3 Design Techniques for Non-Designers


Design and design thinking can’t solve all of the world’s problems. But design is noticed by others, whether your company/product has considered it or not. And design can make your product more usable and accessible.

From your website to your physical space to the way you respond to emails to your actual product or service, it’s worthwhile to ask yourself, “Is this designed the way I want my customers or users to experience it?”

Design Thinking for Non-Designers

The topics of design and design thinking are everywhere. The cover of the September Harvard Business Review was titled The Evolution of Design Thinking. IBM, a company not historically revered for its cutting-edge creative culture, is hiring over 1,000 designers in its redesigned studio spaces around the world. Venture capital firms are hiring more and more design experts to bring their know-how to their investments.

I often hear, “Well, I’m not a designer,” or “I’m not creative.” But even if you’re not a visual design expert, there are many ways for you—yes, you!—to bring good design practices into your company. Here are 3 big ones.

1. Critique

“Critique isn’t about that instant reaction we might feel when seeing something, or about how we would change someone’s design to better solve an issue. Critique is a form of analysis.
Discussing Design: Improving Communication & Collaboration Through Critique

Whether you’re working with an internal team or an outside agency, learning how to provide productive critique will drive actionable results. Here are a few things you can start doing right away:

  • When critiquing work, meet in person or over the phone, even if a design is posted online or via email. Encourage the designer to engage with you in person. So much can get lost online, especially with more complex designs and features.
  • If you don’t understand the terminology the designer is using, ask questions. Creating a shared set of terms for your project will make your discussions more effective.
  • Consider the goal or objective of the design and evaluate from that goal, rather than personal opinions.
  • Start with a positive comment. It will help take the edge off. It can be scary to talk about work publicly.
  • Avoid directives like “move this here and move this there.”

Want to learn more about effective critiques? The resource I quoted above is a good place to start.


2. Design Thinking Exercises

Design thinking, a buzz term from the last few years, might seem mysterious to non-designers, but the ideas behind it are accessible to anyone. Here’s one activity you can try; it can help you pull out insights, build consensus on the positive parts of a product, and identify common threads in areas for improvement.

Rose, Bud, Thorn

Coordinate an hour of time with key stakeholders and the product team to go through this exercise. For this example, I’ll pretend your company has a mobile calendar app.

  • Put up three sheets of large paper and title one Roses (Strengths), another Buds (Opportunities), and the third one Thorns (Weaknesses).
  • Start with the Roses—the features and traits that are working really well. Give your teammates Sticky notes and ask them to write one strength on each, giving them five minutes or so to brainstorm their ideas.
  • Ask each person put their Stickies on the big paper, and talk about their Roses. Facilitate conversation as needed, asking why each feature mentioned is a strength if it isn’t clear.
  • Repeat this process for the Buds and Thorns.
  • Document your conversation with photos, and follow up with common themes and learnings. If you don’t arrive at common themes and some consensus, you’ll know there are more conversations to be had. The goals of the product may need to be identified more clearly and deliberately.

There are many different exercises that you can learn to use. I recommend 101 Design Methods and Innovation Games as a starting place.


3. User Feedback

Who are you designing for? Whoever your audience may be, their opinion can be an important tool. Here are a couple of ways to gather feedback from your users:

  • Formal testing or interviews: This requires finding your customers, setting up meetings, creating a script to follow, executing interviews, following up, and synthesizing what you learn.
  • Informal testing: If you can’t use real customers and don’t have a lot of wiggle room in your budget, you can still gain some insights through ad hoc interviews or testing with team members who are close to the target demographic.

User interviewing and usability testing can be complicated practices, but if you start small and are organized, anyone at your organization can learn the skills needed to start incorporating these tools into your feedback process. For a detailed breakdown of how to find interviewees, author emails to prospective interviewees, structure your interview schedule, and lead interviews and testing, I recommend About Face: The Essentials of Interaction Design and Designing for the Digital Age: How to Create Human-Centered Products or Services.

I hope you’ll find that these design thinking practices contribute to your work.