Begin with Benchmarking

By: Ashley Treni
stopwatch

Design research is critical to the beginning stage of every design project. Research orients us in the world in which we intend to build and the audience we intend to build for. It is helpful to begin by identifying other services that already exist in that space, to observe the current market offerings. Building a research catalog for reference and critique is what we refer to as “benchmarking.”

Here are three major benefits to benchmarking:

  1. It helps you better understand and articulate how your product or service is different
  2. It is a tool for learning about topics you might not be familiar with (especially for client projects)
  3. It allows you to observe strengths and weaknesses of existing experiences to inform your own design decisions

At DockYard, we always begin with benchmarking. Benchmarking helps us define a scope based on realistic expectations, and identify opportunities and core values for the project. It is a way to learn through exploration. In this practice and analysis we deconstruct existing complex systems, identify the minimum viable product and core interactions, and pinpoint the major actions that support user goals.

These exercises give us a better understanding of the space we intend to support, and the expectations for building a system of our own. It sets a focus and direction for ideation and user interviews, and aligns our understanding with the client’s, which supports conversation.

There are several different layers to observe in a given case study from structural to aesthetic: content organization, accessibility, systems architecture, user experience methods, interface design, to visual design. It can be challenging to observe all these different layers and identify what about them creates a quality online experience.

  1. Start broad. Identify the overall goal of the service that brings you from A to B. Is that process transparent and supportive? Were you able to easily use the product and accomplish the task at hand? Is the information accessible? How is it organized and delivered?

  2. Look at the usability and interactions. Do the interactions make sense in context? Is the structure intuitive, clear, and easy to use? Are design patterns present: experiential, cognitive, tangible ways that help users interact with the interface? Identifying these patterns in context helps us understand where they can be used to support user interactions.

  3. Consider the visual design and experience. What is the quality of the experience, and does it reflect the overall goal of the service? Is it delightful? confusing? distracting? Does the visual language and style support understanding?

Benchmarking isn’t about taking someone else’s solution and using it as your own. Every project has different content, different goals, different challenges. Deconstructing existing design solutions is key to identifying structural and experiential decisions, and reflecting on why those decisions were made to support the task at hand. This kind of critical thinking allows us to be discerning, to ask questions about how others have solved problems in similar spaces, so that we can anticipate and identify the major goals for the system we intend to build.

Through intentionally observing systems and strategies, we adopt a perpetually observant and critical mindset. The benchmarking mentality encourages us to pay attention to and appreciate the complexity of data driven web experiences, and to see how the challenges of vision, architecture, and experience were met and resolved.