Evolving the Design Discovery Process
The design phase used to be the most time consuming part of our project but now it’s the smoothest. Where we once sought buy-in along the way with wireframes, style tiles, and finally two finished design concepts we now only deliver a single, fully fleshed out concept. While internally designing with the same tools, we’ve honed our outward facing process so we only need to show the client our single, best idea.
We rarely receive significant revision feedback, despite lack of client buy-in leading up to the delivered concept. Clients feel that we’ve delivered solutions that fit their needs and need little, if any, adjusting.
How is this done consistently? Our design discovery process. By the time we’re done performing design research, we have a complete understanding of the organization and their needs for the project at hand. Furthermore, we’ve structured the process to convey both expertise and intention. We make it clear that every design decision is based on experience and thought which builds trust and limits feedback born out of personal preferences or emotion.
So what’s our secret sauce? Read on and I’ll tell you more about our design framework.
The Design Framework
Design is the practice of solving problems. To solve the problem you not only need to understand said problem, you also need insight into the everything surrounding it. Specifically, who’s effected by the problem? How do we know if the problem has been solved? In what context does the problem exist? At 3.7 DESIGNS we acquire this knowledge through our design discovery framework. The framework is a simple set of questions and exercises that tease out key details to research and consider.
For clarity, we segment the framework into three sections:
- Players, problems and priorities
Each segment has areas to explore and research. We obtain our initial understanding of a segment by asking clients and follow up with external research and user interviews. Let’s explore each segment one by one and look at what questions we ask.
Players, problems, and priorities
All problems can be traced back to the people who encounter them therefore producing an effective solution can only be done by understanding those involved (the players) and their needs (the problems) and which problems are most important (priorities.)
Most projects have three primary groups of people involved: stakeholders, end users ,and competitors.
Stakeholders are those commissioning the project (i.e. paying for it) and have a vested interest in the project outcome. You may have a single stakeholder, like the owner of the company. Alternatively, you might have multiple, for example the human resources department, mortgage department and bank tellers. In the later example each group will have separate (and sometimes opposing) needs.
End users are your target audience that will actually use the website. Typically end users are not part of the organization, but there are cases where portions of a site are designed for internal use. Users can also be broken into several subgroups, prospective and existing clients for example.
Competitors are any alternative good service or website that a user could pursue over the client.
What we ask
We always start by learning more about stakeholder needs. After all, they’re investing in design because they’re looking to solve specific problems. We often open with:
- Who within your organization has a vested interest in the outcome of the project? Please tell us about them.
- What goals do they have for this project?
Be prepared to steer answers towards a tangible, measurable outcome and not features. Those who are not familiar with design might feel compelled to recommend solutions, for example, “We need to have a slider that includes current interest rates.” When what you’re looking for is “We want to increase the amount of mortgage applications on the website.” As the designer it’s your job to figure out how to make that happen.
These questions establish the organization’s objective and give you insight into its priorities. At this point we can follow up with:
- Who will be using the website? Tell us about them.
- Why are they spending their valuable time on the site and what do they hope to accomplish?
- Why would they purchase your product/service instead of from someone else?
These questions are critical to the process for several reasons. Most importantly it gives you initial insights into user needs, as a user-centered design agency the answers to these questions heavily influence our solutions. Almost as important, it also forces stakeholders to think about their users. You will likely run into situations where you’ll need to make a design decision that’s split between what’s best for the user or the client. This is the perfect time to discuss the importance of respecting the user.
Finally, to understand the full landscape, we’ll end by asking about the organization’s competitors:
- Who are your competitors?
- Are there any non-direct competitors (i.e. alternative products or services)?
- What makes you different from your competition?
This will give you a comprehensive list of organizations to research and identify messaging, differentiators, and opportunities.
These three sets of questions will give you significant insight into the landscape and everyone who’s involved. It also gives you plenty of avenues for supporting research if the budget allows.
At this point you’ll have a list of needs, some of them specific to stakeholders and the others specific to users. The next step is to prioritize them.
If you prioritize everything you prioritize nothing. Effective design decisions are contingent on a clear understanding of hierarchy. Work with your client to rank the objectives defined in the previous section.
By establishing a main priority not only can you design a more successful website you also have justification for your future design decisions. At the end of this inquisition you have a road-map of objectives and priorities that you can check your design concepts against to ensure you’ve produced a concept that addresses the problems at hand in the priority that has been defined.
Once you’ve established the priorities you can move on to establishing metrics.
Now that you’ve prioritized the project objectives you need to identify how to measure them. There’s an old saying “you can’t manage what you don’t measure.” Establishing key performance indicators allows you to prove whether the project was successful or not and justifies the investment. It also opens up opportunities to continually improve the performance of the site.
Metrics should be non-binary and actually measurable. “Improved news section” is a bad metric, “20% increase in visit duration on the news section in six months” is a good metric.
Metrics need to be specific. “Increase business” is too vague. “Increase qualified leads by 30% in six months” is more tangible.
Specifying a date encourages you to follow up and evaluate the success of the project. Finally, it’s a good idea to identify how you’ll measure the metrics. If possible, start measuring the old site while you’re designing the new one. This will give you some data to compare.
Once you have metrics defined you can move onto the context of the design.
When we say “context” we’re referring to the visual layer of the design. We’re looking for considerations for establishing the tone and visual identity of the site. These tend to be quicker, gut reaction questions. We’ll ask very concrete questions like:
Do you have established brand elements or guidelines?
You’ll often run into established typefaces, colors, logos, etc…
If you could only tell a potential customer one thing about your business, what would it be?
This is a positioning question that aims to tease out the most important message or differentiator for the brand.
Then we’ll move into gut level questions like:
- How should users feel in the first five seconds of seeing the site?
- How do you want to be perceived? Share five or six words that describe your company.
- If your company were a car, what car would it be and why?
The goal with these questions is to understand the personality of the company and stakeholders. The car questions, while cheesy, are a powerful way to draw out associations and identify connections between their organization and an automotive brand. Additionally, automotive companies spend so much time and effort on branding that you interpret the characteristics of the brand the same way your client does. This helps both parties see eye-to-eye.
Finally, we go through a brand personality test where clients have to rate how their brand aligns with two near-opposite characteristics. For example “How loud or quiet is your brand?”
The client then decides first if their brand is quiet, loud, or neutral and then to what extent. A ten would be extremely loud, six being just slightly loud. These questions further inform the tone and feel of the site.
Next and final Steps
It’s important to remember that the information gathered during the discovery meeting is a jumping-off point. I wouldn’t take anything at face value. The people you’ve interviewed are human. They have biases, personal agendas, and fallible memory. Use the responses to do additional research, validate, and expand upon what you’ve learned.
Our final step is to package everything we’ve learned through discovery and research into an official strategy document which is presented to the client. We ask them to review, provide feedback, and ultimately approve. It’s also stressed how important the strategy document is, as it will be the roadmap for all design efforts moving forward.
This final step establishes the goal of the design work to solve the problems at hand rather than appease aesthetic preferences. It also gives you a tool to reference if the project starts to take a wrong turn.
By using this approach to discovery we’ve dramatically improved the efficiency of our design process. We now look forward to feedback rather than dread it.