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Can I Take Your Order?

Have you ever worked in a restaurant? When I was in college, I spent some time as a busboy at a Chilis. I remember busing tables and watching the server interactions, like a fly on the wall, wondering what I’d be saying, asking, thinking if it were me socializing with the table. At some point, I started asking servers if I could shadow them when we were slow.

I wanted to get closer to the action.

What I didn’t realize at this time was that this was my professional introduction to UX. As I followed servers around, I quickly realized that I had favorites and not-so favorites. There’s a specific memory I’d like to share. It was right after the lunch rush had died off, and we were nearing shift change. I had just finished clearing a nearby table when Jen approached a new seating. The group consisted of a young family: mom, dad, and what I’m guessing was a 3-year-old.

  • Jen: Hi, welcome to Chilis, my name is Jen, and I’ll be your server today.

  • Dad: Hi Jen, what do you recommend to someone who’s trying not to eat burgers two at a time? (chuckle)

  • Jen: (opens a menu and points to the salads section then looks at mom)

  • Dad: ahem, thanks Jen, but I was hoping for a recommendation.

  • Jen: Oh, I reeeally like the Oldtimer with bacon. I know you said you’re trying not to eat burgers two at a time, but it’s my favorite.

  • Dad: mom, what do you think?

  • Mom: (shakes head no while keeping 3 year old entertained)

I’m going to spare you the rest of that interaction, but it didn’t end well. I can’t tell you how many times I have been every person in that scenario, including the 3-year old that was distracting mom.

As designers, we are often given tasks that feel like this interaction. We go to a client. They spend time telling us what they don’t want. We fail to ask why, so armed with no data we try to talk them into a version of what they didn’t want in the first place. Finally, it gets shot down by someone who is not entertaining the idea of something that doesn’t work for their needs.

This is why one of the first tenets I implemented as the Design Leader for our team was empathetic research. Every single graphic that comes through our Kanban board (more on that in a follow-up article) gets an interview. These graphics consist of anything from org charts to infographics, complex workflow diagrams to presentations.

The basis of the conversation is simple, understanding.

We start with “take me through your request”. Without guessing where they’re going, without thinking of a solution while they’re talking; We let them speak, we take notes, and we listen.

Once we are done listening, we ask why. Why do you need this? Why this format? Why will anyone care about this content? Once the “why’s” are sorted, we shift to the what. What does the takeaway need to be? What must they understand? What are you hoping to accomplish?

We take all of that priceless information and combine it with design research to start on our solution. Before this process existed, successful outputs were lucky and not repeatable.

When you’re new in the design field, asking questions can feel intimidating. Just keep in mind that you can’t design what they don’t explain*, even if they need your help getting there.

*Explaining can come in many forms, including observation (basically your qualitative research)


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