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The dynamic duo of structure + design

Kelley Eskridge
Sr. Lead Experience Design
Kelley Eskridge, Oxygen’s experience design practice lead, explores the working relationship between experience architecture and its logical next step: design.
August 2, 2021

Earlier this year, my colleague Alex M Dunne wrote a post about a critical component of learning experience: the architecture.  In contrast to traditional learning  approaches – for example, doing “needs analysis,” in which requirements are gathered via topics – experience architecture focuses on the business outcome for the audience, and how an outcome can be deconstructed into logically sequenced, measurable themes and objectives that relate to that audience. Naturally, this brings up an interesting question:

if an experience architect is doing that up-front work, what happens next? How does this change the role of the designer?

Learning designers are often used to doing it all: identifying needs and requirements, envisioning the result, gathering content, and designing and developing the course. But in this new way of working, the architect shows up to your team with an experience map that details business outcomes, audience needs, project constraints, the overall flow of the learning journey, specific topics, modalities, suggested key activities, and durations. It’s a blueprint of everything that’s needed to build the experience.

While this type of, shall we say, structured  input might seem unsettling or even encroaching upon the traditional role of the designer, in fact it can make the job of the designer far easier – and make it possible for designers to bring their best creative game to truly focus on the learning within a topical area, versus having to “do it all.”

In this view, architects and designers are partners with a clear common goal: the business outcome. And the experience map and detailed blueprint provides the organizing construct, signed off by stakeholders, that enables designers to stay in close alignment with what’s needed for the audience.

And that’s who really owns the course — the people who learn from it and thereby make themselves and their business more successful.

So how do we do it?

Know your swim lane

When designers are clear on what their role is accountable for, and how it contributes to the overall success of the experience, it prevents mishaps during the design process.

Simply put, the architect owns the purpose, outcomes and shape of the learning journey; the designer owns the creation of the experience people have on that journey.

Clear architecture accelerates the design process enormously. It's the key to working in an agile way.

Architects don't just throw documents over a wall — they must help the design team understand the principles, context and outcomes of the learning, and the thinking behind every choice in the blueprint.

Once the architect is confident that the designers understand the brief, they trust the team to interpret it and bring their creativity to execute it best. And the designers become champions of the architecture.

The architect keeps the overall shape and consistency in view; that frees the design team to bring the learning to life  in the most creative and experiential way.

Collaborate

Swim lanes aren’t silos!
 
Architects have every right to provide input on specific design deliverables — to call out gaps or question a design choice if they think it doesn't support the outcomes. They’re doing this based on their understanding of what the experience is supposed to accomplish.
 
Designers have every right to suggest a change to structure or a different focus for a part of the experience. They’re doing this based on their deep engagement with the specific content that is coming from subject matter experts.
 
It’s okay to change the architecture or design based on this input –

it’s not a sign of incompetence if someone’s idea works better, and it’s not a sign of weakness to implement it. It just makes the learning better.

The best designers we know understand this interdependency and treat it as a gift.

 

Communicate

Remember that we don’t live in each other’s heads.

The experience architect, in doing their work, will have been deep into business outcomes and context for a long time, and the architecture is a living, integrated thing. So a good architect doesn’t expect the design team to absorb it in a 30-minute meeting. Instead, they are ready to explain it as often as it takes, with patience and appreciation for the team’s desire to get it right. Instead of waiting for questions — they’ll think about what the designer would want to know in their shoes and start there.

Designers then have to embrace the ambiguity of diving into an architecture that they didn’t create and moving forward with content that they may not fully understand yet. The beauty of the designer’s skill set is that they’ll have an endless supply of creative ideas and go-to learning strategies — but they have to understand the big picture in order to utilize them best. We recommend that designer ask questions until they understand, even if that feels awkward.

 

Creativity, squared

The joy of a great architect-design team relationship is that everyone gets to do their best, most creative work  because they know where they’re going together. They know the outcomes, the needs, the constraints, the key content, and most importantly the audience —  and then make creative decisions about how to bring the experience to life for them in the most meaningful way for that audience. It’s not the architect’s course or the designer’s — it belongs to the people who are learning, and it works for them because of the collaboration to make it that way.

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