Think back to a college course. Pick any one. Pick the worst one or the best one. Maybe you remember a big class with 300 students where the professor simply lectured and read from the textbook. Or maybe you remember an intimate seminar with only a handful of people—you know, like in Dead Poets Society—with curated readings, in-depth discussion, and projects that can impact the world.

These two kinds of courses are designed completely differently—and the difference may not be what you think.

Astute designers may look at these two courses and deduce that the biggest difference is that one experience was designed with users’ needs in mind. One class was stock materials not well tailored to the students, so it didn’t meet our needs. It met the needs of delivering the course, not students’ needs of how to best learn the material. The other course was designed with users in mind. Readings, discussions, and projects were designed to meet students’ needs. But this isn’t the key difference between them.

Even more astute designers may venture a guess that the prof of the big class didn’t do any prior user experience research, whereas the seminar prof did. Well, this is where design and development thinking has a small flaw. Large swaths of design thinking direct user experience research to start fresh every time. So many user research activities are intended to uncover insights about your product and your users. Since it’s specifically about your product and users, certainly there can’t be any existing information out there.

To be fair, some design research does encourage secondary or desk research, but this is not always included in research guides. But what if there’s more out there that could tell you to not waste your time on a dead-end user experience, or tell you there’s a benchmark out there you didn’t even know of, or tell you you’re looking at the problem all wrong?

This is where design & development can learn from the scientific process. Step 1 of the scientific process is to learn about the existing research in your subject area. Knowledge is built upon prior knowledge. This is why Google Scholar’s webpage states “Stand on the shoulders of giants,” a phrase famously used by Isaac Newton and many others.

In the course example, the professors know that in their own research they are building on prior expertise—but are they applying this to teaching and course design?

Cross-Functional Teams = Cross-Sectional Expertise

If you don’t know what’s been done before, you won’t know where to go.

Enter subject matter experts like a mad bull. This mad bull is roaring, “You have to understand what everyone else understands before you even begin!” Maybe a mad bull is a little much. Even a quiet mouse can make such a great suggestion. The key is that you have to know as much about a topic beforehand to ensure you begin on the right path.

If you’re using Agile or Lean techniques, it’s great to be able to iterate and change course after the first sprint or two. But why not use the first sprint to set the correct course? Then you will, in the process, save yourself time and your company money (Yay! Raises for everyone! Our researcher saved us money so now we’ll give it back to everyone!). have to know about a topic before designing & building to ensure you begin on the right path.

Existing knowledge can also be thought of in terms of subject matter expertise, which is sometimes missing from design and development. Quite often in software design, experts on the project include UX/UI designers, developers, and maybe a subject matter expert in the area of the project. Unfortunately, this last role is rare. It shouldn’t be. Nor should it be the only expert role. We need cross-sectional expertise—that is, expertise in different areas.

Why teams need cross-sectional expertise

Let’s return back to the university courses discussed earlier. The one boring, read-from-the-textbook course was taught by an expert yet the design of the course was not good. We’ve covered one reason why (it didn’t meet students’ needs), but there’s another: a subject matter expert may be limited to that subject. In this case, the subject matter expert was an expert in the course content, not how to design a course. Most of us have taken a class or two in which the prof was a brilliant researcher… but not much of a teacher.

We need to incorporate other experts about the things we’re designing. Think about designing a university course. You definitely need an expert in the subject area (psychology, physics, anthropology, the science of Batman, or whatever it is). But that won’t ensure the course is well designed.

What subject matter expert or background knowledge is needed to design a course? Examine the service being delivered. It’s teaching and learning, not psychology or physics. It’s the teaching and learning of psych or physics. Failure to consult with the right subject matter expert is a failure to deliver the right product.

Of course, designing & building a course is different from designing & building services and software. First and foremost, courses are usually individual efforts by the prof (and at times the teaching assistants) while development is usually a team effort (except cowboy programming which would be a perfect metaphor). A team offers the strength of collaboration and greater knowledge. Lean into your team in several ways:

  1. bring different subject matter experts onto your team
  2. use your team’s distributed time (instead of just your 1 person time) to spend more time consulting with subject matter experts and users.

Know how to use (and how not to use) info from users

Speaking of consulting your users, it is an integral step that cannot be skipped. Consulting a subject matter expert would be wasteful and incorrect without also consulting users. Each provides undoubtedly great insights, but coupled together they are even better. Subject matter experts lack user experience and users lack expertise & best practices—they may not even know what’s best for them.

In designing an ****educational tool, user research may uncover how to effectively communicate with students. It could uncover that some students have English as a second language and the software will need closed captioning on videos, which is a great insight. However, myths will creep in, too.

For instance, many people will refer to their learning styles (such as being a visual or auditory learners). Unfortunately, learning styles don’t exist. Time and time again, research has shown that people learn the same amount regardless of their self-declared preferences and, in fact, styles of communication should be catered to the content, not the learner. You wouldn’t trust a mechanic who said they were an auditory learner so they listened to classes but didn’t do anything with their hands. No. You would trust a mechanic who listened, watched, and physically did the lessons.

This can happen when designing anything because myths and biases persist all around us. If we ask people what they want, it will help us design things better suited to them, but not always best suited.

A cross-functional team of people who have diverse backgrounds can help address this and will have a wider knowledge than a homogenous team. Coupling user feedback with expert insight yields unmatched results

Finding Experts & Knowledge

The under-reliance on existing knowledge is one of the biggest drawbacks of design thinking. There are very few techniques explained in user experience research manuals about how to find it. It’s quite simple: creep around on the internet. Use the fervour of searching for an ex’s new flame, but in the service of good design. Here’s what that can look like:

-Systematically search academic literature. is great for this but can be overwhelming and you need to continuously refine search terms)

-Read popular magazines in the area you’re working in.

-Find employees of companies who have built similar designs to see if they’ve posted insights on personal sites or LinkedIn. That last one enabled me to find an entire UX research booklet from an engagement that our company ended up getting the contract to build.

-Use synonyms when searching. A thesaurus is your best friend while researching. Rarely is one term used by everyone in the world to describe something (save for schadenfreuden…the Germans just got it so perfect!). Just think about the terms in design: composition, form, and layout are closely related ideas used in industrial, artistic, and graphic design, respectively. When looking something up, systematically look up all the alternative terms and keywords you can think of or come across.

Better-functioning design thanks to cross-functional approaches

We need to create cross-functional teams to consider what truths are out there that will change how we’re designing and developing solutions.

We can add elements of the scientific method to our toolkit when designing and developing solutions, especially incorporating others’ hard work and expertise. When we stand on the shoulders of giants, we can see farther and more clearly. With that hindsight, foresight, and clarity we can make solutions that make the world (or a 8:30am college seminar) a better place.

Image Credit: Zoey Li / Midjourney

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