A Hack To Begin Systems Design And UX Research

A good UX is not built overnight. The product must go through multiple iterations over time before it finally reaches the sweet spot that works well for both the business and its primary users. This then becomes the underlying logic (System): the product is continually improvised to add nuances that meet the growing needs of a dynamic user base.

By definition, a systems design is the process of defining architecture, modules, interfaces, and data for a interconnecting network to satisfy specified functions in order to solve a problem/s.


(Image courtesy: Jeff Lienert, National Human Genome Research Institute, NIH)

Agood systems design will have a flexible structural hierarchy (Information Architecture) that can handle a lot of complex and diverse use cases through carefully designed functions. Without which, designers will continue to iterate blindly, and their solutions will only create further problems. This cycle, then goes on, until it becomes too expensive and cumbersome a process to fix. And this is why a User-Centered Design Research plays a vital role in product development. The truth is, there can be multiple logics or systems to solve the same problem. This is what differentiates a product from the other in similar area of businesses.

A common mistake made by many amateur designers is that they start solving the problems with the screens and devices they are working on, right away. Some of them do not even make an attempt to understand the larger scheme of things. However, a system is independent of the devices. It is always easier to solve a problem irrespective of the devices and then translate the solutions on to different screens. User Experience is not something which is trapped inside of digital devices. It is ultimately what the users feel while interacting with these devices.

Owing to a lack of awareness, many clients and recruiters today get fooled easily when amateur designers fill their portfolios with photographs of sticky notes, complex looking diagrams and well-animated interactions. However, I believe, that psychology and social sciences should instead be the foundation of User Experience Design and not one’s ability to use the imaging softwares.

A great product should have a good UX. It is impossible to build a good UX without a fine understanding of the system beneath it, and without which great interfaces and interactions have absolutely no meaning.


An excerpt from the book The Ten Faces of Innovation

Borrowing Structures: A Hack To Build Better Systems Design


Building better structures is an act of evolution and law of the Nature in order to survive the changing needs of its dynamic surrounding. (Image courtesy: Wayne S. Grazio)

When one starts a new UX project, where do they begin?

I always try to look for similar instances/stories that have worked in the past. This approach not only helps me to generate the right questions for my research but also helps to bring my attention to the areas unknown, thereby building a strong foundation for my projects. It creates a quick context and also gives a much-needed confidence when venturing into an unfamiliar territory. Let me share one such case with you.

In February 2017, when I joined TravelTriangle as a UX designer, it was already the largest growing holiday marketplace in India. With around five years in the market, the company had already had functional products. Within a week or two of my joining the company, I was down to strategizing with my colleagues, trying to rebuild the customer-facing digital products. It was a ‘Design Sprint’ workshop, where about a dozen of us were engaged in a creatively stimulating discussion. Most of my colleagues had a better context of the problems than I did at that time.

As a quick task, we were to propose new workflows to improve the User Experience of product. Having very little context into the complexity of the problem, I did not know where to begin. This is when I started looking for a parallel that must have worked in the past and came up with the right questions to ask rather than proposing a robust User Experience journey. All I knew then, was that our product is supposed to enable the customers in customizing a holiday that they wish to buy. I looked at many business models and stories, and finally found the Subway’s model close to what I was looking for.

The Subway model for a Travel Marketplace?

What are the key characteristics that you would associate with a Subway Store? The ability to customize healthy food along with a quick service, right? The Subway model allows the customer to customize their food according to their taste, in a quick, hassle-free manner. Moreover, they even manage to upsell cookies and beverages along with the initial order; things that a customer was probably not even interested in, initially. I thought that this would be a great model, if it was possible in the holiday business industry, at all.

Wouldn’t everyone be happy if the customers have a fully customized holiday package ready by the time they finish interacting with our product? Theoretically, it sounded plausible, which gave us a good ground to start the project.

But, what makes the Subway model work? There is a system behind customizing subs at a Subway. From the point when a customer walks into a Subway, there is an order to their journey. The system enables customers to make certain decisions and become a part of the system in a seamless manner, even before an employee gets to greet them.


A parallel model for customisable holiday marketplace?.

Imagine yourself at a Subway store. You enter and pause for a second or two and ask yourself if you want a non-veg or a veg sub. This decision does not usually change after you start customizing your sub.

I looked for parallels in the holiday business to see how that would work for us. The first question was, what is that one thing the customers know for sure when they come to us, and which does not essentially change in the middle of their planning? This was a good start for me.


A single click in the beginning can help to personalise the entire user journey

If not for anything else, this one question alone led to an important clue to sell holiday packages on our product. The one thing the customers knew in the beginning and which would most likely be stable during the process of buying a holiday package, is their ‘companionship’.

Other things such as the budget, theme or time of travel, might change but it is unlikely someone will come looking for a honeymoon holiday and later change it to a family vacation. This hypothesis opened up a scope for personalized communication through the right kind of visuals and text.

I could not have asked such a question if it was not for the Subway model. Remember, for an e-commerce website, each click is extremely valuable. In this new light, the holiday categories at TravelTriangle are now mainly divided into Couple/ Romantic, Family, Friends/ Group, and Solo. This also helped us to remove the adventure and the relaxing holidays from mixing up with the above in the same bucket.


Adventure Trips: An example of image curation based on traveller’s companionship for better communication.


The idea of borrowing structures is not a new concept. If not anything else, it will always give one a bigger picture to start with, especially when one has little time. And this is true for UX research as well.

I would like to emphasize that the process which helps one to ask right questions is more important for a UX research than finding parallel structure. I believe, there are no set formulas for creating successful UX and a good research sets strong foundation but it is only the first step towards building a holistic user experience.

Of course, one should never try to completely translate the structure, without understanding the context of the problem. But it will certainly help to kick-start one’s UX Research. Such exercises will especially push one to find answers by helping to venture into untrodden areas.