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  • Writer's pictureElaine Torres

UX Design Tools - Chapter: 1 Looking


In this series of UX Design tools articles I will take a look at various topics and processes within the UX Design space and hopefully provide you with insight and understanding of techniques and processes that you can utilize in your UX Design work. I will try to cover a different topic every week, and bring information and resources to help you maneuver through the ever changing world of UX Design. As I have discovered it isn't easy to secure a role with an organization in the UX Design field unless you have the tools and techniques in your arsenal. So let's begin. In most cases, UX Design begins with a look. Now I'm not talking about a passing glance from across a crowded conference room kind of look. The look I am referring to is a little more involved.

As humans we are accustomed to viewing the world around us in a straightforward manner. Our eyes take in images and our brain processes them in a simple way. At the higher level, looking is simple and we are often able to discern that the things we are viewing are either going to be good or bad for us. Barring those exceptions of ex wives or ex husbands, for the most part our vision is pretty accurate and does not steer us astray. Using our vision can enlighten our view of a product or service if we can learn to view them holistically. I know people have been throwing that holistic design term around for awhile so I think I'll define it for those who might not know how to Google. The interaction design foundation defines holistic design as;

Holistic Design: a design approach which sees a design as an interconnected whole that is part of the larger world. It goes beyond problem solving to incorporate  all aspects of the ecosystem in which a product is used. The focus of holistic design is context dependent; even so, among other things, it considers aesthetics, sustainability, and spirituality.

In plain English, it means that UX design is first OBSERVATIONAL. This brings us back to the whole purpose of this article which is to teach you techniques on how to look at things. There is an amazing book by James Gilmore titled "Look: A Practical Guide For Improving Your Observational Skills" that has been out for awhile that discusses much of what I'm about to share with you. I highly recommend it. Seriously, take a LOOK at it. Tell them EYE sent you. See what I did there...ok moving on.


Sometimes as designers we are tasked with trying to discover just what the problems are that we that we have been hired to fix. Taking a look at the problem from various vantage points can help us better understand not only the problem at hand, but can assist us in putting together a plan of action in how to deal with it. No design issue that you encounter is going to be the same over and over again and because of this, the tactics that you employ to solve it should not either. So where do we begin? In Gilmore's book, the six methods of viewing are; Binoculars, Bifocals, Magnifying Glass, Microscope, Rose Colored Glasses, and my personal favorite...Blindfolds.

Binoculars - The Big Picture

If you have ever used a pair of binoculars you know that to see properly through them you have to be pretty far away from the subject that you are trying to look at. The same concept applies to UX design when you observe a problem through binoculars. You're given the problem and need to understand all of the various components and actions that need to occur before you dive deeper into locating and solving any issues. Viewing problems with your binocular view gives you the opportunity to;

  • Look across the scene

  • Survey the entire situation

  • Orient yourself within the bigger picture

  • SEE the bigger picture

  • Use a certain vantage point

  • Keep your distance

  • Set your priorities

  • Determine your next course of action

All of these are highly important as you move through the design process and allow you to establish a bit of distance while you are able to set timelines, priorities, understand the problem, understand users, stakeholders and determine whether or not you have bitten off more than you can chew. It happens, just saying. Moving on.

Bifocals - Let the Data Speak Not Your Personal Bias

The next observational step allows us to dive a little more into the design research side of things and reminds us all that at some point we will ALL need to use them if we want to read clear words on our tiny cell phones. Bifocals give us the opportunity to set aside any personal bias that we may have coming into a problem and let the data points speak for us. This is an important tool when you are trying to make your argument for a design element or change in a product. Let the data speak for you. Looking at a design problem through bifocals provides the opportunity to explore different dimensions of a problem through research questions of WHO, WHAT, WHERE, WHEN, WHY and HOW. Below is a breakdown of just a few things you can look at when wearing these dimensional lenses.

