7 UX activities also used by Detectives

The most obvious activities to me were from investigative police work.


Tomas Urlikas

3 years ago | 5 min read

I was always interested in detective type of movies and during my experience working as a designer, I started to notice some common patterns.

This is not supposed to be a direct comparison of occupations between UX Designer and Detective, but rather some activities which we do are common and in some ways are look-alike.

UX designers tend to be investigative as research play a key part in this profession. Most UX activities I know come from other types of occupations which at the moment proved to be an effective way to get the job done.

Yet, this is not the only type of occupation which shares similar patterns in activities.

For example, I noticed for people coming from Architecture into UX is easier. They already have a design process and they design for people. However, in this case, the most obvious activities to me were from investigative police work.

5 Whys

Illustrative explanation by Tomas Urlikas

This is an interrogative technique used to explore cause-and-effect relationships. You solve the underlying particular problem by repeating the answer to the question “why” 5 times. By doing that it is possible to determine the root cause of the problem.

It is a used technique in police work, but origins are from Sakichi Toyoda. He is the Japanese industrialist, inventor, and founder of Toyota Industries who developed this 5 Whys technique in the 1930s.

It became popular in the 1970s across many other industries. It is super useful in daily work for investigative causes about a certain behaviour. This method helps to answer why some decisions are made such a way and later on they can work with the problem’s origin.

Persona Creation

Lawrence Kane Report, page 1. The report was prepared by retired police officer Harvey Hines

If someone can remember the movie “Zodiac” there is a particular scene where they tried to build up regular persona who would do such crime.

This type of activity helped to narrow down the search to something more tangible. The same type of method was used to catch the famous “Unabomber”. They take up all the current collected evidence, interviews from witnesses and by using statistics build up the most likely person.

It is not always accurate as many things are coming from assumptions, but in many cases it gets the job done and forms an image of what to look for in the crowd. UX Designers always tend to design for their target audience to match user needs towards the product. If you design for everyone you are designing for nobody.

Having personas or profiling suspects is a similar idea, you need to know what are you trying to catch among the general population.


Photo by

By talking to witnesses and studying the crime scene detectives tend to talk to a lot of people. They ask to tell a story of anything they saw unusual by encouraging “thinking aloud”.

This is the same scenario when by doing user interviews or fieldwork we go to places where our target audience is. We study surroundings and talk about experiences in daily life to study behaviours.

When talking with witnesses the same principles apply, you ask them to tell a story and follow along with data you hear to catch up with important details. Taking down notes fast is also a skill which helps a lot.

Mind Maps and Sitemaps

Photo by Juan Pablo Gutierez on courtesy of Netflix

In a popular TV show “Narcos” there was a scene where investigators got huge mind maps to help find connections between cartel members. In some cases, within UX work we try to make sense of huge chunks information and connect the dots.

That way we can see the bigger picture of everything, understand well what is going on and be able to work with colleagues on this more accessible.

This is the investigative collaboration at its best when there is a need to find a missing pattern or new clues, you need that all members are on the same page. Designers tend to map out sitemaps, user flows, ideas, clusters of information and this technique benefits all parties.

While in police work working with an organised crime this wall visually helps to map connections, your colleagues who are working on the same case can add information.

To dismantle a network you need a good overview of what relations and ranks members have with each other to catch the “Big Fish”.

Assumptions and Hypothesis

Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

We often work with limited information about the project and we form up a hypothesis to test assumptions on how the product might be used. In the detective world, this tends to be the same case, when having limited information.

With collected insights when no solid proof is in place detectives define suspects while there is not proven different. In that case, if your assumption about the suspect is not valid you should let go the person or if the assumption is right it goes to trial.

Journey Maps

Photo by

In many cases, detectives try to step into the shoes of a criminal. They map out the entire journey to find some missing details which are not visible at first sight. This is a re-creation of the crime scene from the beginning till the end with all touchpoints, more like creating a story also.

Differently than Journey Map precise timing is essential there including what happened when, but generally, it is a comparable activity at some level.

Designers tend to imagine the entire customer journey and be in the shoes of a user, detectives tend to have the mindset to think like a criminal or what this criminal was doing, possible hideouts and run away scenarios.

Affinity Mapping

Capture from TV show “True Detective”

When working with data in most police work you go through breadcrumbs in your case and try to put things together for your discoveries to make sense.

It is like a puzzle building, you put small pieces together to see a bigger picture, but also you need to map out similar groups and patterns to work with information more effectively.

This is the true case after user research, investigative interview, you need to work with gathered data.

Affinity mapping is the way to do that.

Thanks for reading! As I mentioned before this is no direct comparison of occupations, but rather these are similarities in some activities which were visible to me.

By watching and analyzing my favourite TV shows and movies these were similarities in activities which I noticed. I am not a detective, but I tried to describe all activities which look like to be the way it is.

Designer by its true nature is investigative, working with data, managing assumptions, forming a hypothesis and talking a lot to people while trying to see some common patterns. We solve problems and doing correct research helps to make more informed decisions later on.


Created by

Tomas Urlikas

I enjoy turning complex problems into simple, beautiful and intuitive designs. I am providing most effective solutions and presenting information in an understandable way. The hunger to learn more and do better has helped me to achieve business requirements the company might have and ability to see the problems from a different point of view.







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