How can you design grief into something warm & friendly? Ask Wren Lanier!

“I wanted Hello Grief to feel warm and friendly, like a scrapbook or a family album. Instead of designing around pain, I designed around love and care and happy memories – things everyone can relate to and feel good about”

Sheer brilliance is one expression. Rare are the times in life when you meet sheer brilliance. The Rapid Moon team got such a rare chance of connecting with and knowing Wren Lanier, Principal at Neo Innovation Inc.

Wren is a brilliant combination of beauty and brains. We had a great conversation with Wren, which led to this interview.


RM: Your work is incredible! What excites you about working with startups?

WL: You are very kind! I love working with startups because it always feels like so many things are possible. They lack the institutional baggage that can slow down decision-making, so they tend to move fast and try new things very quickly. I find that exciting. 

Startups are also fun because one person can make a huge impact on the business. When I’ve worked at large companies, it could take a year or more for something I designed to launch. But with a startup, we can go from a whiteboard sketch to shipped code in 2 weeks or less; that makes it easy to measure results and keep iterating quickly.

RM: You have worked in environments which were focused on operations, analytics and ROI and you led the design thought.

What did it take from you to establish a design culture in such an environment? How critical is the culture of a business to create futuristic user centric design?

WL: Establishing a design culture is hard when it’s not baked into the business from the beginning. In many startups, design is viewed as an afterthought or a “nice to have” compared to the “necessary” work of shipping code and features. It takes a long time to establish trust and a working relationship that will shift that mindset.

The most important things to do are to:
  1. join the process as early as possible, and
  2. work collaboratively with the developers and product owners. If they’ve already started coding the feature before we talk about design, the chance of shipping something with a good user experience is very low.

Conversation and collaboration are my most valuable design tools.

It’s always best to kick off a new feature by getting everyone together – physically or virtually – to talk about what we’re making and how we’ll measure success. I like to get everyone to sketch some wireframes together on a whiteboard, so that when we walk out of the room we all know what we’re building. Over time, this process gets easier as trust builds among the team and developers see how fast they can move when they’re not waiting weeks for Photoshop comps. 
The more a company trusts its designers to be involved in the product development process, the easier it will be for them to ship better designs and better products.

RM: How critical is lean design methodology in your view? Does it help you, work with startups under tight budgets?

WL: I’m a huge fan of lean design methodology, but a lot of small startups think Lean Design = Cheap Design. The purpose of Lean is to test assumptions and eliminate bad ideas as early and cheaply as possible. Over time, it should make a business more efficient and eliminate a lot of waste, but it’s not a magic wand that will design your whole application in under 12 hours.

It can also be challenging to ask cash-strapped startups to pay for the time we spend talking and collaborating. Sitting around talking with developers and sketching on a whiteboard doesn’t look like “designing” to some clients, but those are billable hours too. Nevertheless, when we can invalidate an idea quickly and save time & money that way, startups are usually very happy. 

RM: How critical is Rapid Prototyping? Do you advise your clients to use tools like Rapid Moon to build quick prototypes and reduce the overall project cost?

WL: I love rapid prototypes, especially for communicating design ideas to the rest of the team. I’ve been guilty of standing in a meeting, holding up a JPG mockup and breezily trying to explain what it will do, which is pretty much the worst way to present interactive designs. 

It can be really hard for other people – especially non-designers – to visualize screen flows or animations. We need good tools that help us prototype and iterate quickly, so that designers can share ideas without a lot of development time. Or worse, before developers spend time building the wrong thing because they didn’t understand the design spec.
Prototypes just make everything easier; use them to get feedback from your developers and stakeholders, then take them out and show them to customers to validate your assumptions before you start a lengthy build out process. 

RM: Your project Hello Grief is an incredible thought. The design makes one cheerful and happy! How did you think of it?

WL: Comfort Zone Camp, the non-profit that led the creation of Hello Grief, wanted to build a site for people who are dealing with loss that didn’t use black & white beach scenes or faded roses or any of the tired visual tropes we often associate with grief. I thought it was such a great idea for a project.

Designing this site gave me an opportunity to stretch my imagination and reach out with empathy. Why should design about grief look cold and empty? How is that making anyone feel better? I wanted Hello Grief to feel warm and friendly, like a scrapbook or a family album.

Instead of designing around pain, I designed around love and care and happy memories – things everyone can relate to and feel good about.

RM: What goes on in your mind when you start designing the next gen products? Is there a unique design thinking methodology/ process that you use/ follow?

WL: I think my process is pretty typical: I sketch, I make notes in the margins, I play with sample interactions that I think are cool. Then I decide I hate everything I’ve designed, scrap it and start over!

Mostly I try to imagine a new user’s journey through the product and figure out where the tricky bits are. It can be tempting to over-design those confusion points, so I force myself to go in the opposite direction and simplify as much as possible.

Eliminate choices. Move features around. Less is usually more, but you won’t know until you get your designs in front of people and learn what they think. 

No matter how experienced you are, you’re going to miss things in the design process that will immediately become clear once you show your designs to users. Stay humble about your work and seek out as much input as you can so that you’re constantly improving.

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