to work it using finer tools, but in order to mill it, the woodworker needs an understanding of the ‘grain’ of the wood (the way in which the tree has grown). Without regard for the woodgrain, the woodworker might make cuts that would ‘tear’ out fibers of the wood—creating waste and potentially damaging his tools.

In a similar way, a designer performs research and ends up with a massive amount of raw data. In order to inform design decisions, the designer first has to make sense of it, which starts by breaking the data into smaller parts: grouping into themes, drawing connections, identifying patterns and sketching any ideas that arise.

photo of wood shavings by clem onojeghuo on Unsplash Clem Onojeghuo

Listen. Make sense. Implement wisely.

The grain is a key characteristic in determining how each piece is used and the role that it plays in the product for which it is being milled—whether that be a chair, a table, a candlestick or even a bowl. The maturity of a woodworker tells them things about how best to use certain pieces of wood depending on the grain and other characteristics. A complete novice will likely miss things that an expert would instantly see.

In this way, experience and intuition inform a designer about what to look for to discover the ‘grain’ of their research (the unmet user needs).

Inform Design & Share Insights

A designer’s intuition might spark product concepts at this stage. They may find themselves reliving moments of angst as they ‘feel’ for the user by recalling what they heard in the interview. But ultimately, these insights need to be digested first by the designer followed by the rest of the organization. This shared understanding is a key ingredient in converting unmet needs into happy customers and a better society as a whole.

These moments of empathy and epiphany that arise during research analysis are the basis of design-informing models that inform decisions later in the process. Capturing them in a visual language is key to remembering and communicating them down the line.

Photo of a block plain from Mike Kenneally on Unsplash

Mike Kenneally

Transform Into Usable Product (Solution)

The last stage of the woodworker’s process is to select the best pieces that they have milled, make the final cuts and assemble them into a product. Then they can show off the glory of a unified piece of handmade furniture which boasts deep, natural and beautiful woodgrain.

As a modern designer working in a commercial environment we probably don’t have the luxury to spend weeks of research combing through insights for hidden bits of unmet needs. But it is our duty to do what we can, to uncover what is unseen and to translate that unmet user need into empathy across the product team. With that empathy we collaborate fiercely to funneled that shared understanding into potential solutions that are evaluated with real users. Alas! The Holy Grail of UX Design.

Photo of a woodworker by Ian Schneider on Unsplash Ian Schneider

Putting Into Practice

Putting the lessons from this extended metaphor into practice has its unique challenges in a fully remote environment. Working at an in-person team, I would sit down with a collaborator and create a wall of sticky notes that we can discuss together and organize into different themes to discover unmet user needs. But with a remote team and no other designer, I’ve got to find a different way...

I know there’s a lot of talk about cross-functional collaboration these days, but its a lot harder in practice to pull engineers away from writing code, client service folks from responding to tickets and sales people from earning new business—especially when you’re remote and in different timezones. Working in isolation on complex issues has been one of the biggest challenges for me at Peak Democracy. This is one of the areas where I am sorely lacking in my current work as a remote designer.

But hey, there are tradeoffs to everything. I’ve resolved to experiment and find a way to make good human-centered design work—even on a fully remote team with only one designer.

I’m looking forward to sharing the process in an upcoming case study once the project is finished. Stay tuned!

What Do You Think?

There’s a lot to think about in the metaphors above. I would be curious to hear your experiences in uncovering unmet user needs. What have you learned? Have you done this type of research and design work on a remote team? Do you have anything to share?

Feel free to send me an email or reach out on Twitter (@iamjohnellison). Would be great to hear from you.