Thoughts on Early Design Process

People often think of design as freeform sketching and creative drawing but in reality, design is more than meets the eye. Design isn’t just making things look sexy- it’s about understanding a problem to the core and finding a simple, elegant solution for it. So how do we know what the problem is and how do we produce a meaningful design to solve it? That’s the first step of the design process.

My design process usually starts out with a phase I call ‘Research and Discovery’. During this time, I try to collect as much information as I can about the project, the people, and the problem.

There are many techniques and methods for collecting information so I’ll just highlight a few that I use. Keep in mind that the set of methods used changes based on situation (time, budget & business constraints). For example, a well-established company might use a more extensive set of techniques to refine a product, whereas a smaller company with limited resources might use a smaller subset to quickly answer fundamental questions, identify user needs, and move on to ideation and design.

*I’ve mostly worked on small teams (under 8) with limited time, budget, and products still looking to achieve market fit.

Stakeholder Interviews (Internal)

Stakeholder interviews form the foundation of the discovery phase. During this process I’ll ask as many questions as I can to help grasp the problem, intended customers, value proposition, competition, goals, and overall product vision. I use this information as a basis that requires validation with future research. For example, internal stakeholders might think that people want X but talking to customers might show that they want Y instead.

Onvard interview notes

User Interviews

“Make something people want.” -Paul Graham, Y Combinator

How do you know if what you’re making is something people want? User interviews. While working on Meazured, a health/fitness app, we talked to as many people as possible to cover the entire demographic of potential users. People from young fitness-tracking gym rats all the way to older casual strollers. We asked about their backgrounds, habits, goals, motivations and pain points to learn what type of product they would be interested in.

Personas

The user interviews helped to identify existing and potential users so we created personas to represent our target audience. While working on 3eesho, we frequently referred back to these personas during development, especially when we felt that we were losing direction and focus on our users. In the end, two of our personas, Rajesh and Brenda, even made it to our demo day slides!

*Look closely at the TV screen on the left to see Rajesh’s persona.

Codepath Summer Demo Day

Usability Testing

I was helping a startup called Onvard who launched their service and had difficulty acquiring new users. The founder felt that the current design was perfectly fine and wanted to spend time adding new features rather than refining the current experience. After interviewing the founder and trying the software myself, I knew that the current design needed a lot of work.

To prove this to the founder, I immediately grabbed two random people from outside and set them in front of the laptop. With the founder next to me, I asked the two people to perform tasks (uses cases) from sign up to creating and assigning content while thinking out loud. We observed the entire process from start to finish, noting every pause, groan, and frown. Instead of leading or guiding, we were completely hands off and at times of confusion, asked about what interactions they were expecting and trying to achieve.

It’s safe to say that the founder realized how much and where exactly the user experience needed work afterwards.

notes during the interview

Conclusion

These aren’t the only techniques. There are tons more like heuristic reviews, site maps, user stories, user scenarios, surveys etc. that each have its own advantages and disadvantages.

Since I consider the startups and companies I consult for as my own ‘users’, I’ve learned that there is no one-size-fits all design process. Each company is a different type of user and I pick and choose which techniques best fit their needs to accomplish their goals. The techniques I highlight above are ones that fit particularly well with the companies I helped in the past.

With some preliminary research done, I have a pretty good understanding of what the problem, users and requirements are. Ideation and brainstorming solutions come next in the process.

8.15 I’ll be adding more onto this post in the near future.

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