Who: Are they ...Male/Female?, Single/Couple?, Adult/Child?, Young/Old, Human/Cyborg?

What: Is it...Big/Small?, Thick/Thin?, Normal/Abnormal?, Tall/Short?, Round/Flat? (you know like the Earth...I kid I kid)

Where: Is it...Bottom/Top?, Up/Down?, Right/Left?, City/State?

When: Does it take place...Before/After?, Day/Night?, Lunch/Dinner?, Later/Earlier?

Why: Do they do things because something is...Empty/Full?, Open/Closed?, On/Off, More/Less?

How: Are they perceiving or doing something...Noisy/Quietly?, Fast/Slow?, Many/Few?

A thorough understanding of your user and their interactions with whatever it is you are studying can help you create a definitive roadmap forward. The key takeaway here?


Magnifying Glass and Microcope - Pinpointing the problem

When we think of a magnifying glass we envision a tool that is used to search for something or to magnify whatever it is we are viewing. So looking at a design problem through this lens enables us to take the data points we have collected from our bifocal search and begin to magnify specific information within it that could be of importance in our UX design work. Let's say you are working on a design problem to sell more ice cream on Mondays through your ice cream app and you have gathered data showing that people love to eat ice cream on Tuesday. Extrapolating this information from the bifocal view is an examples of viewing this through the magnifying glass.

Microscope - Digging Deeper

In the previous example we've established a piece of data that lets us know people's purchasing preference for ice cream. Looking at this information at a more microscopic level could show us information like;

  • Viewing the metrics to see what types of people are eating on Monday

  • Viewing Monday's demographic data and realizing that more men than women purchase ice cream on Monday

This type of information can lead you to identify issues that may be able to be solved easily by including your marketing team or other stakeholders in your product. The purpose of the microscopic view is to zoom into something that can propel your thinking and product forward. Easy peasy, right? Hang with me 2 more to go!

Rose Colored Glasses - Channel Your Inner Flower Child

Now we have come to what I have deemed my favorite view in this design process. The rose colored glasses is positive focused looking. When you have created your path to move the design or service forward into a new direction this viewing is how you can stress the importance of all of the good things about this move. Here are a few examples;

  • Look for what's working in the design/process/service

  • Examine what has potential

  • Focus on the good and filter out the bad aspects

  • Pay attention and attempt to look for the right idea

  • Nothing is unimportant during this phase

  • Seek to find value & benefit in your design/process/service

  • Do not pick on current weaknesses (there will be some...just look away for a minute)

  • This phase takes the incomplete ideas and finishes them

These glasses are important when you are seeking and defining opportunities. Observing what works, and ignoring what doesn't is helpful for quick ideation sessions. This way you are not stuck trying to figure out one issue when that may not even be an important thing to consider in your overall design.

Blindfolds - Examination & Recall

I said before that this method of viewing a problem was my favorite. It's true. I like this section for two reasons. First it allows you to go back over everything you have discovered about your product/service and gives you the opportunity to extract insights from it all. It is akin to baking a cake entirely from scratch and then getting to sit down and eat it one fork-full at a time. After you have gathered your information you can then sit and recall different pieces to see if anything design worthy jumps out at you.

You can compare;

  • Bifocal data vs. Microscope data

  • Binoculars vs. Microscope

  • Rose colored glasses vs. Bifocal date

  • and any other comparison you'd like to take a look at.

This observational phase is entirely up to you. You've already done the hard work in looking at your problem/service in great detail now you can set a path to design with confidence.

That's it. Thanks for LOOKING.

If you'd like to learn more about Observational Looking please consider reading the book LOOK: A Practical Guide For Improving Your Observational Skills by James Gilmore . You may also take a deeper look at the Interaction Design Foundation website for insightful information and other great books on the subject.

This article was created from my notes gathered through my studies as a UX Design student at Southern Methodist University under the tutelage of Brian Sullivan, J.Schuh and Preston McCauley.


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