Design Doing: Creating a Digital Practice

By Stacy Surla

The environment we work in matters.  It gives us agency – the ability to affect things with our actions. As user experience professionals, it’s important for us to think about transforming the business – our environment – so Design Doing can happen.

IA as commodity is stupid

Let’s consider Jane, an information architect.  She’s a problem solver. Someone who sees the big picture AND how the little pieces fit together. Back in the 1990s, Jane was deeply engaged in figuring out how websites should work. She was inventing how to do IA. That was an interesting problem!  Solving it led to a discipline, to methods, to patterns for deliverables.

Now it’s 2015.  Jane and her colleagues around the world have a body of knowledge, which is great. But all too often her work, her IA, is thought of as a product a project manager can pull off the shelf and insert into the project when needed.  Wireframes have become a commodity and a measure of productivity.  Like lines of code.

That is just insane.

Because now the big problem is not how to make websites work. The big  problem is creating connected experiences for people across digital and traditional channels.

IA as strategic thinker is smart

Jane, the information architect, is a treasure because she sees the big picture and the little pieces.  She can think strategically WHILE solving problems for different audiences in different conditions. Yes, she produce deliverables, and that’s important.

But Jane the IA is golden because she has the ability to change the game with her thinking and doing.

What would happen if we could plug that gold into the machine that is our business?  What if you could transform the environment by your IA thinking?

You can.

A little backstory

Your bosses read Forrester and Gartner. Or get advised by people who do. So everyone knows, we need to level up our game for delivering digital services. Right now.

My company, ICF International, took a bold step and hired a visionary leader. She stood up a Digital Strategy group, whose role is to ponder this world we’re in, frame the problem domain, and turn vague ideas on digital and customer experience into concrete instances where we make the world a better place.  That’s an interesting problem!

The company is taking this a step further. This is not just about how we advise our clients. We’re looking for internal transformations, too. So we have the mandate to bring our IA thinking to bear and transform how people in the company actually do our work. To give agency to Jane and to all of us, so we can work together to solve the problems of the connected world.

Full disclosure. My role in creating this Design Doing environment is angular and fortuitous. Hey, I’m not that visionary who stood up the new division. I’m not the corporate decision-maker who hired her. I’m someone in middle management who got selected to join the team.

However, and this is what might be interesting and heartening, I got to the position of BEING selected, I am part of CREATING this environment, because of something I do. It’s something all serious user experience professionals do, as we continually invent our profession. It’s something you can do to transform your own work environment.

I know and live my point of view. I look for the things I believe matter, that will make the most difference. When I see that, I lock on and fly there, regardless of what lies between.

In the 1990s my point of view was that making websites that work for people really mattered. Moreover, “websites that work” was a foundation for other, as-yet-undiscovered things that were really going to matter.

In 2015 my point of view is this. In the world of delivering value to people, by whatever channels, in whichever domains, it’s all customer experience.  Because it’s all about service.

So I get to be all about service. And I get to be part of transforming my group, my division, and my company into a design doing environment. That’s the power of the point of view.

What’s in the kit?

Now let’s get tactical. We’ve got a Digital Strategy group with a mandate to make the company competitive in the connected world, and transform how we do our own work. What sorts of things do we do?

First, we have approaches, mantras. Like participatory, iterative, innovative, rapid, communicative, capacity building. These should sound pretty familiar – and important, and not necessarily easy. It’s one thing to talk about helping your client build capacity, and quite another thing to orient your work in a way that leaves your client able to do for themselves.

We also have new processes, new client and team engagement methods and tools. Here’s a brief overview of some of the key ones.


Volte is a dressage training tool that uses a very small circle, requiring maximum balance with a balanced use of resources. Our proprietary process incorporates this approach to create maximum results for our clients. There are four phases.

  • Gather: We look at our client’s entire digital ecosystem (web, social, mobile), collecting data to see how well these are supporting and meeting objectives.
  • Discern: We get to know the client’s digital presence and audiences. We uncover audiences’ online behaviors and motivations and marry those to client goals and objectives.
  • Shape: We collaborate with the client on what we learned and create a basis for common understanding. Over the course of a 1–2 day session, we take the client through an intensive workshop where we work with core influencers and decision makers to address barriers, develop solutions, and work through the real-life implications of those solutions.
  • Guide: Finally, the client gets great ideas from a unique team that unites strategic understanding, creative thinking, and big technical chops. We provide actionable recommendations to help grow customer relationships, better leverage the tools, and prepare for what’s next.

Volte Overview


Innovation Mining

The purpose of innovation mining is to show clients and prospects – and other people in our company – that we can infuse innovation into our work, even under constrained conditions.

We’re doing this by a process of discovery and guidance. We:

  • Find the innovative work and thinkers within our teams
  • Tell our stories of innovation to clients, prospects, and across our Division
  • Improve our support of client programs though innovative thinking and practices
  • Help teams bring multiple perspectives when developing and implementing client strategy

We’re piloting innovation mining by identifying an initial group of projects where innovation is happening, or where it should be happening, but isn’t. The director of our 500-person Division invited the leadership of selected projects to participate in an Innovation Mining Review (something like a thesis defense), which involves the project team presenting their story to a panel of reviewers, and then exploring what worked and how to take their innovations to the next appropriate level. The results include a plan for each participating project, and communications across the Division to socialize this way of working.

Innovation Mining


Dry Runs, Hack Days, and Other New Things

We’re training ourselves to do many new things to raise our game and build design doing into our delivery. One of those new things is to bring user centered design into an agile development framework – for real. Incorporating Lean UX into Agile is perhaps the most effective way to include the end user within the circle of development’s tradition. It’s also a step towards a more evolved paradigm in which the customer is truly at the center of the effort. Right now we’re doing Agile+LeanUX Dry Runs, where we solve problems around data delivery and standing up working code in very short– 3 day, 1 day, and even 1 hour – sprints. Here are a few tools we developed to support that work.

Lean UX Plan

Featherweight User Testing Template

10 + 10 Design Thinking Exercise


How can you do this?

My bottom line thoughts on how to transform the environment: Be true to your point of view. Figure out what matters, and what will make the most difference. Then go there! Don’t let circumstances, or your own considerations, stand in the way. BE that person. Bring the best of what you know, have done, and have always wanted to do.

You do have to make it work within the constraints. That’s a given. But digital services, customer experience, and service design are a tide that’s lifting all the boats right now. So be bold and go into those rarified spaces that need things created in them.  Pilot, experiment, seize the opportunities, communicate, celebrate, have fun.

And in so doing, create a Design Doing work environment. This is a place where all the crazy and beautiful ideas we hatch and nurture become the normal way to work.


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