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If you fail, I fail

How lockdown has taught designers to truly understand their clients.


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Rikki Storey

3 years ago | 9 min read

As the UK passes a sobering milestone marking a year since the first lockdown was announced, I have realised two truths:

1. As designers, we don’t truly understand the impact our clients experience during periods of change

2. Without realising it, the global pandemic has enhanced our ability to take clients to the threshold of change, and beyond


Let’s be honest, once the terms of the project contract are fulfilled we usually take off for the next gig, and rarely look back.


It feels benignly obvious to state that in digital industries change happens constantly, with leading companies around the world claiming to be perennially in the process of being disrupted.

As designers working for consultancies and agencies, it’s easy to convince ourselves we are unicorns that can truly understand the change clients are experiencing, and the transformation they are aiming to achieve.

We do this because we have an arsenal of Design Thinking tools and methodologies that allow us to empathise and connect. But the truth is, once we have conducted our user research, created our personas and empathy maps, created and validated our low and high fidelity designs, supported developers to achieve go-live and ultimately fulfilled the terms of the contract — we leave for the next client engagement.

And we do it all the time! We apply our industry-leading approaches and then depart without truly understanding what disruption and transformation means to the client, existing in their market and industry, as employees within their company, as fellow humans working to make ends meet. All of which could be put at risk depending on how well you do your job…

Pause for a second and think — what happens if the client engagement you are working on fails?


Would your job be at risk? Your end-of-year performance assessment results might be, but it’s likely you will still be employed and move onto the next engagement, so you have the comfort of safe distance should things go south.

However, we have all now experienced disruption, change, and transition thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic and national lockdowns. This has given us a new perspective into what clients and their employees are going through, and there are practical ways we as designers can set the stage for success.

So how can we frame transitional change, understand practical ways to build empathy and enable success, and transform our lived experience of this global ‘transitional state’, to truly empathise with clients who need your help?

. . .

Defining change and transformation

Transformation always comes with baggage. It is loaded with uncertainty, risk and at its core a set of new and unmet needs. For clients, these needs are the catalyst for change, and meeting them means moving through a transitional period to get to the desired state.

The concept of ‘Liminal Space’ helps us to understand the transitional or ‘in between’ states our clients go through. The etymology of the word liminal comes from the Latin word ‘limen’, meaning threshold — any point or place of entering or beginning — and it’s in liminal space where all transformation takes place, moving from As-Is to To-Be states.

Liminal Space and Design

Don Norman reminds us in ‘Why I Don’t Believe in Empathic Design’ that it is absolutely essential designers have the ability to understand the journey users go on, what they are trying to achieve,

and therefore how to support them. You may have, in one way or another already been helping your clients respond to changes brought on by the global pandemic, and your clients will continue to look to you to help them understand the new normal.

We will all be working out how to normalise in a post-COVID world, and you need to be armed with the tools to frame the transition users are going through.

. . .

Practical applications of Liminal Space and UX

As clients and their employees go through transition, you can empower them, learn from them and reduce barriers to change by working through Understand, Explore and Define phases:

Image by Rikki Storey

Under each phase, I have selected a number of critical tasks which will enable you to kick off. This isn’t a step-by-step delivery approach, but rather some of the essential activities you should be conducting to support clients and employees through their liminal spaces.

Phase 1) Understand the Transition Your Client Is Going Through

Change that your client faces could be as a result of self-motivated growth aspiration, or outside-in factors such as changes in consumer tastes and behaviours, competitive disruption or technological development.

When clients reach out to you for your support and expertise, it is critical to start with a shared understanding of the change and challenge, define what the highest value opportunities are and why they are important to your client.

1.1) Frame the problems and opportunities

  • Start by running a Business-Framing session to align on a common vision; Where does the client want to be following their transition? What are the internal and external challenges that could impact success? Imagine that ‘liminal space’ has passed — where will the client want or need to be?
  • This session should be run with representatives from business strategy and technical roles to ideate, clustering and prioritise opportunities, and finish up by agreeing on one Business Opportunity Statement.

Images by IBM Garage

Top Tip: Using a Business Opportunity Statement format forces all stakeholders to focus on the user and business value to be delivered, so if your client has misconceptions about a user / experience-led piece of work, utilise business value and ROI metrics to speak their language

1.2) Define success criteria to test and validate against

  • Your client is moving through a liminal space, therefore the future is unknown or at least not certain. You have an understanding of what’s important to your client, and the opportunities that exist, but jumping straight into building those is an enormous risk.
  • Reduce this risk by creating Hypotheses, which will enable you to validate your assumptions early, and will allow you to run low investment experiments to confirm you’re heading in the right direction.

Image by Rikki Storey

1.3) Discuss how the engagement could fail, before it does!

  • Conduct a pre-mortem activity to plan for potential future scenarios — in this case to help understand the uncertain future, and navigate change in a way that avoids failure. Pre-mortem sessions ask the project team what might go wrong, to generate plausible reasons for the project failure as a way to avoid them.

