Climbing the CD Mountain

Contextual Design is like climbing a mountain. On one side you have your customer, along with all their problems and issues. On the other side is your potential design response – what you can create to help your customer accomplish their goals. So how do you get from one side to the other? Contextual Design provides the tools you’ll need and a sure path to follow.

Why the path is important

  • The mountaintop isn’t an ivory tower. This path keeps your design customer-focused and creates a product that is part of a coherent whole.
  • Immerse yourself in detail, but don’t drown in it. Height gives you perspective to see what matters for a customer-centered solution.
  • Work at an appropriate level of detail for each design phase, so your final design maintains proper relationships between its parts.
  • Focus on innovations that can be supported by current technology and adopted successfully by users.

The climb

Starting from base camp, you immerse yourself in detail with contextual inquiry. At this point, you’re working at a very concrete, exact and individual level. You start collecting data by gathering individual stories of actual users.

Once you’ve collected the data, you weave the threads of the stories together into consolidated work models and an affinity diagram. With each consolidation, your focus becomes broader and more abstract, giving a more general view of the customer population.

From the broader views provided by consolidations and affinity, you can extract customer issues. These issues are at a still higher level, more abstract and broadly focused.

The summit

You reach the summit of the mountain in the visioning process. It’s here that you can see the whole picture: big, broad, long range, sketchy and abstract. The vision connects the customer issues on one side with your design response on the other; it bridges the gap between what is going on with the customer and what you are going to do about it. It weaves together the threads of customer stories, but doesn’t keep events in order. You have to retell the story to know what happens when.

Keeping it all in proportion

There’s a very common tendency for designers to want to immediately dive down into the details of a particular piece of their design, without first working out how the large pieces fit together. This tendency is very obvious in art classes, where beginners may draw eyes that fit each other, but end up skewed in relation to the rest of the face. In contrast, to avoid potential problems with proportion, skilled artists start with rough sketches that lay out all the broad pieces of a picture to ensure they work in relation to each other. Only then do they begin to work in the detail. The CD visioning process is tailor-made for preventing you from designing in to much detail, too soon. By hand-sketching the vision in half an hour on a flipchart, you can keep your thinking systemic.

Narrowing the focus

Just as each upward step broadened the focus of your view, each downward step tightens it. And as your focus renews throughout the descent, your vision of the new product increasingly clarifies. Each step down fills in the details for the step before. And each step is going to be more specific and concrete. Ultimately, you develop just one piece of the broader vision, creating what is possible today using existing tools.

From abstract to concrete

Each storyboard represents just a piece of the vision, not the entire vision. Each tells a story of how the design changes the users’ work practice. They work out some of the details suggested in the vision.

The UED and UI phases weave together the threads of the storyboards into a structure — a single system. We weave the threads, check, extend, and work out more details. And then use cases swing us back to storytelling, working out the details of the previous structures. Finally, the object models bring a piece of the original vision down into a detailed, concrete structure.

Alternating structure and sequence

You may notice that each phase of the climb alternates between structure and sequence. Each phase that involves a sequence — storytelling in contextual inquiry, extracting customer issues from the models, storyboarding and creating use cases — keeps you moving forward, but may cause you to get lost in detail. In contrast, the structure phases — modeling, visioning, creating the User Environment Design and User Interface, and Object Models — lose the order of events, but allow you to re-establish coherence.

To the final product

The result is a final design that represents just one piece of your original vision, but provides a starting point for realizing the entire vision and facilitates the move to a new work practice. The path over the mountain gives you a clear set of steps that work for the user, work as a process, and lead you through the thinking steps to a successful design.