Get this part right: Conceptual design and alignment

“firmitasutilitas, venustas” – Vitruvius

Structural integrity, usability and delight:  a recipe for a great design that can be applied to anything from a car or vacuum cleaner to an online banking platform or a deposit management system.

Design has taken more of a front seat in recent years and companies like Apple understand that these three factors are required to create great design.  Great design is amazing to see and I believe should be present in everything from the chairs we sit in to the core banking platforms that we create and evolve.

When it comes to enterprise systems and core banking transformation I believe that these three factors are most powerful at the conceptual design level.  If we achieve these three objectives with the conceptual design the rest of the design will naturally follow.

The concepts in the solution themselves should be structurally stable.  This means that they are able to withstand the real world scenarios that they will face in production.  Sometimes this translates to feasibility — if there is a scenario that challenges or invalidates the concept this is a major gap and something that needs to be addressed in the earliest stages of design.

From a usability perspective, is the concept appropriately sized/easy enough to work within the scenarios where it operates?  If not, the design concept may not work within the broader orchestration of events.

The delight aspect can be the most challenging and requires a solid understanding of the desired outcomes and constraints mixed with creativity and innovation.  This is where the truly brilliant architects and designers shine — demonstrating simplicity and ingenuity.

Documenting and socializing the concept can be challenging.  A model, wireframe or mock up can help to explain the concept and play back the understanding of concepts to subject matter experts.  Confirming the understanding and assumptions is a key part of the process.  I recommend as light weight a modeling technique as possible, something where it is easy to throw away and start again;  iterating on the concept until it resonates with the stakeholders.

I’ve used a few tools for this process in the past and have recently tried Balsamiq’s Mockups which is a lightweight mockup tool.  I think this is a case where the right tool is the one that allows for the concept to be clearly communicated and quickly iterated.  I recently designed an iPhone app and used an iPad app called Blueprint.  There was something really satisfying about having a “working” wireframe mockup and sending this to the development team knowing that I had clarity in my conceptual design — leaving little room for misinterpretation.  Of course I also accompanied it with notes such as “take artistic liberties here..” or “this part is really important to work like this..”

IBM Developerworks also has a series of articles on a scenario based methodology for creating clarity in conceptual design.

A key question on this topic is how to scale what can work really well between a handful of people to a team of over a hundred — how do we adequately socialize the conceptual design without paralyzing progress?  One approach that I have seen is to appoint design leads on each area that are tasked with the broader team interactions.  The developerWorks article above also has some suggestions on this.

Aligning the conceptual design involves looking at how specific design concepts interact on a macro level.  A concept itself may be sound within it’s specific domain — but within a broader context of interaction may not be usable.  It is important to evolve, socialize and understand design concepts within all of the layers of the solution that they are participating.

If design concepts are not understood and aligned the impact on rework can be devastating, so it’s really important to get this part right.

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