You’ve figured out which domain of design you want to explore, downloaded all the software you need, and watched countless tutorials to get familiar with them.
But now what? How do you start with your own projects?
At the end of this article, you should have the answers to those questions.
Now, you could begin by just messing around on the canvas in front of you till you achieve the product you want. But let’s be honest, doing so ends up in a digital version of your room littered with scrunched-up sheets of rejected ideas and your head in your hands.
Not a fun place to be.
So, what we do instead, is break this process up into some key phases which can help you get through your first project a lot more quickly and methodically -
Let’s break them down, shall we?
In this stage, you answer one question: What is the problem you want to solve?
As a designer, one thing you will be doing almost constantly is observing the various designs around you: the good, the bad, the ugly. Experiencing these designs will help you critically analyze the aspects that could use improvements. These make up the potential list of problems that you can pick from for your project. An important thing to remember, however, is that no problem is too little to solve. An improvement in a seemingly trivial issue could help avoid blunders.
Take the example of Steve Harvey’s announcement of the Miss Universe pageant winner.
He announced the wrong contestant leading to public outrage plus a lawsuit from a Colombian law firm due to a design flaw in the announcement card. The mistake could have been rectified by simply redesigning the card using the proper hierarchy and positioning of the elements. So although the redesigning of an announcement card may seem like a small project, it could have helped avoid an embarrassing situation like this.
After all this thinking and observing, you should now know what you want to build. Congratulations, you’ve crossed the first checkpoint. However, if you weren’t able to find an issue that you could solve, fret not. There are websites that list design challenges over various domains, so you should be able to find something to your liking. One such website is the incredible platform OpenIDEO. You can find it here: https://challenges.openideo.com/
You’ve defined the problem you want to fix and answered the “What” of the project. This stage is where you need to figure out the “How” part of the process. Depending on the problem that you’ve chosen to solve, you can go two ways from here: redesign an existing product or create a new product.
If the problem you choose to solve is an issue with an existing product, it can be resolved by redesigning it. However, if you are tackling a new challenge or want to provide a new service, you need to design a new product. Once you choose between the two, it’s time to move onto brainstorming.
Brainstorming is arguably the most time-taking part of the Ideation phase because this is when you collect all your ideas and thoughts in one big pile to sort through. There are various methods you could use to start brainstorming. Some commonly used techniques are -
- Mind Mapping — Mind mapping is a good way of structuring your thoughts diagrammatically. You start with a central node and then connect other information using lines, colors, and symbols. Taking the announcement card example again, the central node of the mind map would be “Announcement Card Redesign” and the subsequent nodes connected to it could be “Problems” and “Solutions”. These nodes could then further be connected to the issues faced and the proposed solutions till you’ve broken the challenge down to its bare bones.
2. Brainwriting — In brainwriting, each team member writes down three ideas related to the topic and then passes the sheet to the person on their left. This person then builds off of those ideas and so on till each team member is covered. If doing it physically, you can use sticky notes and pass them around the table. Virtually, there are many tools you can use like the google meet whiteboard or Miro that allow you to collaborate using sticky notes. At the end of the brainwriting session, you should end up with a bunch of sheets with solutions written on them plus their suggested improvements.
3. Lightning Decision Jam — It is a workshop template proposed by AJ&Smart to help provide a process for unstructured ideas. You can find the template and directions of use here: https://miro.com/miroverse/lightning-decision-jam-ldj/
4. S.C.A.M.P.E.R — An acronym standing for Substitute, Combine, Adapt, Modify, Put to another use, Eliminate and Reverse. S.C.A.M.P.E.R is most efficient when combined with another technique like brainwriting. Like in brainwriting, sticky notes can be used to fill information for each section of S.C.A.M.P.E.R by each team member first and then improved upon together.
The more complex your solution, the more time you’ll require for the research, prototyping, and actual implementation. Since most projects are on a deadline, spending more than necessary time on brainstorming will only take away from the time you need for the later stages. Hence choosing the correct method to structure your brainstorming session is very important. It can help to use the acronym S.M.A.R.T when separating the feasible solutions from the unfeasible ones. Make sure that they are -
- Specific — Be clear and to the point so that it’s easier to break the solution down into tasks later. Mention the resources and their roles wherever possible.
- Measurable — Ensure that the results of the solution are measurable and that its progress is trackable.
- Achievable — Ensure that the solution is feasible considering the resources, budget, and time available.
