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Good design goes round in circles

4 May 2021 <> Written by Martin Alcock

Our Design Lead, Martin Alcock on why an iterative design cycle offers the best approach for the product, your users and your business.

It doesn’t matter what I’m designing. It could be a mobile app, a web-based chatbot or a complex data dashboard. I will always start with a pen in my hand and a blank sheet of paper. It sounds romantic, but I’m not proclaiming to be a Turner Prize winner. You probably wouldn’t recognise my doodles as anything remotely technical or artistic, my notebook is often a chaos of boxes, arrows and lines. But it doesn’t matter how it all looks on day one of the project, this isn’t art, design must function and those scribbles are the start of a process.

Iteration is defined as a cycle of steps that you repeat, tweaking and improving your product with each cycle. In very simple terms, I’m talking about ‘practice makes perfect’. When you’re dealing with technology that needs to function and be usable at the same time in an environment that leaves little room for error, iterative design gets you to the most appropriate solution to any problem.

Why we adopt an iterative design process?

Our clients often have difficult problems to solve with long and thorny roots. And they’re nearly always problems which need to be solved quickly. With this in mind, we have to produce a design that acts as a living breathing organism that can evolve with the product as we develop it. This scenario requires an iterative process, which means we can deploy a solution, carry out user research, test our hypotheses, generate data and then move onto the second cycle of iteration - all within our client’s tight deadline. In a perfect world, we would stay with this product throughout its development and maturity, making improvements and deploying new versions across an extended period of time.

The fundamentals of iterative design

Iterative design usually forms a cycle of four phases - Understand, Define, Prototype and Build. But moving through the cycle quickly and on to the next step is not the most important thing - neither is skipping to the last step.

Think of the skateboard metaphor. The user has a problem: they need to get from A to B, but it’s too far to walk. As a designer I might build a skateboard, problem solved. But the user finds it slow and cumbersome to get around. So I design a bike, perfect. But it’s still not fast enough for the user. Eventually, the user ends up with a motorbike. Still on two wheels, so not too expensive but much faster, safer and less likely to break. We solved the root problem at phase one but each considered, incremental change has made the user happier and more comfortable. This is an iterative design. We didn’t rush to build a car when we understood the problem, even though it could have solved the problem quickly. We built up our design thinking and learned a lot about our lazy user in the process.

With each phase and each full cycle, there should be data gathered which informs the next. True iteration is about the act of understanding a specific context, defining a problem, testing a solution and understanding its benefits and drawbacks in a specific environment with a defined user group. Each phase should give you something to riff off and improve and the design should move closer and closer to perfection as you progress, with issues solved as they appear.

The process

At Razor, this process starts in our client discovery sessions, when our team capture a big funnel of hopes and dreams for the project. At this stage, I’ll start building up a mental model of how a system could function. From those conversations, I start sketching. We build the bones of the UX and produce low fidelity wireframes. This helps iron out some assumptions and gaps in the client’s thinking which we can challenge and refine before jumping into the design phase.

We also build the front end code which means we can react to new issues as we work on them. For example, if we’ve designed a search feature to work with three filters, and suddenly it becomes necessary to work with ten, we can react to that positively and come up with an attractive design without compromising usability.

Once we have a design that is ready to be deployed into our client’s environment, there is a period of support around the launch. We then get on with the next cycle. That might be a revised element of the product we’ve just deployed or a brand new tool depending on the client’s need.

Iterative design and AI

More and more we’re working with organisations that are looking towards automation and AI technology to support their customers and teams. These tools work by harnessing the power of big data inputs and often provide valuable predictions and insights as their output. In this world, UX and iterative design play a different role. While the rules are the same, there are certain elements that require a new mindset. Despite the ‘Artificial’ element of the tool, as designers, we have to make sure we’re truly aligned with the real human need. We have to closely analyse the insights generated at each turn of the iteration wheel to really understand if the technology is solving the problem or hindering the process. This is true for AI chat functions, is the AI speaking in the right language, offering enough detail in its answers or funnelling the users correctly?

Designing for AI is also about building trust and transparency with the user to make adoption second nature for them. The user doesn’t necessarily need to know the maths behind the algorithm but they should understand why the software has given the advice, recommendation or information it has. From a UX perspective, there are various different ways to make this background decision making clear, it’s all in the user research to make sure it is comprehensible and tweak if challenges arise. And the most exciting part about designing for AI is that the iteration never needs to end. Continuous feedback is even more important for AI as it’s such a young concept inside many organisations. User feedback improves the algorithm behind the product and is a supporting part of the communication between users, the product and the team.

Organisations who iterate, win…

Here are a few stats on UX. 88% of users are less likely to return to a website after a bad user experience. And actually considering UX within your business has a return of investment of 9,900% - that’s a bafflingly high number, but it should tell you one thing - good design matters. Most importantly, scrutinising your user experience matters.

An iterative design process puts the user at the centre of the project and circles back to them at the most crucial times. You’ll also be pleased to know it’s cost-effective.

Get in contact with us today, we’re always happy to chat with organisations with cracking ideas - in any case, I fancy a doodle. Catch our next blog with Aidan Minton on Colour Theory, he genuinely could be a Turner Prize nominee ;)

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