Grassroots Innovation products = a rich set of requirements

Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night with insomnia, and when that happens, the best you can do is to make that time productive (and spend the day after, drinking coffee), right?  … So, I wrote this post.

In UX there’s a fair amount of projects which goal is to redesign applications that were developed during years, (if not decades) by internal teams. The focus of these teams is on features and not on the User friendliness of the tool.

The end result after years of development is translated in to a set of unorganized interaction patterns. But the tool somehow works, because it was intended for a specific audience.

Grassroots Innovation

India is known for the jugaad kind of innovation, something developed in a very frugal way with cheap and easily accessible resources. I thank the Indians for giving us, their attitude of bending the rules with simple fixes and work-arounds, I simply love that.

The web is flooded with pictures of funny solutions (specially of transportations means) that “express a need to do what needs to be done, without regard to what is conventionally supposed to be possible”.

Make the tool accessible to bigger audiences

But what if one has to industrialize it for production, to be used by many people (besides the one who created it), to respect legislation and good practices? Some redesign has to be made, of course, the kind of redesign that I wrote above.


When I’m invited to redesign a tool that is a result of this “Jugaad” attitude, there’s something really important to keep in mind: what you have in front of you is “only” a very good list of requirements, but is our goal as Designers to make that product accessible to a wider group of users:

  • by giving consistency through a set of known interaction patterns,
  • by making design decisions that are aligned with the development constrains and the business needs,
  • by respecting legislations.

So our job is, most of the times, “just” to bring order to users life’s.

Yes, Sir


I’m a big fan of the TV show Breaking Bad, the all Texan landscape and the plot got me hooked for months untill the last episode.

I’m also a fan of cars. I always turn my head for cars with beautiful and simple lines, like the italian sports coupés from the 60’s, 70’s and early 80’s from Lancia, Alfa Romeo or BMW.

Well, it happens that Breaking Bad featured one of the ugliest cars ever designed and mass-produced… the Pontiac Aztek. It belonged to the high school teacher, Walter White, and helped to build his character.

No one understood what was going on the designers mind when he decided to design… that. It’s not an SUV, it’s not a wagon/estate, it’s not a sedan/berlina/saloon. And I’m thankfull we didn’t get it in this side of the pond, where Italian and German design set the tone for the all auto industry. It was built from 2001 to 2005. Was a flop for General Motors.


I have completely forgotten the subject, when recently I came across an article on Car and Driver telling a bit of the story of this car, by Bob Lutz (once responsible for the development of the Opel Ampera/Chevrolet Volt at GM).

And a sentence caught my attention as I fully agreed:

“The danger with the totalitarian management style is that people won’t speak up when there’s a problem. They’ll get their heads cut off or the messenger gets shot.”

And there you go. That’s how the Pontiac Aztek was born… everybody said: “Yes, Sir”, to a management team with a lot of wrong ideas. This is particularly dangerous in big corporations where responsibility lies in many people’s hands.

So, I was thinking. Does this apply to UX design as well? I mean, do you as a UX practitioner base your design decisions on the requirements you gathered solely and stay on safe ground? or, do you go beyond and try to push the users experience to a level they don’t really expect, but you are sure it’s going to be better for them, once they pass a quick learning curve?

Design Thinking in a nutshell

A few years ago I had the chance to have a training on Service Design with Arne from Design Thinkers, while I was still working for Novabase Consulting and based in Lisbon. Novabase was at that point starting to embrace these methodologies internaly to provide better advise to clients.

Just take 5 minutes of your time to hear some insights about how DT and Service Design methodologies can help create value for companies and customers.

“What do you Want?”

First rule about User Research: Never ask, “What do you Want?”; Second rule about User Research: Never ask, “What do you Want?; Third rule about User Research: … Well, you see where this goes, right?

I found this interesting article that puts this idea in a nutshell, and provides a good alternative. You better ask this in your next conversation with users:

  • What are you trying to get done? Why?
  • How do you currently do this?
  • What could be better about how you do this?




Doing the good, can hurt – Apple and UX good practices

Doing the good deed to users? or basic UX mistake from Apple?… “Don’t give me what I didn’t ask” some might say. And they are right.
Others where probably happy to have a small gift from Apple. It’s debatable.

Apple went too far on trying to please the clients, for me it’s fine, I’ll just delete the files if I don’t want them.
But in a time when digital surveillance is a hot topic, Apple should be carefull on how they enter on client’s personal cloud services.

If in doubt, always stick to proven good practices. And from a UX point of view, it would be a better decision not to do it in the first place, or do it in a different way like sending an email with a link to download the files. That way the user as the final choice.


UX metaphor

Because I always find it difficult to explain to someone what I do, I found this picture to be a very good starting point of a conversation about the topic.
UX approach to solving design problems is one that goes top down from conceptual ideas (UX Strategy) to very specific design solutions (Interaction Design), in that sense our field needs powerfull memes like this one to help evangelize the field.

On the other hand when one is very much involved with IT development teams (like me for the past months) and the discussion is between “out of the box solutions” versus custom development, this image also helps explain the idea to developers and business.


Contextual Inquiry

“The core premise of Contextual Inquiry is very
simple: go where the customer works, observe
the customer as he or she works, and talk to
the customer about the work. Do that, and you
can’t help but gain a better understanding of
your customer. ”

Beyer and Holtzblatt, Contextual Design, 1998