LocalGuide—design process learnings from a career shifter

Caitlin Brisson
9 min readApr 16, 2018

How can non-design experience help you become a stronger designer and allow you to bring your “whole self” to a new career?

This is a question I’ve grappled with substantially over the last year, as I transitioned from science teacher to product designer. In reflecting on my work, I’ve drawn connections to my former careers and these reflections have contributed to the development of my design process—these connections are the focus of this case study.

LocalGuide was my first experience designing a digital product, making it the opening chapter in my journey to become a professional designer. This project focused on learning by doing; however, my goal was to learn what it meant to have a design process.

LocalGuide, a mock iOS travel app, provides information and recommendations about where travelers can go and what to see in cities around the world.

Over the course of 6 weeks, I continuously made connections between the digital product I built and my experiences designing experimental research and educational curricula—as I learned my own process, I discovered my time as a teacher and as a scientist profoundly influence my work, helping me become the designer I am today.

Getting to know the customer

Excited to develop an understanding of LocalGuide travelers, I dove into user research. I loved learning the traveler’s stories and found their memories to be a potent way to unearth their goals and challenges.

The interviews revealed I was designing for an age and socio-economic group like my own—LocalGuide users are upper-middle-class millennial professionals that travel a few times per year. With these insights, I created a user-centered perspective to separate my own experiences from theirs. I’m a complete planner and hate feeling lost—I plan most things out prior to traveling. I also usually focus my travel around outdoor experiences like scuba diving and hiking as opposed to urban cultural activities. Being conscious of the differences between myself and LocalGuide users allowed me to focus on learning how to design for them.

The user interviews painted a clearer picture of what LocalGuide needed to solve for its users, and in doing so, my typical user, Ellie.

Ellie, age 20, “The Millennial Explorer”

Biography. When Ellie travels, she only plans the bare bones of her travel. She prefers to explore cities by foot or public transportation to gain a feel for their landscape, making them feel like home. She strives to feel connected to new places through the locals who live there. She likes to wander, finding things that are cool and off the beaten path

Synthesizing user research reminded me of my time in the classroom. As any teacher can report, every class has a distinct personality that influences the way they approach activities and challenges—I used my understanding of my students and their personalities to refine and iterate my lesson plans to fit their needs. Just like my classes, I got to know my users through their interviews—this helped me create a product that solved their problems.

Evaluating the landscape

I conducted domain research to determine how Ellie’s needs and desires fit into the travel landscape.

Different applications connected travelers with local and expert recommendations but few promoted in-the-moment discovery, fostered human collaboration, or created a depth of knowledge necessary to feeling local.

The analytical nature of market and domain research felt familiar to me—however, it was new to examine the look and feel of the applications in terms of color and typography as well as interaction patterns and branding. This opened my eyes to design research and showed me that my analytical background would help me become a better informed designer.

Defining the product

After combining my understanding of Ellie’s goals and frustrations with market and domain research, I determined the opportunity and problem that LocalGuide needed to solve for.

Millennial explorers need a way to discover and navigate both local and curated experiences while traveling, because they wish to feel connected to the places they visit through personal connection, activities, and authenticity.

I created potential scenarios in which Ellie used LocalGuide and utilized her stories to create a foundation for feature requirements.

Ellie’s desire to track places she discovers resounded with me, as I love pinning new and recently visited restaurants. Crafting situations in which Ellie wants help while wandering allowed the planner in me to see through her eyes—her stories reminded me of the mental scenarios I went through when I imagined how certain students would interact with my lessons and how I could account for them in my lesson prep. Through creating her narrative, I developed a better understanding of her other problems and how she might use LocalGuide to solve them.

Brainstorming, building, and iterating

With a solid foundation of potential product requirements and an understanding of Ellie’s wants and needs, I dove into concept brainstorming.

I used 6–8–5’s to rapidly iterate on my ideas and drew interaction design inspiration from products like Tinder, Matchbook, and Google Maps.

Rapid sketching was a new practice for me—in the past, my drawings were neat and precise. Gaining experience and perspective on the benefits of differing levels of fidelity and how they relate to my goals helped me become comfortable with this process and embrace coloring outside of the lines. After several rounds of ideation and feedback, I refined a few concepts and sketched wireframes.

