A Design Process You Can Actually Use to Kick Off Your Next Project

Many years back, I made a somewhat rough transition from being a Creative Director in a digital agency to heading design practice in a technology startup that our agency had incubated (Much more on this in upcoming posts). While I was extremely excited about the opportunity to create something that could have significantly more impact than what we usually see with short shelf lives of advertising campaigns, I was shit scared about how to approach the project without any background on processes and practices.

This became one of the most overwhelming concerns for me so I started to read a lot about design processes from different practitioners. Most of them were very elaborate and appeared cumbersome to execute in a humble startup, with not a lot of time and resources. As I was trying to figure this all out with a small team that I had handpicked from the agency’s creative group, the newly hired development team, with whom none of us had any prior relationship, were freaking out waiting for design deliverables to stay on track of their own project plan!

Spending the next year stumbling from one challenge to another, we realized (very painfully) it takes a multi-disciplined team with an established process to execute a great project. There are a lot of talented designers and product managers out there who I am sure are facing a similar situation with their teams. As designers you have both the responsibility and ability to transform the way organizations develop products with better understanding of the requirements or the problem you intend to solve, scope of a project or how to solve the problems and all the constraints you’ll need to plan for in terms of budget, resources and timeline.

You must have come across a buzzword in the design and startup community about adopting such a user-centered approach. It’s called “Design Thinking”. The popular design firm IDEO and its founder Tim Brown are often credited with inventing this term and its practice as

“A human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success”.

When you put this practice up against other management practices like “Six Sigma” and “Lean Manufacturing” that have seen decades of adoption and implementation, Design Thinking is a relatively newer phenomenon, popularized mostly in the last decade as more and more established corporations are being disrupted, rendering their businesses obsolete. As technology trends and consumer behaviors are changing, the defeated corporations simply lack the ability to be creative and create new products that meet the unmet needs of their customers. The power of this methodology is to empower businesses to deal with such a reality and produce outcomes that can bring real results to their customers.

By integrating different methodologies and techniques from different fields (marketing, psychology, design, business) the whole “Design Thinking” process can be split into five phases as originally proposed by Stanford’s d.school.

Design and product teams all over the globe continually use it to better innovate their selves and I really hope the approach also helps you and your team to be more creative, productive and deliver great end products.

An important note before we dive into the process:- This is not to be taken as a “one size fits all” list as there is no “right way” or “wrong way” to approach any project. Since there are so many variables like size, stage, company goals, budget, timelines etc., make sure to adapt the process to conform to your needs, rather than the other way around.

Step 1: Empathize: The first stage of the Design Thinking process is to understand the customer by gaining an empathic understanding about them. This phase involves getting into your users’ shoes, gathering substantial amount of information, and setting aside own assumptions to gain real insight into users and their needs.
How? Interviews, surveys

Step 2: Define: In the Define phase, we analyze all the information gathered to define the problem as it exists from the users’ point of view (instead of business’s). This phase involves identifying the target audience, their frustrations, wishes and motivation in a way that is broad enough for ideation, yet specific enough to provide guidance and direction.
How? User personas, user studies, product brief

Step 3: Ideate: During the next phase of the Design process, we start generating logical ideas to solve the problems identified. This phase involves stripping away any barriers that prevent teams from thinking differently and generating as many ideas and solutions, including what appear to be the silliest and most “out-of-box” options.
How? Customer journey map, sitemap, wireframes

Step 4: Prototype: During this phase, something tangible is created quickly that will allow us to verify our idea in real life by interacting with it internally. This phase involves identifying the best possible solution for each of the problems by investigating, improving and re-examining solutions proposed until they are accepted.
How? Storyboards, mockups, video teasers, prototypes

Step 5: Test: In the last phase, we use all our collective knowledge from the preceding steps to build and test our solution in real life with actual users, observe behavior, ask questions and improve. This phase involves redefining problems, how people think, behave, and feel, and improve initial assumptions, understandings and results
How? Fully working product

There it is — the famed “Design Thinking” process as it applies to digital product design explained in 5 simple steps. Using this framework will enable you to involve all team members to work together more effectively. However there’s a common misconception that following each step in the design process, when you reach the last one, your work is done. This process isn’t linear; rather than moving forward one step at a time, you might repeat the whole process multiple times or jump back and forth between the steps out of order. It’s more important that teams operate from a mindset that draws upon the interaction of all these components because the value you bring as a designer is fundamentally in your approach to problem solving. Regardless of your role in the overall design process, excelling in your chosen field will still require empathy for users, deep engagement, prototyping, and testing abilities. It also demands open-mindedness and humility, which will allow you to listen to critique and use it to improve your work.

Lastly, if after reading this you are thinking like I did when I first came across this practice: “This is great but how is this going to help me in my next project”, I will try to make it more tangible and go over these steps along with relevant tools and practices in detail through a case study from my personal experience.

Designer, Growth Marketer & Product Leader