Each time a product team begins a new project, the list of things to do can be overwhelming. A strong design process can create structure, efficiency, and a clear path to completion. The team starts with stating a problem, then conducts a research, brainstorms a solution, prototypes and tests it, and finally, releases a product on a market. While it might look like a simple process, in reality, it has a lot of pitfalls.
Invest time in discovery. Generally, the more time you spend on a discovery, the more details you’ll find about a problem you solve, the better solution you will find.
There are two types of discovery conducted independently: feature/functional discovery and design discovery.
Usually, this discovery is conducted by UX analytics. The goal of feature and functional discovery is to collect all requirements for a future product, research the current state of a market to find the competitors, and establish a technological stack for a future product (choose technologies that can be used in this product). A team involved in feature discovery does the following things:
- Analyze user expectations. What users need and what users want are not the same things. It’s too often product team focus on both needs and wants, resulting in an infinite product backlog. You need to know who your target users are and what they need. You can gain this knowledge by interviewing people within the target audience.
- Clearly define business objectives. When it comes to product design, we have two primary goals – create a great user experience for people who will use our products and satisfy business objectives. The goal of feature discovery is to align the business objectives and product design.
- Create a competitive comparison. After a team conducts a competitors analysis, it’ll have a solid understanding of the direct and indirect competitors. The next step is to use this information to understand what will be the strong and weak sides of your future product. This information can be presented to stakeholders in a visual way – you can create a chart called Competitive Comparison. This chart will make it clear both to you and your stakeholders to what niche your product belongs.
Usually, this discovery conducted by designers. Designers research what design decisions are applicable to a particular product.
A crucial moment during the design discovery is not to be restricted by limitations. Each limitation will have a negative impact on creativity – it will prevent genuinely innovative products. Only when you free your mind, you can come up with a genuinely creative design decision.
The goal during the discovery stage is to connect the information from both discovery processes together and create a robust product design direction. After both teams finalize their activities, they should meet and discuss their design decisions. This is the moment to merge the design decisions and establish a solid direction for design. It’s vital to stress a few important moments:
- Designers should never blindly follow the engineering team. The design direction should be reached based on a mutual agreement, but not forced by the engineering team.
- Identify opportunity. During the discovery phase, it’s vital to understand not only the current state of the market but also to project this state to the future. It will help you design answers to where the product will be in two, five, or ten years. This will increase the probability that a product will be in demand and sustainable.
Here is a quick practical example. Suppose your team works on a human-machine interaction (HMI) for a premium car.
The first team collects all requirements from stakeholders. Then it conducts an analysis of premium car brands, the technologies they use, and the solutions they provide for their customers. The team analyses both benefits and downsides of different solutions. Based on this information, the team proposes a set of features that should be implemented in a product.
The second team does design discovery. They don’t focus on functions and technologies, they focus on visual decisions that can be implemented in a project. For example, a team might analyze the shape of a car to find the perfect curve for an HMI.
When it comes to product design, we often hear the word “roadmap.” Many product teams believe that a roadmap is something that can be created before starting a product development and this roadmap prevents them from making mistakes (a.k.a. incorrect product decisions). In reality, it’s almost impossible to create a product roadmap right at the beginning of a project. Building a solid roadmap might take months or years (if we talk about sophisticated digital products). But the good news is that proper planning makes this process more efficient. The goal of designers is to set a path – form a product strategy and establish the right direction for a product. Part of it can be done during the discovery phase and the other part is during the ideation phase.
During the ideation phase, it’s vital to have strong brainstorming sessions. Follow these tips on how to brainstorm more efficiently:
- Ask the most creative people who are involved in a project to join the session. The session itself should take place in a physical space, not digital space, if possible. Physical spaces make it easier to share emotions. Each session participant will not only be able to share their thoughts but also see the physical reaction of other people.
- Dream big. When it comes to ideas, you should not limit yourself. Relax and imagine what a perfect product would look like. If you work on a cutting-edge product, think about some device you saw in sci-fi films.
