cool stuff.

Iterative Design Process

The price of getting it right

Modern design’s continual dance between research and testing builds better products that hurt fewer people and communities.

Updated June 23, 2019

Designers build solutions, to reach goals, within a set of defined constraints.

That’s it. That’s the entire job, but the task isn’t as straightforward as that tidy sentence.

What we make, who we make it for, and how that creation impacts the world around us are all considerations that require our attention.

Determining what is or isn’t good design requires a framing enforced by the questions above.

Good design solves a problem. Great design does the same but with style, to the delight of its user, while generating value for its patron company or client — and without negatively impacting systems or society. This incredibly high standard for greatness should signal that you’re going to need more than what you already know to reach the goal.

You’ll never get to great with your gut alone.

Thus begins the cycle that designers everywhere grapple with. Attempting to tackle a problem, will uncover the need first to define who the user is and then the research to determine if that user perceives the stated problem the same way your client or company does.

“You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backward to the technology. You can’t start with the technology and try to figure out where you’re going to sell it”, Steve Jobs once said in an unscripted response to an audience question.

In a world of failing fast, expensive mistakes like those that Jobs refers to are made by shipping half-baked products without consideration for whom they serve or the welfare of the communities they will be used in.

Luckily, you’re facing the same dilemma that other designers have encountered before. While all solutions are different, there are a few proven ways to help organize what can be an incredibly messy process.

Process and Frameworks

Over the past couple of decades, several design process frameworks have popped up to align teams with specific desired outcomes.

Frameworks like Design Thinking and User-Centered Design position themselves as being user-focused and concerned with the desirability of the product being created. Other frameworks are centered on the feasibility of a solution, with Lean UX, Design Sprints, and Agile all focused on testing the product as much as possible to reach its goal. In the middle, all share a concern regarding the viability of the solution. Is the solution sustainable for the parties involves, including the user, business, and greater society?

Tech companies like Apple, Google, and Microsoft all quickly come to mind as modern bastions of design-driven companies where these frameworks have often originated, but quality design is not unique to the tech elite alone. NPR, IKEA, AirBNB, McKinsey, and even Starbucks each recognize the strategic advantage having an effective design team affords their respective organization.

A successful design team will do two things really well. They will seek out new information, and they will interrogate that material. This cycle of divergent and convergent thinking appears continuously throughout any useful framework. Whether you eventually choose to use one of the frameworks mentioned above or some hybrid model, you’ll find that most share a similar structure.

Rather than spending time studying each framework in detail, let’s zoom out to discover the areas of importance that each touches on.

Discovery

The initial perception of a problem or opportunity provides the spark behind every new product. How your company or client deals with this moment will often determine where on the spectrum of success and failure your work will reside.

Discovery is the first step in the design process, and any project that omits this stage does so with significant risk. In discovery, you gain considerable insight into the issue itself and the context in which the problem occurs. Rather than offering a diagnosis, you study how people interact with and work around the topic being studied.

In discovery, you’re aiming for understanding more so than solutions. Along the way, you may form a few opinions, but it is essential to remember that these opinions are untested assumptions that will need to be scrutinized in the research phase.

There are many methods associated with this point in the design process, including observational research, stakeholder interviews, ad hoc personas, usability testing, and more. Like all stages of a design process, you will likely use some but not all of the methods listed, and you may use them in a different order from project-to-project.

Research

One of the cornerstones of any modern design framework is the need to be continuously learning about your customer, the marketplace, and the community your product operates in. Unlike discovery, which is often limited to the initial launch of a design process, you will continually conduct research as a product evolves and matures.

Research is focused on interrogating the information collected through discovery and testing to understand the users, companies, and systems that are impacted by your work. As your work will focus on different aspects of the ecosystem around your product, you’ll use different methods to target your research. Methods like competitive analysis, competitor testing, user interviews, surveys, affinity mapping, and user personas help us better see how the problem we’re attempting to solve is perceived and who we’re really trying to assist.

Clients and colleagues will often ask if you can skip this research. The value is research is its ability to mitigate risk. The more you lower the risk associated with your efforts, the higher the confidence in the design decisions your making. Remind them of this as you get back to your work.

Ideate

Using a term directly lifted from Design Thinking, Ideate simply marks the moment when we attempt to put our research findings to use as we craft a potential solution. While it is likely to be associated with the beginning of your ‘design’ work, this phase actually occurs in the middle of most projects.

