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Designing for Intent: How to win clients and fall back in love with UX


This post was written by Xin Xin, a Fresh Tilled Soil apprentice. Check out all our apprenticeship posts.
Designing for intent is having the mission be clear.

Communication problems

You’re starting on a new project—a revolutionary app that will grind its dinosaur-age competitors into dust. You and your team spend a week testing the current minimum viable product. You’re jumping to do user research and ready to DESIGN. Then the client says:

“We don’t need it to look nice.”

Uh oh.

“We don’t even need work on the MVP. We need to monetize, so focus on integrating the paid features.”

What? We’re trying to build you an awesome product that people will go crazy for. What does monetization have to do with it?

There’s no time for this business nonsense, we’re designing here!

When we consulted Richard, the CEO of Fresh Tilled Soil, he had a story to share. To really feel its effect, you have to imagine it in a South African accent:

“Long ago, military commanders sat in safe rooms far away from the action and gave orders that often didn’t make sense. For example, ‘Sneak past this enemy tank’, with the likely consequence of being shot at by snipers on the roof the commander didn’t know about.”

“Predetermined plans are brittle in unexpected situations. That’s why in modern warfare, command is given as intent. The commander states his high-level objective, and the soldiers on the ground adapt their actions to changing conditions to make the mission a success.”

The client wanted to build a successful business, while we wanted to create a great experience on the app. Isn’t that what we do as designers? Make beautiful apps that people love? Not exactly. We’re soldiers with the tools to help our clients complete their missions successfully.

In order for the project to succeed, we needed to figure out the client’s intent, and translate that into UX and design tasks. Moving the client past the “stone age” of design strategy was also a part of this. Going forward, we’re thinking broader and bigger.

Code as intent

These insights don’t just apply to visual design and UX strategy work. One of our recent apprenticeship challenges had us coding a form straight from a design comp (comprehensive layout). Being a designer myself, it felt pretty ironic that “getting it to look right” was the easy part. Following the intent of the form (that is, allowing the user to submit information quickly and easily) meant thinking about bulletproof, accessible code, not just translating the look and feel into CSS.

Form compThe form had to leverage the principles of progressive enhancement, and use feature detection to avoid loading unnecessary resources and libraries. It had to work across major browsers, and be fully accessible by screen readers. The laborious process was worth it—progressive enhancement and designing for universal access helps make sure that we’re designing one web for everyone.


The Dirt QA with AUX
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