Tools of the Trade

As you can see with the previous “Twenty Years in Design”, design has experienced many transitions over the years. It has lost its rigid edges and blurred with other disciplines, such as psychology, sociology, engineering, linguistics and anthropology. While ‘traditional’ forms of 1st and 2nd orders of design work are highly rewarding and necessary, it is the growth into newer 3rd and 4th orders we have witnessed most profoundly these last few years.

These tiers of work require designers to dig into the very root of how things work, to design more authentic, integrated and holistic experiences, to recognize connections, to synthesize broad information sets, and to aid as a bridge between groups across fields. Design, across all it’s niches, incorporates both divergent and convergent activities, reflecting the flow between a need to broaden, and reduce, broaden, and reduce. As a result, designers have developed or reimagined “old” tools, methods and processes to aid us in these transitions between open discovery and selective refinement. 

A similar pattern can be seen in conversation, where two or more people exchange feelings, concepts, concerns (or any number of things) back and forth until a final agreement or understanding can be made. 

Here is a brief example:

Me: You:
“Did you invite their manager to the meeting as well?”
“No, you mentioned that being unnecessary last time we talked.”
“Well after my discussion with Steph this morning, it might be worthwhile.”
“I’m happy to include him in the invite still.”
“OK, good.”


In this example, the “me” and “you” characters are exploring what they know, what they thought they knew, adding information to, and ultimately, finding alignment. We all recognize these transactional types of conversation, especially in work environments, where so much conversation is held for the purpose of coordinating, understanding, learning, etc.

The flow of designerly processes mirror conversation patterns. As such, they could be natural partners in the workplace. In essence, both design and conversation activities drive toward a similar purpose: to clarify the tacit, and transform it into the explicit

Let’s take a look at a few of the activities designers use to aid us in turning the tacit into the explicit:

> Personas & Mapping

> Interviewing

> Storytelling

> Facilitation

“Expanded forms of design practice do not abandon the traditional concerns of form-giving and making that have defined design in the past. It is the concept of form that has grown more supple and complex” (Buchanan, “Introduction” 9).


Personas & Mapping


“Personas are narrative descriptions of user archetypes reflecting common patterns of behavior, needs, and emotions” (Kalbach 89).

Popularized in the 1980s, personas were developed to give life to unengaging data and illustrate patterns of behavior across user sets, like customers or employees. The information is not “made up” (this is an incorrect assumption often with those unfamiliar with Personas). These “individuals” are created through research, where distinguishable segments have been identified and grouped together by their overlapping traits and given an identifiable name. 

They often include information such as demographics, behaviors, a picture, and pain points, and usually will feature a quote that demonstrates a main, identifiable motivation, such as this example from a persona named “Passive Pat” in Jim Kalbach’s Mapping Experiences: “I am not looking forward to this. I really don’t want the surgery, but my doctor told me it’s for the best” (90). ‘Pat’, a herniated disc patient, represents a segment of patients who apathetically participate in major health choices. Giving this person a face, a life, children and career, all aid in helping teams understand, empathize and plan to provide the best service to the people Passive Pat represents.


These maps focus on real-time encounters from the perspective of those “behind the scenes” by reviewing touch points along the organization in relation to a service, purchase, etc.

example: ABC Mattresses has decided to review crib mattress orders to better understand delivery delays.


Often going hand in hand with personas is a map visualizing a user or stakeholder’s journey interacting with a service, product or organization. A few variations of these diagrams can be found in Jim Kalbach’s Mapping Experiences

  • service blueprint, 
  • customer journey map, 
  • experience map, 
  • mental mode diagram, 
  • spatial map (93

Each of these types of maps focus on different points of view, scope, focus, structure and uses (93). 

The customer journey map, the experience map, and service blueprints are very popular but there can be confusion around when their use is the most applicable. Here is a brief breakdown of these maps, their approach and an example:

Customer Journey Map

These maps often are limited in terms of broader service information; the focus typically revolves around a key decision such as a purchase.

example: A customer has decided to purchase a new crib mattress from ABC Mattresses.


These maps look at human behavior in broader contexts and may not be specific to one purchase or individual organization, but rather a series of interactions within the context of one’s life. 

example: A customer is a first time expecting parent, and is researching necessary items for a baby registry.

The maps often include information that documents the emotional ‘ups and downs’ within an experience — Where was the customer impressed with the smoothness of her online mattress order or where were there pain points? (customer journey map)Where does the first time parent experience the most frustrating or overwhelming aspects of researching, choosing and creating a registry for the first time? (experience map) — How are crib mattress orders received, processed, invoiced and shipped in a timely manner between our departments? (service blueprint). 

Mapping is a helpful tool in turning abstract emotional responses along a journey into tangible, trackable data. This research allows an organization to make decisions based on clear-cut information rather than plan a strategy or invest in a new product or service based on a fuzzy understanding of any one individual’s experience.



“This is a great time for the design researcher. Within user-experience design, service design, and to a lesser extent, industrial design, user research has gone from being an outsider activity, to being tolerated, to being the norm” (Portigal 2).

Regardless of what you call it: user research, site visits, contextual research, design research, and ethnography” (Portigal 3), the intent is to capture people’s behaviors and put meaning behind them. The actual interview is only one step of the activities related to the entire process. There are ‘pre’ interview stages where questions are developed and the structure mapped (either in formal steps or as an informal guide) – afterwards the information must be synthesized, where various types of analysis is used to interpret the interviewees behaviors, answers, and sometimes, even nonverbal cues (Portigal 3). 

