The process depends on the context of the project. Here’s the process I favor for an in-house product design effort:
Phase 1, Discovery: Get to know the people who are likely to use the product, the scenario when they encounter the product, and what objective they’re trying to achieve and clarify what problems are standing in their way. Conclusion: a prioritized understanding of the problem that needs to be solved.
Phase 2, Design Strategy: Formulate a hypothesis for how to achieve their objectives, and in trying to solve it, go nuts–generate a ton of ideas and solidify a strategy for the content of the experience. Then prototype a chosen solution in a way that looks and feels real(ish). Validate the hypothesis by having real people use the prototype. Conclusion: a clear strategy and direction for a design solution.
Phase 3, Execution: Bring the validated solution to life by elevating the visual and interaction design while refining the content. Once released, observe, measure, and learn how people use it. Conclusion: the design is in market and the team learns from the success or failure of the effort.
In an optimal project setting, I could be able to have some involvement into every stage in this process, whether conducting the work or supporting the team by removing roadblocks they encounter.
Working as a designer, and leading a design team, is collaborative work. Each step of this design process requires engagement from other partners and stakeholders along the way. It is a team sport.
Within Phase 1, Discovery, there is usually a fair amount of overlap with product managers and researchers. Customers and internal business stakeholders are key to the process as well. In Phase 2, Design Strategy, input from content strategy, while validation from stakeholders and customers is again critical. Product management can help refine key metrics and technical partners can inform opportunities. In Phase 3, Execution, I will lean heavily on visual design and development to execute and business intelligence to assess the performance of the product.
Built for flexibility
Ultimately, this workflow acts as a utility belt. In each phase of work there are a variety of tools to choose from, depending on the context of the project.
The Discovery phase relies on talking to people who represent the users of this product: competitive analysis, content audits, interviews, usability tests, task analysis, even surveys as a last resort. The output of this phase is to synthesize the findings of the research into a tangible concept for everyone on the team to understand; personas, scenarios, content guidelines, problem statements.
In the Design Strategy phase, we have a variety of tools to work with. A well-defined hypothesis can bring direction to a team’s work. Activities like sketching sessions, card sorting, affinity mapping, among others can help drive new ideas to address the hypothesis. Prototyping those ideas at a low fidelity is the sure fire way to gut check the strategy and quickly refine critical interactions, content, and overall strategy.
In the Execution phase, the options focus towards precision. Visual designs, fine-tuned interaction prototypes, front-end development, style guide and content refinement all come into play. And once the product hits the market, its success needs to be measured to verify that it delivers on the promise of the original hypothesis. This measurement and observation is the connection that fuels the cycle, feeding he team’s ongoing insight and understanding of the customer.
Any of these methods, workshops, deliverables, or techniques can fit into an existing Agile working framework with a little focus and collaboration across the team.
Having different tools for different scenarios helps keep my work sharp, delivering the most value to the business in the most efficient way possible.
Dealing with the real world
In reality, not every project will have the opportunity to engage all these stakeholders all the time.
It is common, but not ideal, for a designer to arrive in a project in Phase 3: “We know what we want, just make it happen.” And you might see a team slice off any plans to learn from the product in market. The problem here is that the designer might know how to do what you want, but they aren’t going to be as effective if they don’t understand why you want it.
It’s a little better if a designer can enter the process at Phase 2: “We figured out the situation, design a solution.” Sometimes, some of the steps, like validating an idea before executing it, get left out. The issue here is that a designer might be defining a strategic solution without a full understanding of the context surrounding the problem.
Ideally, a designer is an active participant in Phase 1: talking to people who will ultimately be affected by the output of the design effort imbues a personal responsibility to deliver an effective and valuable solution. Involving a designer at this step reduces the risk of misdirected effort.
Even if starting a project already in a execution phase, I think it’s still possible to do good work. Entering a project late in the game can give a designer the opportunity to prove their mettle to other stakeholders and partners, leading to better opportunity on the next project to demonstrate the value of good design.