- Structure your ideas. Without structuring the ideas you collect, it’s fairly easy to lose yourself in that stream. We use boards with stickers. Each idea is placed on a sticker and belongs to one group. Our team uses the following groups: Emotional Needs, Practical, Safety, Security, Entertainment, Media, Navigation, etc. The color of a sticker helps us to group the ideas.
- Consider the technical feasibility. Not all ideas can be implemented using modern technologies. It’s essential to discuss your ideas with an engineering team.
Tips for ideation phase
Always keep the big picture in mind. The primary goal of the ideation phase is not to find a simple solution to a particular design challenge. The goal is to establish a user experience strategy.
When it comes to product design, always have the answer to the question, “Why do I need to do it?” Designers should not create something just because they can do it. Having a clear answer to why will help prevent extra work and save you a lot of hours.
Be inspired. Inspiration plays a vital role during the ideation phase of the process. It’s clear that without inspiration it’s really hard to create something outstanding. Designers have a few powerful tools in their toolboxes that allow them to collect and analyze great design examples. I just want to share one tool here – mood boards. Mood boards bring two advantages to product designers:
- It helps you find something beautiful that you have in a world to implement in your design. For example, you can take inspiration from nature and use the colors from a particular photo in your mobile design product.
- Mood boards often help designers to explain and illustrate “why” they make a particular design decision to peers and stakeholders. All too often designers have a specific design problem they want to solve, and a mood board allows them to find a proper solution for this problem. When it comes to the question, “Why do we need this specific shape in our UI?” you can show the moodboard and your design decision will become more clear to them.
- Convey emotion in your design. All too often we focus on the usability of our products but we forget about the emotional aspects of interaction. Emotions are equally important for product design because the emotional interfaces can better connect with users.
While it’s impossible to define hard and fast rules for prototyping mainly because every project is different and each might require its own prototyping process, there are a few common properties that all prototyping processes have:
- Don’t try to create hi-fidelity mockups until you have a clear app architecture. Trying to create something tangible (I mean, UI screens or specific animated transitions) is a common problem for many product teams. It might be tempting to do it but it’s better to resist this temptation until you have a solid information architecture.
- Don’t think of prototyping as a linear process. Prototyping is not a linear process. It’s an iterative process. Don’t expect to find a perfect solution to your problem right from the first attempt. You need to experiment and try a lot of different approaches to find the one that works the best for you. For example, for the projects I work, we might design up to 10 variations for every single screen.
- Strive for consistency. Both internal (all screens should look and work like they were created by the same person, not different people) and external (for example, if you work on a website or an app, both products should be designed in a way that creates a feeling of familiar experience). You can check internal consistency by creating interaction scenarios.
- Involve stakeholders in product design. Many product teams make the same mistake – they reach out to stakeholders only twice during product development process – at the beginning of a product development phase and after they’ve prepared a hi-fi prototype. This often leads to situations when a prototype requires significant refinement or even a complete rework. That’s why stakeholders should be involved in the design process right from the start. It’s essential to conduct a weekly/monthly sync where the current state of a product is discussed.
- Involve developers in a product design process. Without developers, it can be hard to tell whether a particular design decision is feasible or not. I follow the simple approach to introduce the app architecture to developers before the design is final.
- Focus on details. “The details are not the details. They make the design.” (Charles Eames) For example, when I work on motion, I focus on the details in micromotion because it is very significant for how the final product feels.
- Always prepare style guides and brand books. Style guide and brand book assets will make design implementation process go smooth.
The fundamental idea behind the testing phase was perfectly summarized by Jakob Nielsen, “You are not your user.” It means that no matter how good we are at design, there will still be moments that require additional polishing after a product reach the market. Thus, it’s essential to follow the simple rules:
- Test early; test often. This almost feels like a mantra but it works for any project. You can conduct testing on every stage of a project, even early stages of the product development process (Guerilla testing and Dogfooding).
- Set clear metrics to measure success. You should always have a hypothesis you’re testing against or minimum standards set to identify success. Without these, testing results will be difficult to analyze and make actionable decisions from.
By entering the design process with a clear understanding of the pitfall areas ahead, you can set your team up for success and create great experiences for users.