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Posted: 21 July 2023
By Alastair Lee

Design Process Hacks – What to do when you can’t do what you’re supposed to do

It's not always possible to follow the perfect user-centred design process. As designers and product people we need to be resourceful and make the best of the situations we find ourselves in. Here are five principles to keep in mind.

Two women a make a sale to pull their canoes
Image source: Peter Dennen

Much of our work over the last couple of years has been focused on helping clients improve not only their products and services, but the way they work.

Typically, this involves strengthening their product discovery and user-centred design processes, and supporting designers, product people, engineers and leaders to play their parts effectively.

But old habits die hard. And some people we mentor have asked what to do when they can’t follow the ideal design process – like when there’s an urgent deadline, or a senior stakeholder is wedded to a preconceived solution, or they can’t access research participants. How can they still do their best work in these scenarios?

Mostly, it depends 🙂 And I offer coaching and mentoring for folks who want to discuss their specific situation. For now, here are a some principles that I have found useful:

1. Get stoical

Shit happens! Things are rarely as they should be. So don’t waste your energy lamenting insufficient inputs and resources. Instead, focus on what’s in your control and how you can best respond to your situation. Do this and you’ll reduce your stress and make a more positive contribution.

2. Skim. But don’t skip

There’s no getting away from it. The design process is there for a reason.

At some level, you need to:

  1. Define a desired outcome – there must be a reason for doing the work
  2. Understand needs and constraints – you can’t design anything without understanding what people need from it
  3. Prototype and test solutions – somehow you’ll have to show potential solutions and get feedback on them
  4. Deliver an MVP and iterate – you’ve got to ship something, so you’ll have to do the detailed design and dev work, then release and at least fix some bugs.

If you try and skip to detailed design (in step 4) without sketching and evaluating your concept (step 3), then you’ll end up backtracking. It’s like painting the Mona Lisa’s smile without thinking about the rest of her face or where she’s sitting.

Similarly, if you start prototyping (step 3) without any sense of user needs (step 2), how will you make decisions about sequencing, hierarchy and language?

You do need to take all the steps. But you can skim the surface if needs must.

3. Think like a chef (not a cook)

A good chef has a deep understanding of flavours, textures and presentation. They can think from first principles and work with the ingredients at hand. They can write their own recipes.

A cook, on the other hand, follows recipes. They can execute tasks competently. But when something goes wrong, or when some ingredients are missing, they lack the ability to improvise.

As designers we need to be the chefs of our domain. We need to be able to whip up user experiences which work pretty well, even when we lack the perfect tools, time and ingredients.

If you can’t arrange a half-day kickoff workshop to define business outcomes, grab a coffee with three key stakeholders instead.

If there’s simply no time for primary generative research? Ask questions on a forum where users hang out.  Or attend some networking events. And read any existing studies you can find.

If you can’t access real end-users for usability testing,  grab some less knowledgeable colleagues in the cafeteria.

It’s by no means perfect. But a skilled designer can learn a lot from these hacks. Something is better than nothing.

4. Highlight assumptions and risks

Every design process involves making some assumptions. You never have perfect information about the market, the needs and behaviours of users or what it will take to deliver a solution. You have to make some educated guesses.

The important thing is to get these assumptions out in the open and highlight any particularly risky ones. And then make a plan to test them.

So, as you go through your design process, document and share your work. Make your colleagues aware of the assumptions you’ve had to make and the associated risks. If appropriate, ask for their agreement to proceed at each step:

“Have I captured the business goal for this idea correctly?”

“Can we agree that this is the primary use-case for this feature?”

“Are we happy to assume the user will have this information to hand in most cases?”

Getting assumptions on the table has three major benefits:

  1. It makes people think and creates useful conversations
  2. It shares responsibility for making assumptions (so if they prove false then it’s not just on you)
  3. It helps others understand the design process and the inputs you need

5. Build your case for better next time

The best way to convince others that it’s worth investing in good design process is to have examples of bad process leading to poor results and good process leading to better results.

So gather your evidence. Find out how well that feature that you had to rush out is doing. Quantify the work involved in re-architecting a solution post-deployment vs changing course during prototyping.

And when the time is right, make your case for doing design properly next time.

Final thought

If you follow these principles you may find that something interesting starts to happen – people might start to listen!

You might be asked to get involved earlier in a project. You might be asked what you need to ensure the team better understands users.

Your ‘circle of influence’ may begin to grow.

And then, one day, you might find you’re able to execute the process just like the Design Thinking diagram!

Shame it will probably be out of vogue by then!

Designing Better

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