The art of design can be very fulfilling, but every so often you run into a creative wall that has you contemplating a career change. There are many reasons for this: you have taken on too much and are burning out, so you may be dealing with non-creative clients/team members and are therefore constantly facing resistance. Maybe you could just be bored.
Having a design process can give you a foundational framework from which you can drive innovation and evolve new ideas. You should be able to freely tweak aspects of the process because projects have limitations of some kind, and you’ll need to adapt to them. Below are ten ideas to help you build an effective process:
1. Start with problem definition
Many web designers erroneously assume that problems are obvious for most projects. In reality, what you perceive as an obvious problem is often a manifestation of the real underlying problem. You know you’ve found the real problem when solving it also solves a lot of other symptoms you’re seeing.
Begin your design process by thinking “How might we…” (solve a certain problem), bearing in mind that in order to design a product correctly, you must begin by making sure you’re designing the right product.
2. Know the user
One developer once said, “I’m building a product for everyone”. While this is conceivable if you’re building for a mass-market product, working with ‘everyone’ won’t help you create meaningful use cases. Without meaningful use cases based on specific users, you’ll have difficulty identifying your minimum viable product (the least acceptable product that can be churned out to users) and drawing up a strategic product plan. Great products are those which solve multiple problems in the simplest possible way, such that people who need it can understand it easily.
Spend time conducting user research, creating personas and mapping out user flows and scenarios. Anything that will get your further into the mind of your user is worth investing in for successful web design.
3. Consider the extremes
Part of the fun when developing ideas is being able to plunge off the cliff and think big with your solutions. For the heck of it, think beyond conventionally acceptable solutions, beyond the devices, and run with it. For instance, map out an entire day in the life of a user and draft all points of interaction with the product. Do whatever you usually do when thinking outside the box. You needn’t take weeks on this unless you have them, but you should connect your subconscious mind with the problems you’re trying to solve.
Great design comes from seemingly unconventional ideas that were tapped into because of their creative problem-solving. Look beyond you or your client’s industry to see how similar problems are solved for even more creative and effective ideas.
4. Develop a test hypothesis
All designs should be founded on a strong hypothesis, which provides a way to find truth. Hypotheses are to the design process what the thesis statement is to an essay: the heart upon which the framework is constructed. Even before the developmental stage, your use cases will come in handy during this stage.
If you have a team, brainstorm on as many user scenarios as possible. You can also carry out a studio exercise wherein participants can sketch solutions for specific problems or tasks identified above. In the initial design stages, always refer to your hypothesis to map out possible solutions.
5. Collaborate with a diverse team
Do not be afraid to present your design before a team of like-minded peers as well as those from different backgrounds. If you have a solid design, it should stand the critiquing, questioning and discussion that a diverse panel will bring. People with experiences different from you will bring in viewpoints that are different, which could possibly help you to develop better solutions.
Set up a think tank made of the project stakeholders and invite them to share their takes on how the design can be improved. Ensure that at the end of the day your design team has the final say, otherwise you may watch your project taken over by committee, and morph into something totally different.
6. Your documentation should tell a story
Your product documentation should tell a story, where the user personas are characters, use cases are key events in the play, wireframes are your stage and user flows and process flows are the choreography. In other words, everything should connect with and feed into each other. Project documentation is often ignored because context is not clearly articulated. Think of design elements and assets as jigsaw pieces, worthless on their own, but telling a powerful story when put in the right place.
However, don’t fixate on your documentation. Instead, ensure that the relations between design stages can be clearly seen. Minimize on aspects which don’t improve usability or push the design process further ahead. There’s no need to build documentation that is unusable.
7. Test on paper
Paper prototyping is useful at all stages of the design process, and can inform your design decisions. Sit down with your team and iterate ideas within a set period of time. Sketching and prototyping a design on paper can open up possibilities in your mind, ensuring that you don’t attach to a single framework too early. Run your ideas by 3-5 people to see if they’re feasible/usable.
The minute you think you’ve developed a solid design, conduct a virtual walkthrough to test it. Get a sounding board and talk through various use cases so that you can spot potential flaws or gaps. Once the other person understands the basic working of the design, you can use them as a “human computer” to operate your paper prototype when carrying out usability testing.
Perhaps the most important piece of advice you can get today is that no design project can be carried out within an island. It’s grave misconstruction to think that the only way to build designs is to sequester yourself in a creative hole away from everyone else. Au contraire, other people’s perspectives and input could be just what you need to get over a creative wall. Make sure you play well with others.
The author is a qualified web designer with over twenty years’ experience in web design and development, currently working with YouthNoise. He is also a published author who has shared many articles on various online sites.