This is the second post on my love-hate relationship with the design process. See part 1 here.
I hate feeling paralyzed by an inflexible process. Whether it’s applying for a building permit or following a recipe for crème brulée - when a process leaves you trapped between steps or compromising on your decisions, it sucks.
Of course, certain laws are non-negotiable (gravity, boiling points) and that’s fine. But to create and to follow an inflexible process for something that isn’t bound any force of nature seems ridiculous. That’s why I was delighted to find that there seems to be no consensus on The Design Process™.
“Substantial disagreement exists concerning how designers in many fields, whether amateur or professional, alone or in teams, produce designs.” - Wikipedia
As hard as I tried to find one, there’s no one-size-fits-all design process that we can define once and for all that’ll guarantee great results for any design problem. So is it still a process? Maybe it’s just designing.
Designing. An activity, with a pre-defined purpose (notice - I didn’t say ‘outcome’ or ‘deliverables’) and some loosely defined stages.
If you don’t know the purpose of the design exercise at hand, then where do you start? For example, the purpose (i.e., the problem to be solved) could be “To improve a child’s ability to dress themselves in the morning.”
This does not identify the desired outcome (for example – a child-sized chest of drawers, or a nanny to dress the child, or Velcro closures on all clothing) but simply the purpose of the exercise. The ‘right’ outcome will be determined by (among other things) the resources and tools available. For example, someone with a pile of wood and woodworking tools may end up with the chest of drawers. Someone with access to an additional childcare worker might decide on a nanny. Someone with sewing skills may modify the child’s clothing such that everything is easy to fasten. All of these solutions are appropriate ways of removing hurdles standing in the way of a child dressing himself, or herself. As such, all these solutions could be appropriate design solutions, or outcomes.
Entering a design exercise with a clear understanding of one’s purpose, as well as the resources (scope) and tools (technology) available, is essential to producing a good design solution.
Loosely defined stages.
There seems to be some consensus that there are three stages of design – exploring, refining, and finalizing. This is where the one-size-fits-all approach to designing just doesn’t work. There are no hard and fast rules to determine when you’re ‘done’ a stage. It’s really more about knowing what you’re doing while you’re doing it, and recognizing if/when you’re done.
Whether you call it ideation, brainstorming, conceptualizing, or whatever, there’s a stage at the beginning of a design exercise when you explore. It can take on many forms (a conversation, a whiteboard and lots of markers, or a long run on a sunny afternoon where your mind is free to wander) but this stage is essential. After a period of exploring, some ideas get ruled out, while others start to take shape. There may be a lot of loose ends, heck – there may be giant holes in the idea – but there’s a point where you’ve narrowed your focus to a high-level concept that works.
Then you start refining the idea, following it through various scenarios, seeing how it evolves, making changes as needed, iterating and reiterating until the high-level idea isn’t so high-level anymore. It’s solid. It’s thorough. It’s good.
But, it’s not done. While your ‘refining’ stage may have handled the main scenarios, you still need to figure out how to handle ALL the scenarios. This is where the 80-20 rule comes in – although you probably choose not to optimize your design for these edge cases, you still need to handle them.
And still, it’s not done. (There might be a fourth stage in here – communicating?) Your design is likely half-documented in your wireframing tool of choice, one-quarter-scribbled in the pages of your sketchpad, one eighth is on the whiteboard someone (rudely) wiped down yesterday, and one eighth is in your brain, solved but never communicated, because some design decisions were made on that long run on a sunny afternoon and (sadly) there was nobody around to take notes. So before you can consider your designing ‘done’, you need to communicate it to those who will be implementing it. You need to communicate everything from the design intent, right down to the quirky-but-clever-solution for that rare-but-important scenario. How you do that is up to you, but an amazing design solution stands no chance of success if it is not communicated clearly.
And now you’re done.
You might not feel done – and that’s a whole other blog post – but eventually you have to let go and declare the design ‘done’. (How to line this up perfectly with your deadline and budget is yet another blog post – one I probably shouldn’t write.)
Whether we consider this a process or not is irrelevant. These loosely defined stages can bring structure to help:
- provide direction when you don’t know where to start
- provide direction when you don’t know what to do next
- know what you should be focusing on now, vs. what you’ll be addressing later
Entering a design exercise with a clear purpose, then following through with stages of exploring, refining, and finalizing can bring just the right amount of structure to your design work to achieve great results consistently.
Stay tuned for the other half of this equation – how do you know you’re ‘done’?
About the Author
As Senior User Experience Designer at Macadamian, Barb loves diving into the ugly mess of conflicting user needs, ambiguous lists of requirements and tight project restrictions, and coming up with products that are beautifully simple, and therefore, simply beautiful. Because let's face it - design isn't pretty, but the outcome should be.