Further complicating things for people outside of design is the fact that numerous methods in this stage are essential to information architecture and content design, which is needed before any visual design can be attempted with confidence.

User stories, user flows, content analysis, and wireframing are just a few of the methods that allow designers to give form to their ideas without making substantial resource investments.

Prototype

From the back of a napkin to the most elaborate of finished works, the amount of work invested in this phase is limited only by budget and time. Your goal should always be to test something with a real user as often as possible to minimize effort pushing in the wrong direction.

The prototype itself is a supporting document that powers all manner of later testing but can also be used for internal usage to demonstrate functionality, and communicate progress to the broader team.

This is yet another phase that you could visit multiple times throughout your project timeline, often iterating between the Prototype and Test phases as you adjust the structure based on feedback from testing while steadily increasing the fidelity of your work. As you can see in the chart below, Invision (classic) is the current industry leader in terms of prototyping tools according to the 2018 Design Tools survey.

ux-prototyping-tools Source: uxtools.co

Paper prototypes, clickable prototypes, and front-end prototypes are all represented on the chart by one or many tools. The tools used are often determined by the needs of the company or client, but a significant number of designers begin their prototyping process the same way — with pen and paper.

Test

Until we are willing to put our own work in front of the users, we’re really just guessing. The collection of data and distillation of that into a possible solution is no substitute for the feedback gained through testing that solution.

Testing can come in a variety of forms, and they are often driven by the fidelity of the prototype or site that we have to work with. With a paper prototype, it might be sitting down at a table with a user in-person and observing their actions. With a finished product, tests are still possible, but the test could be a small snippet of code that collects data from thousands of users. In between, it might just be you and a testing tool, putting the project updates through a battery of tests before sending it back to users.

Heuristic testing, usability testing, a/b testing, browser testing are but a sample of the potential tests that you can derive the feedback needed to push your project forward.

As we oscillate back and forth between testing and prototyping, the rigor of our process determines the quality of the result. Data collection and information sharing are critical so that the team is operating with the transparency required to see the problems and potential solutions together.

Deployment

Everything that clears the previous stages reaches a point of deployment. The act of deployment should mean that the product is safe for use or consumption. It will not harm the communities that use the product. In short, you’ve done the work needed to bring the product to the market.

The methods used to deploy a product will vary as a new set of city regulations is quite different from a mobile app or website. Throughout the design process, you have likely worked with many different individuals or teams, and deployment is no different. Deployment isn’t just about the launch of a product or service but also about its maintenance over time.

As communication is a cornerstone of any successful design process, key members of those teams should be gradually worked into the process before reaching this phase of the project. In the tech community, most of the attention is focused on interactions between designated design and development teams, but this can overshadow the need for high quality internal and external documentation. Having clear, easy to use documentation can directly impact how your work is received, and the level of service your users receive from the teams deployed to assist them.

An eye to the future

Won’t all of this be replaced by artificial intelligence? Will there even be designers in the future?

Both questions are valid, especially considering how automation finds its way into new industries with each passing day. In fact, I would say that the faster AI can make its way into our field, the better.

Why?

As author Lorraine Justice points out in The Future of Design, “new technology will assist this reasoning process through the use of generative software that will offer many solutions and dimensions.”

This means that AI will play a role in helping us determine the solution, but it will still rely on human input to identify the problem — especially in cases where data is difficult to collect electronically. There too, AI can play a role in the collection and processing of vast amounts of data. I see artificial intelligence and automation as a force multiplier for designers, allowing us to build better solutions through the collection of more information and the testing of more options.

The core procedures outlined above will remain mostly intact, but the line between successful and failed teams may come down to who best incorporates AI into their process.

Exercise

As you begin your journey into product design, it is crucial to recognize that you already have experienced the impact of iterative design in your daily life. Some of these experiences will be clear improvements on prior versions, while others will be changes marked with frustration.

For this exercise, your goal is to identify one of each. Don’t feel as though you must limit your observations to those that are tech-focused. Iteration happens as much in real life as it does online.

Here are some examples to get you started:

  • Android operating system updates
  • Freeway interchange reconstruction
  • School/business remodeling
  • Parking meters replaced by mobile application

Identify the positive or negative change and write at least one paragraph about how it impacted you.

Once complete, update your Journal with links to any assets or supporting material for this exercise. Post a link to journal in the Feedback-Loop channel for review.

Up next Systems Thinking

New Pragmatic’s Intro to Product Design and UX Design courses are now open for enrollment — but don't wait! Space is limited.

Sign Up Now