The Blank Canvas: How to Add User-Centered Design to an Office

“…Many painters are afraid in front of the blank canvas, but the blank canvas is afraid of the real, passionate painter who dares and who has broken the spell of ‘you can’t’ once and for all.”

― Vincent van Gogh

There it is! The blank canvas stares at you with endless possibilities and reflects your dormant imposter syndrome. It represents a great opportunity that could also become a Trojan horse of anxiety.

A product designer may experience this feeling when looking at an empty artboard, starting a project with minimal requirements, or working with a new client. Designers are typically comfortable fixing the broken, finding inspiration in the mundane, or organizing the chaotic. Yet starting something fresh will always present a unique challenge.

I believe this “blank canvas” sensation most often occurs when designers are tasked with being the first to introduce design thinking to the software development process. Usually, this is the duty of a lone designer who has the wonderful opportunity to create a design culture for their office or team.

But where do they begin?

Whether you are a new or experienced User Experience (UX) designer or another professional who wants to bring a user-centered design mindset to a work environment, I’ll provide tips on navigating that fresh start and adding paint to the blank canvas.

Tip 1: Work with what you have available.

Your starting point depends on how much design currently matters to your company’s culture. Make a quick assessment and learn the dynamics and values of your environment.

Do you have to “defend” your importance as a designer? It’s essential to communicate what design brings to the team. From my experience, starting small can often be the most effective strategy. Show your colleagues the value of good design through quick wins and tangible improvements. Once trust is established, you can leverage your goodwill to address more grand design deficiencies.

If your environment is more open to design thinking, you’ll have a wider range of opportunities. Engage with your colleagues, understand their needs, and tailor your approach to fit the existing culture. Being adaptable to the team’s dynamics will help you integrate user-centered design more effectively. This is also a good moment to learn the pain points that your colleagues experience when building a product. This may lead to immediate design tasks that could be added to your backlog of work.

With an established starting point, it’s much easier to identify where design attention is needed.

Tip 2: Get the development team involved.

Design is communal. It benefits greatly from different perspectives and input. Developers, in particular, have invaluable technical insights. They can help establish boundaries that ensure your designs are feasible and can be implemented effectively.

Learning the communication style of the developers in your environment is crucial. It builds rapport and facilitates smoother collaboration. This is beneficial for design reviews, where the value of the meeting comes from how comfortable everyone feels about open and honest discourse. This communal approach enriches the design and fosters a sense of ownership among team members.

Getting quick and simple feedback on in-progress design work is the easiest way to involve developers. Showing them your thought process, a few ideas you’ve been working on, or even a scrapped design is a great way to grow the design maturity of your team. Their feedback may provide the design solution you weren’t aware of.

Tip 3: Be a designer… not a guru, ninja, rockstar, unicorn, or robot.

One of the biggest mistakes I made early in my career as a UX professional was thinking I needed to have all the answers immediately. While insight is valuable, design is fundamentally a process. Asking questions, seeking feedback, and articulating your thought process are more important than presenting yourself as an all-knowing expert.

I recommend sharing stories with your team. You could reference past experiences where asking the right questions led to better outcomes. Do not be afraid to say, “Let me think this through and I’ll get back to you with an answer.” And, never be too prideful to ask, “What are your thoughts on this problem?” This helps demonstrate that design is a collaborative and iterative process.

It is also beneficial to be open about your limitations as a designer. This helps place realistic timelines on tasks. For example, I’m not knowledgeable about how voice controls are designed. If I were asked to make an audio user interface it would be wise of me to express that I need time to study how they are created. It may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s easy for environments with less design maturity to damage the quality of their products due to unclear strengths and deficiencies of their designer.

Tip 4: Share design resources.

One of the most effective ways to integrate user-centered design into an office is by sharing valuable design resources. Here are some of my favorite design books:

  1. The Design of Everyday Things” by Don Norman – A must-read for understanding user-centered design principles.
  2. Don’t Make Me Think” by Steve Krug – A practical guide to usability in web and software design.
  3. Articulating Design Decisions” by Tom Greever – A great resource for learning how to work with various stakeholders
  4. How to Make Sense of Any Mess” by Abby Covert – A  pragmatic and approachable information architecture book
  5. Lean UX” by Jeff Gothelf and Josh Seiden – A solid resource for integrating UX design with agile methodologies.

This isn’t just limited to books. Sharing other resources like podcasts, interesting articles, Youtube videos, and amazing (or crap) designs that you’ve experienced in person can help raise the overall design literacy of your team, making it easier to advocate for user-centered design practices.

Integrate user-centered design into your workplace.

Starting with a blank canvas in an office can be daunting, but it’s also an incredible opportunity. You can successfully integrate user-centered design into your workplace by assessing your environment, involving the development team, embracing a collaborative design process, and sharing valuable resources.

Remember, the goal isn’t just to add design to your office but to foster a culture that values and understands the importance of user-centered thinking. This enhances the products you create and makes your workplace more innovative and effective.

  • i like the way you explain

  • Join the conversation

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *