By Ken McDowell

Consider that for nearly every business today, “Digital” is not just an important communication channel from the organization to customers, but rather something that is at the heart of every dimension of the organization. That means that there are quite a few user journeys (both customer and employee) that are being constantly revised as the organization is adapting to the marketplace.  Mapping out those journeys and translating them through “Concepting” can help the organization keep pace with this rate of change and communicate them effectively to management. By quickly experimenting with different options, concepting allows for the creation of new paradigms instead of mere incremental upgrades of past processes. Concepts can be based on part of the overall customer journey and can allow for ideation around the journey from a 30,000ft level or down to specific touchpoints.

What Do We Mean by “Concept”?

Many people use the term “Concept” in different ways. When thinking about your experience strategy, a Concept, in this context, should be thought of as:

  • An interactive storyboard of a particular user scenario or scenarios
  • Purposefully constrained to highlight functionality of a future state vision
  • Created at different levels of fidelity depending on timing, purpose, and audience
  • Requiring voice-over narration by presenter or could be self-running

Typically a concept will focus on just a single scenario or a few tasks with enough interaction and consistent, realistic content to seem real and tangible for the audience to really “get it”, without getting to bogged down in the details to come.

When Can Concepting be Used?

Concepting can be used in several different ways to develop a product idea or experience vision. The types of concepting that are most often employed and that I have selected to discuss are situations that you may find relevant to your organization:

  1. Developing strategic service innovations
  2. Designing key business functionality
  3. Exploring functional paradigms as part of an agile/lean approach

1. Concepting When Developing Strategic Service Innovations

At a strategic level, Concepting can help define and decipher the true value of a digital capability that may be central to your organization’s various missions, whether that is improved servicing and delighting customers or making your own employees more efficient. This often goes hand-in-hand with innovations to the Customer Journey.

Here a team can be exploring some very different user journeys with an organization via concepting. In a sense, the concept is more like a storyboard to help tell the narrative of the touch points and a little more about the nature of the interactions that take place. It can allow you to illustrate the jump from device to device as part of a flow without being overly concerned about the particulars.

For example, your organization may be considering how services can be transformed using Artificial Intelligence to anticipate a customer’s needs based on recent patterns of activity and notify them of better-faster-cheaper options in a just-in-time situation. A concept could demonstrate how the process is initiated on a mobile device using the user’s profile along with time and geo-location. Then it could transition later in time to a different role in the back office dealing with confirmation of the customer request. Since the service is likely to involve more than one party to deliver such a service, it is useful to see how each participant is engaged along the way and what sort of language or related information should be exposed based on:

  • Role – Who is the participant and what part do they play in the process/set of activities?
  • Services/interaction points – What are the touchpoints for each participant and what is the expected result of the interaction with your organization?
  • Narrow and deep vs. broad and shallow – What is the expected level of interaction that needs to take place? Is the participant expecting to get a quick result or is this a point where they will be need to be more engaged?

2. Concepting When Designing Key Business Functionality

At a somewhat more tangible level, concepting can be used to gauge how some important new functions for a whole organization might be exposed in different ways in different situations and to evaluate them before committing to their development.

An example here might be whether to use navigation to take someone to a separate site to get support of various sorts or to do it in context, or to do both. The requirement is not set in stone and there are pros and cons to each approach.  Using concepts, you can visualize how those approaches may feel to your customers and will allow you to better weigh which direction is most beneficial.

3. Concepting When Exploring Functional Paradigms as Part of an Agile/Lean Approach

In some situations, the organization may already have a clearer idea of what they want to do, even having requirements or agile user stories. This is traditionally when UX Design is engaged inside an organization to immediately begin the experience design process for a minimum viable product(MVP).

In this case, concepts can be a precursor to the MVP.  It is valuable to gather early feedback from potential users and stakeholders prior to diving too deeply into the experience design. Concepts should be just complete enough to both communicate the vision internally and to get early feedback from potential users.  This early review and validation of the experience design will help to mitigate some of the downstream risk by helping to reduce the number of potential design changes during development as well as to get buy-in of the design direction within your organization.

How Can Concepting Help Your Organization Achieve Its Goals?

Concepting can let an organization efficiently explore different ideas in a tangible way that makes it easy to communicate to important stakeholders and decision-makers.

Communicates A Vision and Helps to Achieve Buy-in from Key Decision Makers

The concept helps to build momentum in the organization for an idea or direction because stakeholders can really understand what the idea is and start to get excited about it.

Its natural at an early phase of a project idea to describe it with some abstraction in order to avoid:

  1. Overly restricting the solution by being too proscriptive or referring to something that already exists
  2. Limiting the eventual promise of the solution as it evolves to its ultimate manifestation. However, that abstraction could seem confusing to many people particularly as the project lead is trying to get budget allocated for its development. A concept can help make the idea much more tangible and comprehensible.

Helps to Determine Priorities, Feasibility, and Complexity

Concepting can help your internal team iterate or even refactor tools and processes. By developing an interactive concept, the UX team can better understand the affordances they need to make available to the end-user to support their decisions. Your technology team will also be able to look forward and understand what they may need to do support the experiences you are envisioning and whether they are able to support them at all. Getting the business, technology, and design teams aligned early on in the process will prevent potential future issues during implementation.

Allows for Gathering Early Feedback from Stakeholders and End Users

As a general rule, it is much easier for people to give feedback than guidance. Although contextual interviews can help the team understand the pain points that people are experiencing, the solutions are often less clear. This is even more true when developing an entirely new product/service offering. A concept can serve as the focus for asking more precise questions and even testing certain functionality depending on the fidelity of the concept.

Why Use Concepting Versus PowerPoint or Simple Visuals?

PowerPoint…

Interactive concepts help tell a story more effectively and tangibly than a set of bullet points in a slide deck. While those bullets might articulate some important goals, they may be either overly specific or overly vague to clearly communicate your intent. Usually it’s important to be a little vague when describing a future vision in order to leave open the door to some important innovations or future expansion. However, that abstraction could leave the audience scratching their heads wondering if the idea is grandiose or much like something they already know. This is where concepting can really bridge that gap.

Visual Comps…

Visual comps typically emphasize high fidelity of the branding, layout, design, fonts and standards. While there is nothing wrong with this, they usually don’t include any interactivity that shows how users make decisions and move around the application. Sometimes the overhead required to develop this high fidelity can take away from exploring substantially different alternatives. It is worth noting that if appropriate, a Concept can be iterated and refined with high fidelity visual treatment that can help it to gain traction.

How Much Detail Should Be Included(or Not) in a Concept?

The level of detail and real-ness or fidelity that the concept depicts is an important consideration. Less detail(low fidelity) is usually faster and allows for more variations to be explored. Higher levels of detail(high fidelity) is useful for making a concept more compelling. Audience type is very important in choosing your level of detail given the ambiguity of “simpler” options.

Lower Fidelity – “Wireframed” Concept

Wireframe blue-print style concepts may be sufficient for certain audiences and are often more appropriate for sophisticated stakeholders like UX or Technology professionals who are used to seeing them. They have the advantage of lower overhead and production time, thus making it easy to iterate a variety of options that might diverge fairly significantly.  In many cases, wireframes could also be viewed as an early stage design leading to a higher-fidelity design in future stages of detailed interaction and visual design.

Mid-Level Fidelity – Visually Designed Concept

It can be useful to have Visual Design and branding involved at an early stage to collaborate creatively. The more finished and brand-compliant the Concept is, the easier it will be to show to Executive stakeholders or potential end-users without them being distracted by the lack of refinement.  Alternatively, wireframes might get visual treatment as they enter a later phase in order to convey the design in a more realistic way as well as to get initial feedback on usability as well as branding in the context of the design.

Higher Fidelity – Interactive Concept

Interactivity in a concept is not mutually exclusive from whether it is a wireframe or visually treated with some of the tools available to practitioners now. They allow the creation of semi-working prototypes with relative speed. Depending on the scope, the concept may not need to have much interactivity if it is a simple linear flow. However, sometimes even simple branching or a single interactive element can help sell an idea. Other times, very specific interactive behaviors are important to demonstrate to help an audience understand the differences from the current state of your design and/or process.

What Else Should You Consider for When Creating Your Concept?

Because a concept can have a level of fidelity or clarity that strongly conveys what it will do, it sometimes leads an audience to think that it is more complete than it really is. They may assume that getting from concept to developed, finished product is very straightforward, but this is usually NOT the case.

Usually many assumptions are made and details glossed over in the name of speed and casting a broad net when developing a concept. It’s meant to set a direction and vision of an ultimate goal.   Be sure to make your assumptions known and be clear about the intention to your audience when presenting so as not confuse strategic vision with the tactical here and now.  As you enter into detailed prototyping, design, development, and usability testing you will most likely reveal many challenges and opportunities to refactor the design.

Summing It Up

Concepting can be an invaluable method to focus both leadership and a whole team on the essence of an idea at an early stage and explore radically different user experiences before a direction is settled. Concepting can be used more strategically or more tactically depending on the needs of the organization at the time. However, the purpose and audience should be defined at the outset in order to tailor the fidelity and emphasis for maximum effect.

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