Design process for the messy in-between

I tweeted this last week, and figured I should put my keyboard where my mouth is and take a stab at talking about design process for the real world. First, a caveat: I do think it’s valuable to frame ideal processes so that we know what we’re aspiring to. But often writing about design process has an all-or-nothing tone to it: It makes you feel that if you’re not doing it the “right” way, then you’re not doing good work, and won’t end up with a good product.

So first: there’s no one “right” way to do things. But there are a set of approaches that are generally good practice for user experience and product design: things like talking to your users, making sure to do divergent exploration, getting feedback, and continual iteration. However, it’s rare that I see a designer in a situation where they can execute a design process exactly as they would like to.

Instead, we all end up working in the messy in-between — a place where we need to make trade offs in our process due to real-world constraints. Those constraints tend to be things like:

  • Limited time: Deadlines won’t always accommodate a perfect process.
  • Skeptical stakeholders: People with authority over the project may not believe in the value of a thorough design process and see it as something that slows down the project or adds to cost.
  • The way things have been done before: If you’re trying to grow a design practice in an organization that hasn’t had a strong design or product culture, change doesn’t happen overnight. 
  • Personnel constraints: Sometimes you don’t have enough people or the right people to execute on all the pieces of the design process thoroughly.
  • Budget: This one is self-explanatory 🙂
  • And much more…

So, given those constraints, how do you decide where to cut corners and where to push for more? What’s a good design process for your design process? 

In my experience, here are a few rubrics for making these decisions:

1. Know your strengths and focus resources on your weaknesses.

What are your core abilities as an individual or a team? If you’re really familiar with your intended users, perhaps you don’t need to go as deep on user research, and instead you focus intensively on design exploration. On the other hand, if you have strong UX/UI design experience and instincts on your team, you might be able to spend less time exploring and iterating and more time talking to users.

This piece of the puzzle requires the ability to accurately self-assess. Be honest with yourself about your strengths and weaknesses, and design your process to support you where you need it most. If you have deep experience in one area, don’t be afraid to trust your instincts.

It can feel like sacrilege to say “we don’t need [x] because we’re really good at [y]”, but remember that ideal design processes are designed to check you — to make sure you’re considering options and needs that you might not immediately think of. Deep experience and skill can also help provide some of those checks and balances.

2. Learn to identify the immovable objects

In looking at your constraints, know which ones are fixed and which ones can’t be budged. This is a bit easier with things like budget, time, and people — for example, if you don’t have a budget for extensive user research, it’s clear you will have to work with some guerrilla research tools and approaches. But it’s more challenging to know which cultural pieces are immovable.

For example, you may have a stakeholder who just doesn’t buy the value of a strong design process. Most designers will find themselves in this position at some point, especially if you’re working in-house. Know when not to waste your time on unwinnable arguments. In those situations, there are one of two paths forward. One is that you can find small ways to inject better process and show how those approaches led to better outcomes. Seeing tangible proof of the utility of a good design process can lead to more investment and trust in that process for future projects. The second path is — unfortunately — that some stakeholders just won’t be convinced and it will prove to be a serious constraint on your ability to do deep design work.

It takes time to figure out which situation you are in, but in either case, knowing how fixed your constraints are helps you identify where to focus your efforts.

3. What has to be perfect now and what can be fixed later?

As designers, it’s always crucial to understand the overall product and business strategy for the experiences we’re designing. One of the reasons for this is that it can help to prioritize where to focus resources in our “messy in-between” processes. What features or users are most critical to the success of the product?

Constraints mean that we almost always have to pick things that aren’t going to get as much love and attention as we would ideally like. Can a feature be removed for launch, or is there a scaled-down MVP of that feature that will suffice for now? Which user group has to have their needs deeply met for success? Can other groups’ needs come later? It’s hard not to want everything to be perfect, but knowing what truly has to be perfect can help in focusing limited resources on the right things.

These are by no means exhaustive, but they are a few key rubrics that I frequently use. Most importantly, I hope that we can all share more about how we navigate design in situations that rarely meet the platonic ideal. In doing so, I believe we can alleviate a lot of the guilt and impostor syndrome that seems to be common amongst designers who are worried that they aren’t “doing it right”. Let’s embrace the imperfections of design process in real organizations and projects, and share tools for creating the best work within the constraints of those situations.