As themes materialize and early patterns emerge, a ‘topline report’ (or something similar, depending on where or how you work) will begin to illuminate user desires, experiences or expectations; these are early findings that help shape the organization’s impression of what’s to come. More formal information based on detailed analysis should follow as a ‘presentation of findings’ (again, the name may be different depending on where or how you work) (Portigal 136-141).

The best, most practiced interviewers know interviews are not conversations, yet, they are able to make even the most formally planned and practiced interviews feel like conversations. Through the art of planning strategic interviews, users – be it customers, employees, board members or vendors – are put at ease and able to express their true reactions in an unfiltered and vulnerable way. This process of connecting, and developing a rapport between interviewer and interviewee(s) is essential, and not easy. It requires all to be vulnerable, with openness at the self, group and organizational level.

As patterns and themes emerge across interviews, organizations can use this qualitative data, often in conjunction with quantitative data (such as surveys), to plan strategy, products or services. When done to their best ability, interviews tap into latent desires and mold them into actionable information.



The National Storytelling Network defines storytelling as the “the interactive art of using words and actions to reveal the elements and images of a story while encouraging the listener’s imagination” (National Storytelling Network). The use of the word “reveal” is what is key to this process in business environments, and not unlike personas, journey mapping and interviewing, stories help to uncover hidden truths and assumptions we can’t simply gain through our day-to-day activities. Our feelings toward what may be a frustrating co-worker can quickly change when we hear a story about their difficult childhood. Hearing another’s perspective, experiences and motivations through an organized, cohesive journey allows us ‘go along’ with them, to tap into our internal empathic resources. “People are accustomed to hearing corporate communication professionals tell stories about a company, but there’s nothing like hearing a story direct from the front lines when employees speak from their own experience, unedited, the message comes to life” (Groysberg & Slind 82) 

Additionally, when we can understand what has led a person toward a behavior, we have the patience to pause, reevaluate and make new decisions. This ability to reassess is part of what makes us human beings and our intrinsic desire to hear and tell stories is as old as time. A great story reveals a future path where choices are more clear, rather than based on subtle distorted impressions we’ve cobbled together from a series of unrelated interactions. 

In Let the Story Do the Work, author Esther Choy discusses the important, but differing, roles proof and persuasion have in business narrative contexts: “Many of us fail to realize that, in part because no one has informed us explicitly that effective communication in a data-rich environment requires understanding the difference between proving and persuading” (77). Too much proving can result in an overabundance of information that is difficult to discern what is important and what is not (Choy 77).

We’ve all seen this in presentations that include powerpoint spreadsheets with 70 page decks. The other side is too much persuasion – this can result in a natural suspicion based on a lack of facts. We’ve all seen this when an organization attempts to cover up a PR blunder with slick graphics, and promises to behave, with a lack of any authentic explanation on how or why it happened.

A balance of evidence and ‘sweet talk’ is needed to craft stories within our data heavy work environments; designing great organizational narratives builds bridges between those disconnected and abstract experiences in life to larger, big picture, concrete desires. Taking groups of people together, on the same journey, can aid in bringing broader degrees of empathy and alignment, as well as aid in creating a shared mindset within ‘how do we best move forward from here.



“Facilitation is a system of tools, techniques, and skills to help a group of people work well in defining a common vision, making decisions, achieving their goals, and creating a relational climate where trust prevails and communication is fluid, empathic, and honest” (Wahl).

I think many practicing designers today aren’t sure how to employ facilitation methods day-to-day, and end up mentally relegating facilitation tasks to those in lead positions. I would encourage all designers to challenge their own notions of this and be more open to a broader application of facilitation, and adopt a wider “facilitation in the trenches” viewpoint. Anyone can be a facilitator; it’s a tool just as much as a role! 

But how?

One way is to understand the relationship between facilitation and creativity.

Most designers are in touch with their creative side (some embrace this more than others – often those of us, like myself, whose education is more art and theory based than those whose education and experiences are more industrial or scientific). Yet, few of us have any formal training about types of creativity, how to explore it, how to broaden and reign it in, or even how it can benefit an organization’s bottom line and future success. This lack of understanding has not been helpful to designers who wish to further cultivate soft skills, and act as a facilitator in team environments.

Co-designers Liz Sanders and Pieter Jan Stappers outline the 4 levels of creativity in the article “Co-creation and the new landscapes of design”:

Level Type Motivated By Purpose
4 Creating Inspiration ‘express my creativity’
3 Making Asserting my ability or skill ‘make with my own hands’
2 Adapting Appropriation ‘make things my own’
1 Doing Productivity ‘get something done’


We all know people – friends, family, etc – who claim they “are not creative” – it is simply not true. Society, education, and our own cultures have all done great damage to our ability to see how we are creative beyond childhood; humans are naturally creative beings. Some of us may only experience creativity on a doing level, where activities like organizing an office desk promotes feelings of productivity and wellness. A nurse, for example, may have exceptional technical skills, such as running an IV line, but be completely unaware of how their uniquely developed process for its set-up lends directly to safety, cleanliness, and patient experience. There is creativity everywhere, if we choose to see it.

Which leads us back to facilitation.


When everyone is aware of and appreciates each layer of creativity, including their own, the designer can aid by acting as a facilitator to draw out, prompt, and encourage when needed. “To optimize the work of any team, small or large, you’ll need a facilitator to act as referee, coach, and trainer” (Neumeier 124). Sanders and Stappers describe what each of these levels of creativity need: For those who are doers, they need to be lead – for those who are adapters, they need a guide – for those who are makers, they need the right scaffolding and support – and for those who are creators, they need to be offered a ‘clean slate’ from which to work (Sanders and Stappers 11). The art of facilitation can be the perfect tool to help tap into latent creative potential, and we need not be in a leadership position to help coax it out from our co-workers, team members, or departments.