I obsess over how we do our work at Second Form. I don’t think it’s unhealthy, but this is the addict talking.

I look at what we do as craft. Not everyone feels the same way. Many of my clients don’t. They see it as a means to an end and I can’t blame them for that. They have their own obsessions.

“How we do what we do says a lot about who we are.”

Code and Theory

My first rule about our work is to hire people who care just as much as I do. I’ve been pretty successful at that. If they don’t, it doesn’t take too long for them to find a ‘better opportunity.’

The people that find a home here are happy to make our work better. But it’s hard to do. To change a process is full of risk. Will it work out? Am I wasting precious time? But when your current process isn’t cutting it, something has to give.

I’m a designer, so thinking like one is natural. But that doesn’t mean I was born knowing how to design. That’s been a bumpy road. What’s been even harder is communicating what design is to people and why they should care.

I’ve gone from trying to get people to care about design to feeling nobody cares at all and it’s best left behind the curtain. But, in a world where non-designers think design is firing up Photoshop, I needed to come up with a narrative around how we design and why they should care.

That’s how we created Active Design, our design methodology at Second Form. H/t to Bryan Thomas for the great name.

What is Active Design?

The definition of active is: Engaged in action.

The definition of passive is: Not participating readily. That pretty much says it all.

When I started out creating websites on my own, I worked in isolation. I would have a kickoff meeting with the people who hired me to learn more about what they wanted, but they more so ran the show. Then, I would go away and work on the solution alone. We were two different teams on hopefully the same mission. Sometimes I got it right. Sometimes I didn’t.

Active design is different. Why? UX problems are rarely static. Static means lacking in movement, action, or change. They’re changing and in motion. To get close to them, you have to move, too.

That’s why Active Design makes so much sense.

The three rules of Active Design

Active learning

I’ve already discussed the pitfalls of requesting your designer to forego any learning in her design process. One step above no learning is passive learning. The problem here is the information you’re learning is biased and filtered. If you only gather secondhand insights from people who are on the inside, you’re getting information that’s altered based on that person’s unspoken assumptions. As a professional problem solver—which is what designers are—that just won’t do.

Active learning puts you in the middle of the problem so you can see it, hear it, touch it, and feel it firsthand. That means interacting with customers, key team leaders, or members of the sales team, and experiencing the customer journey yourself. I’ve learned more about the nuances in the challenges my clients face this way.

Active collaboration

I spent a lot of time in the beginning designing without my client. I thought that’s what I was supposed to do. And my clients didn’t object. Seems like they thought it was supposed to happen that way, too. But, a lot is lost when you design in isolation.

Active collaboration makes products better, because engaging with people continues through the process. And that builds trust. Trust makes it easier to share half-baked ideas with everyone.

Sharing a dumb idea is one of my biggest fears. I’ve learned that design isn’t about having the answer. It’s about finding the answer. That’s freed me up to say something like, “This might be a bad idea, but…” Maybe it’s a good idea. Maybe all it needs is a tweak. You never know. So why not find out?

Active validation

I’ve built a lot of products that users never saw till after launch. That’s not smart. User tests with small groups can uncover design defects when they’re cheap to fix. Way back in 2000, Jaco Nielsen told us you only need to test with five users. That’s still true today. It doesn’t have to be expensive.

Active validation is guerilla user testing when it matters. But it’s not passive. It’s not ‘hey, go look at this prototype and let me know what you think.’ Active means it’s done in real time, in person, so you can learn the most from it.

I didn’t invent the design process. That’s been around for a long time. I’m just wrapping these concepts in a narrative that helps me share with people that need answers to challenging business problems and the best path to solve them.

The reality is, the challenges users face in getting what they want don’t stand still. They change and morph, even after you start chipping away at them. Active design is problem solving in motion.

Banner image by Anne Worner.

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