Delivering Design in a Lean Environment

Having worked as a designer in one form or another for over 15 years, I’ve seen many changes in the industry that have affected the skills and attitude that is expected from our profession. With each change comes an opportunity to learn and develop, so throughout my career I’ve tried to always be on the front foot, proactively looking for where the next change might come from and trying to be ready for when it comes. The trouble is, things seem to change pretty quickly these days, but the skills you need take years to master, so how is anyone supposed to keep up?

My first ‘proper’ job as an interaction designer

Many years ago, when I got my first ‘proper’ job as an interaction designer, I had no idea that the field I was entering would eventually become user experience design as we know it today.

At the time, I was always confident in what I thought a particular design was going to achieve, so I thought that by creating annotated wireframes, I was providing the most effective way to explain my thinking to my developer friends. I was good at it, so could produce 100 page specification documents in no time at all, ready to hand over before promptly getting on with the next project.

Of course nothing turned out quite as I’d imagined and when it did, we always ended up finding problems with usability. It became clear that these documents weren’t quite cutting the mustard. Unsurprisingly, nobody asks me to create them anymore, but I’ve still got the PDFs, so I can look back on what might have been.

I’ve seen the same thing happen recently to my more graphically-inclined designer colleagues, where the equivalent pixel-perfect mock-ups seem a little old-fashioned in the modern responsive world.

So, in this lean product-minded environment, what is it exactly that designers should do all-day?

The design deliverables

Regarding deliverables, I’ve started to use a diagram to explain my thoughts to people…

Top left

In the top left you have abstract and low fidelity work, which produces an experience map that identifies opportunities for design intervention, based on insights derived from sound design research.

Top right

Top right is also abstract, but this time the fidelity is higher. I put branding, mood boards and initial visual direction in here, as I think expecting a ‘leap of faith’ from stakeholders is always going to create anxiety, so we need to provide a sense of the future for people to buy into. It provides a ‘north star’ for us to follow.

Bottom left

Things start to become more realistic in the bottom left of the diagram. Here we are creating, testing and iterating prototypes that ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’ people how a product should function. The objective is to rule out all of the possible solutions that won’t work, until you are left with the most effective design that can be delivered in the time available.

Bottom right

Finally, interactive style guides (or pattern library) allows us to work efficiently with front-end developers to work out how the components of the final experience should look and feel when they are assembled into the final product. This is why coding skills are (once again) becoming handy in the design game.

The amount of effort required in each of these areas varies massively from job-to-job. The skills of designers on a team need to be carefully considered, so that they complement each other in a way that unlocks the collective capability (that no single individual could do by themselves). We need to believe in collaboration, not just talk about it…

The design discipline

In addition to everything I’ve said above, I think the production of these deliverables should make up only a part of what designers actually do.

Based on something similar that I was shown by my friend and mentor, Colin Burns, while I worked at the BBC, a diagram explains the collaborative routines that I think design teams should try to establish.

In my mind, I think the design work that you can do ‘standing up’ comes first, so am always looking for ways to do more of this type of thing. Looking back at the things we’ve done recently, we can use a “retro” to learn how to do things better next time around. The weekly “crit” is a ritual that healthy design teams can use to get candid feedback in a trusted environment. Finally, we can use workshops to bring others into our process in order to work out what we might try next.

That leaves the design work I’ve mentioned previously, book-ended by show and tells and pitches that we can use to help us look backwards or forwards accordingly. Add sound design research into this mix and I think you’re in business.

Just as I think differently now about my approach to design than I did when I started out in my career, I’m sure I’ll change the way I think about this again at some point too, but I’m confident now that some things will always remain consistent. Starting your process with empathy, learning lessons early, focusing on the things that deliver value and working productively with others will always be the cornerstones to sound design process in my opinion.

I’m also firmly of the belief that culture affects things more than anything else, so what works in one context might not get the same results in another. So I’m hoping these thoughts can play a small part in the ongoing conversation about what makes our industry tick.