After testing and iterating a paper prototype, I moved on to information architecture to figure out how my ideas could converge. Crafting the IA felt like designing a multi-day lab. Thoughtful design allowed my students to easily navigate between lessons, build their knowledge as they progressed, and locate information necessary to their success. The logical application of how different screens and areas of the app relate was an interesting mirror to organizing complex information for my students.

Creating an application map allowed me to see how the different pieces of LocalGuide would fit together and how Ellie would move through it to complete specific tasks. I sought to simplify my initial designs as I moved into mid-fidelity wireframing.

Moving forward, I incorporated copy to increase icon affordance and worked to simplify my language and buttons.

Exploring visual directions

To create potential visual directions, I focused on two of Ellie’s influences: exploring and unique experiences.

Crisp and Natural. This direction pulls from the freedom that comes with exploring the outdoors and connecting to the wild side of cities.

Authentic and Undiscovered. This direction drew inspiration from vintage typography and unique street art. It represents the unseen sides of cities and a subculture that often escapes tourists.

User feedback suggested the authentic and undiscovered direction better suited travelers like Ellie who spent more time in urban settings. This feedback allowed me to see the crisp and natural direction was a result of my own traveling experience. Moving forward, I refocused on designing for Ellie. This was an important lesson that taught me to be mindful of not designing for myself during future projects.

Refining the visuals

I found the visual part of the design process to be challenging—it took some rough user testing to gain a better understanding the difference between applying visual and user interface design. I was so excited by watching my designs come to life in color, I served myself a healthy lesson of doing too much.

After getting a bit trigger happy with color, I learned that less is more, especially when dealing with gradients, and the importance of designing for accessibility, a topic I now care deeply about.

Design solution

I created and iterated high-fidelity screens. After feedback, I refined my designs to improve white space, decrease gradient usage, and clarify typography hierarchy. These changes improved alignment with the best mobile practices and created a more balanced look and feel.

If you’d like to see my InVision prototype, please view here.

Watching my wireframes evolve into high-fidelity designs was awesome. It reminded me of how I discovered the Stanford d.school process in my final year as a teacher, when I created a weather vane product design unit for my 7th graders. Whenever I designed new units, I’d first complete the projects myself; this helped me iterate my lesson plans and discover potential use cases that required extra problem solving for my students. Seeing my weather vane go from a sketch to a fully functional laser cut instrument that measured wind direction and speed was a moment that helped cement my decision to transition careers.

Next steps

There are quite a few things I could do to improve this project. However, at the end of the day, LocalGuide represents something beyond the deliverables I created; it taught me the design process and helped me begin to discover my own take on it. From this perspective, it showed me that the abstractness of user interface design was a new challenge—a challenge I was eager to continue with, as I saw it pushed my brain in new ways.

LocalGuide was also a potent lesson in the dangers of feature bloat. I was so excited by my insights and concepts that I tried to incorporate too many things into one application. This resulted in an overly complex IA and redundant user flows. I took this and applied it to my next project, Habfit, where I worked to simplify task flows and reduce redundancies in the IA.

What I learned

I grew immeasurably over the six weeks I worked to create LocalGuide. This project challenged me to separate myself from my user and taught me the value in crafting tools like personas, user stories, and style tiles that helped keep my perspective on Ellie. Watching my idea evolve from a messy sketch to witnessing real people click through my high-fidelity interactive prototype ignited a passion in me for building digital products and helped solidify my move into product design.

Learning and implementing the design process also reminded me of many things from my time in the science lab and classroom. Thinking about all the ways I can bring my previous experiences into my future and be my whole self as a designer was and still is exciting—a lover of science, people, and making a difference.

If you are considering making a career change into design or have recently completed one, spend time reflecting on your past and celebrate integrating it into your future. Different experiences and perspectives can only serve to strengthen your toolset as a designer, while helping you stay true to yourself.

To see more of my work and the full case study, please see my portfolio.

This story is published in Noteworthy, where thousands come every day to learn about the people & ideas shaping the products we love.

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Caitlin Brisson

Staff Product Designer // Visual Scientist www.caitlinbrisson.com