Image by Atlassian

Phase 2) Explore the Transition Users will need to go through

When clients initiate a transformation strategy internal employees are also regularly disrupted — with employees’ ability to absorb change plummeting precisely at the time when more organisations need change to reset, it is essential to understand user needs through early and consistent engagement.

2.1) Define and empathise with your users

  • Personas are a staple of any designer tool kit with each persona created to define an archetypal user, enabling you to understand the user, empathise with them and, importantly throughout design and delivery have clear ‘north star(s)’ to point at and focus on.
  • Personas should be co-created with the stakeholders as part of User Interview sessions. Mural has become an essential tool to conduct sessions remotely. Empathy mapping is also a great way to extend each Persona through their actions, thoughts and feelings. Personas and Empathy Maps should be created during periods of change as it is absolutely key we understand the humans at the end of each new experience.

Image by IDF.org

Top Tip: A persona is a prediction as it should represent a one-to-many, not 1:1 representation of the user base. Improve the accuracy of that prediction through conducting user interviews

2.2) Define key experience scenarios

  • One of the biggest traps project teams and commercial, technical and business stakeholders fall into is to focus on tools / features / outputs over user needs. However, thinking in terms of technology regularly invites risk and too many unanswered questions — the most important one being “Why?”.
  • Use Scenario Mapping to identify the experiences the user is having ‘now’, and where they are transitioning from in their ‘As-Is’ world. Then, having identified pain points and opportunities, plot out the Employee ‘To Be’ experiences to ensure new solutions generates positive, delightful experiences.

Image by IBM Garage

2.3) Define short term goals

  • As the saying goes, “if you don’t know where you’re going, you might not get there”. Hills are a clear statement of intent which focus on clarifying user and business value. They are crafted to be the teams ‘North Star’, to align the team toward a common understanding of the outcomes that meet user needs.
  • Hills describe something specific that the user will able to do in a ‘Who, What and Wow’ format. ‘Who’ is the user? ‘What’ will the solution enable them to do? ‘Wow’ defines the differentiating experience that will be delivered. Create them after you have done some research and ensure the whole team, including client stakeholders are aligned on them.

Image by IBM

Top Tip: Just because a Hill is written doesn’t mean it’s a fact. Create questions and assumptions around each Hill, to enable validation throughout. Also, as sprints/iterations progress you will discover new things — don’t be afraid to challenge your Hills to make them reflect the key outcomes

Phase 3) Define how Employees will behave following the transition

During and following organisational transformation employees will need to perform or behave in a new way. If they have been included as part of the Understand and Exploration phases their needs will be clearly represented — now it’s time to use that understanding and define the right experiences to design and build, then validate through testing and iteration.

3.1) Define the smallest testable experience

  • When navigating change it’s important to start with small, testable, and measurable steps. Challenge yourself and your team to come up with the smallest possible version of the solution to validate your hypotheses/assumptions using an MVP statement.
  • When creating your MVP Statement, the focus should be to define the minimum required functionality to create a small but viable experience. This creates a platform to start validating against defined user behaviours and business value.

Image by Rikki Storey

3.2) Design, usability test, and iterate

  • Bring your MVP to life with low and high-fidelity designs. Start with low fidelity wireframe sketches to initially map out the task flows while you understand and learn about the Person’s primary goals and outcomes. If you are working as part of a mature design team, why not accelerate your design process with a Design System — a modular library of components aligned under a consistent design language.
  • Once your designs are created, remember to test them with users enabling you to fail fast and receive feedback early and often.

Top Tip: Avoid using colours in your initial wireframes to keep you and stakeholders focused on the experience/user journeys, and avoid feedback on aesthetic elements

3.3) Keep stakeholders in the loop

  • Once you start to define those new experiences, it is essential to keep internal and client stakeholders engaged throughout. Playbacks are a great opportunity to showcase work, tell stories, get feedback and ensure everyone is aligned on your Hills, Personas, and MVP mission. Importantly, you want stakeholders to feel as though they are involved in the design and delivery process — inclusion breeds trust, and trust leads to advocacy for the project’s success.

Photo by Chris Montgomery

Top Tip: Playbacks are just one activity in a broader set of Agile Ceremonies which will keep your team on track.

. . .

I hope that in some way you are able to utilise your experience of this historical period and global transition. Really understand what change means for the clients you partner with, empathise with how they feel when disrupted, and how you can utilise design techniques for the greater good.

Does the idea of utilising ‘transition’ resonate with you? Are there other phases or activities you see as being essential for clients going through change?

I would love to hear from you, leave a comment below or reach out over Twitter or LinkedIn

. . .

Article originally published here.

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Rikki Storey

Rikki Storey is Design Director at the IBM iX Studio in London. Articles and comments are personal and do not necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.


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