Using Design Thinking When Creating User Assistance

design thinkingWhat is Design Thinking?

So what is this Design Thinking approach? Well, it’s primarily about problem-solving and collaboration between a team of people with different skillsets to come up with innovative solutions for users. This process is usually aimed at creating software solutions, but I learned how to adapt it to create user assistance solutions for our users. The team offers different points of view that are used to look at new ways to solve old problems.

That’s exactly what I said the first time I heard about Design Thinking. I read about it a bit, but until I took a hands-on Design Thinking class at SAP, I didn’t fully understand the meaning. I attended a 5-day class with developers, QA, product owners, and scrum masters. I was the only one from User Assistance. I was up for the challenge, yet a bit nervous!!

The official definition from the Hasso Plattner Institute (HPI) of Design is: “Design Thinking is a systematic, human-centered approach to solving complex problems within all aspects of life.” What I said, right?

The Design Thinking approach has been around since the 1990’s. You know, when you were listening to Vanilla Ice and sporting your parachute pants? (What were you thinking?) With a background in psychology, I found the cognitive aspects of Design Thinking very fascinating. I wanted to get into the user’s head and figure out what they’re thinking… about products, trends, and more.

I found this approach in other places as well. My son’s summer camps at Camp Galileo in the Bay Area uses the Design Thinking approach. They call it the Innovation Process for young inventors. My son has attended these camps since he was 5 years old. He’s learned how to create an app, a website, music, and delved into history, art, science, and more, using this process. Their goal is “to develop innovators who envision and create a better world”. How cool is that?

How do I use design thinking when creating a user assistance solution?

Complex products, such as business software, usually require some sort of guidance on how to use them. Design thinking offers an approach for building user assistance that readily complements the product design process.

DT user assistance

I’ve found that my design thinking process for user assistance includes most of these phases:

understand problem -mag glassfocus groupUnderstand the problem

When I’m first assigned a project, I learn about the software solution we are offering to users and the problem it’s intended to solve for users. I define the different types of users (personas) and how they will use this solution. I empathize with users to understand what they need from us from the software and the user assistance perspectives.

Observe users

persona notesTo empathize with and learn about users, ideally I’d like to to visit them in their work environment, observe their physical spaces, take some photos, and interview them to learn about what they do and what their pain points are. If I can’t get to a customer in person, I try by phone or work with the designers who might already have a persona defined.

interpretInterpret the results

After I collect user data, the team interprets the this data to gain a full understanding of the problem and the solution. In my case, the solution is providing a user assistance strategy that is seamless, intuitive, and embedded in our products, while not being too invasive. Interpreting this data means answering a number of user-focused questions: What did we learn from users and how they use our products? Do they understand how our product solves the problems they have?  What type of user assistance solution can we provide?

ideateGenerate ideas (Ideate)

So, armed with some knowledge about our users, and data about how they use the products, we begin brainstorming to come up with as many ideas as possible. This involves a lot of post-it notes, white boards, and throwing out any idea no matter how outrageous. We begin to group these ideas into categories and start to narrow down a proper solution. How will we implement the user assistance? Will we have a getting started video? Hints? Tips? Overlays, Inline help? By knowing our users and how they work, we can come up with the best solution for them.

prototypePrototype and experiment

After we narrow down a solution, we build prototypes and share them with team members and other colleagues to continue narrowing down the solution. These prototypes can be sketched on paper or on the computer to represent the user assistance solution (I often use screenshots or mockups). We do this in stages or iterations. We don’t wait until everything is implemented to show the users what we have, when there is little or no time to change it.

iterationTest, implement, and improve

But how do we know that the users will like our solution? Well, we test it, of course. We present users with simple prototypes and ask for feedback. We also look at how they use our product and where they need assistance the most. Generally, I take my help and product screenshots, show them to the user and ask them to go through a process. I watch what they do, and where they struggle. Sometimes they need user assistance, sometimes the user interface needs some adjustment. This is an iterative process where we refine the solution before we build it.

deliverDeliver the final solution

We’ve had numerous iterations of our solution, and now it’s time to build it. We’ll validate it again with users to make sure the built product matches what they wanted. It should only require some tweaks at this time…..we hope. There is always room for changes, more iterations, enhancements, and improvements. It’s never final. As the user’s needs change or grow, we adapt the solution to meet their needs.


So, now what?

Well, try it out! Put some heads together and figure out a user assistance solution for your users. Try some brainstorming with team members, get to know your users and what they really need. Don’t make assumptions, because we all know what happens when we assume……!  If someone says, “Our users need long videos or volumes of guides to read to use our very dangerous, fast-moving, and limb-splitting product”, my response would be “or DO they?” Well, that would be the response in my head. I’d really say “Let me meet with users and see what they need from us”.

Get your management on board with this new way of thinking and designing solutions for your users. Prove the value of working early and often with users to get them the solution they really need. You’ll have happy customers and make millions of dollars. (Well, maybe not millions… or dollars, but happy customers tend to lead to both.).

Check out some of the links below or take a class. It worked for me!


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