- Relevant — The solutions must lead to achieving the goals of your project.
- Timebound — Give a timeline for the completion of the proposed solution.
Now assuming you’ve bounced ideas off each other and tested them against S.M.A.R.T, you should end up with a list of feasible solutions. These are the objectives or the outcomes that you are expecting out of your product. So, at this point in your project, you are aware of the problem you want to solve and the methods you choose to solve it.
Great job, you’ve built your skeleton.
Now, it’s time to flesh it out, that is, break each objective down into smaller tasks with a set timeline so you can start achieving those objectives. If you haven’t outlined your demographic yet, this is a good place to clearly define just who the end-users of your product will be. The demographic that you plan to target will affect the priority list of your tasks and objectives as well as the type of testing you carry out. It will also affect the designs and needs to be decided before you move on to the actual prototyping of your project.
So you have your objectives, you have your tasks outlined, you have your end-users, it’s finally time to do some hands-on work. A prototype is a low-fidelity or high-fidelity model of the final deliverable of your project. Prototyping is integral in any design project as it allows you to see if the theoretical model you worked on so far translates the same way in a working model.
There are three broad categories of prototypes:
- Low-fidelity: It is a form of prototyping to test the workflow and act as a simulation for the product to help identify usability issues early on. They are either paper or basic clickable prototypes. A significant advantage of low fidelity prototypes is that it is very time and cost-efficient.
- Mid-fidelity: A mid-fidelity prototype, as one may guess, is the middle step between your low-fidelity and high-fidelity prototypes. This is where you define more elements in your design process before building your final prototype. They are more detailed than the low-fidelity prototypes and help pave the way to the high fidelity ones and is often used in the testing phase.
- High-fidelity: High-fidelity prototypes are very realistic working models. They are interactive and allow for defensive user testing to find out if the users like the product or not. High-fidelity prototypes require more time and resources than low-fidelity prototypes; however, they also provide a better way to analyze the product in a real-life environment.
In the lifecycle of your project, you will build both low-fidelity as well as high-fidelity prototypes at various stages. Some popular techniques of prototyping are -
- Sketches — Sketching is one of the easiest and fastest ways of prototyping. Visuals can help explain some ideas a lot better than words, so even the messiest of sketches can be a good starting point for prototyping.
2. Paper Interfaces — Paper interfaces work well for early-stage prototyping of digital products. You can check this video out to see how designers carry out paper prototyping: https://youtu.be/GrV2SZuRPv0
3. Storyboarding — Storyboarding is a visual script for the various actions that users will make when using the product. It helps in understanding product interaction from the user’s point of view.
4. Physical Models — Physical models are visual models of the product that can be made using a wide variety of rough materials like cardboard, foam, clay, etc.
5. Interactive UI Models — Design tools like Figma and Sketch can be used to create interactive UI models of digital products. The tools allow you to show how various elements in the UI would interact with the user and each other.
6. Wizard of Oz — This is a type of prototyping that comes in handy when the budget or time constraints are very tight. The interaction between the user and the product is faked by a human. For example, in a Wizard of Oz prototype of a virtual assistant, the response to the user’s actions would be replicated by a human.
A fundamental reason for building a prototype is to test your product on your end-users and get their feedback to identify problem areas. So once your prototype is ready, it is time to move on to testing.
As a designer that has just spent hours, days, and maybe even weeks on this project, it is next to impossible to remain unbiased and so there will be times when you won’t be able to critique your own work. There may be times, you may not be in the target audience for your product and hence need feedback from the potential end-users of the product. This is where testing comes in.
Usability testing ensures that your product is usable by all users and helps find any flaws in the current prototype. There are many methods of testing that you can use depending on your budget and time constraints, such as holding surveys, interviews with different types of users, lab usability testing, and more. You can find more information on popular usability testing methods in this article: [https://xd.adobe.com/ideas/process/user-testing/top-7-usability-testing-methods/]
At the end of the testing period, you know which aspects of your product still need improvements and whether the product solves the problem it was created to or not. With that information, now you can continue to the next step, that is, iterating.
This stage is when you alter your product based on the feedback received during the testing phase. Iterating and testing will keep going on alternately till you achieve your final product.
Iterating ensures that the product you put out is the best version of it.
So there you have it, your first design project. Whether you start with a small idea or a big one, there are numerous problems out in the world for you to solve, and with the steps outlined above, you should now have some idea of how to approach them.