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Designing a design process

A design process is simply an ordered list of activities to deliver a product. It's common across all areas of design, and it's so simple that any designer can recite it word-for-word within a job interview. Which is often all it's good for.

As simple as 'understand, ideate, implement, then evaluate' might be, real-life always finds a way to complicate things. No designer works in a bubble where they can decide exactly how to do something and how long they need to do it.Instead, we're only one part of a team working with others who may—or may not—see design as the highest priority. People we work with have their own processes aligned with their chosen profession, not to mention their preferred way of working. And we can't expect them to change that to make things easier for a designer.

A more realistic design process doesn't just take into account a designers role, but also how it fits in with the needs of their team.

Deciding what process to use

As tempting as it can be to test out the latest trend we read about on Medium, this approach can end up doing more damage than good. Even if you manage to get buy-in from your colleagues, you might end up with something that works, but doesn't quite fit with your team's purpose or even worse, culture.

Rather than spending months trying to make a process designed by [insert favourite company here] work for you, think of those Medium articles as inspiration instead. Try examining the steps those companies took to get to the final solution. That way, you can start thinking of ways to come up with a process designed specifically for your team.

When you look at things from this angle, you'll find coming up with a design process from scratch isn't as daunting as it sounds, especially if you use tools already available to you. There's little difference between designing an optimal experience for a customer and one for your team. You still need to 'understand, ideate, implement, then evaluate' — but this time, it's for a much smaller group of people. There are many ways to do this and many tools that can help. Below, I've shared a few I found useful:

The tools I use

Experience Maps show how things currently are
One purpose of an Experience Map is capturing what's happening and how people are feeling about it. When used to map out your current design process, it can reveal who's benefiting and who's suffering. This is especially important when multiple teams are contributing to the same area. By highlighting these issues, you're able to show what can be improved and assure others that things can be better.

Empathy Maps show different roles' concerns and values
One way to judge if a process is fit-for-purpose is to use Empathy Maps to understand what people expect from it. If your design process affects a small number of people, you can create Empathy Maps for each person. If it's more complicated, you can have one for each role involved. This exercise allows team members to understand what others are dealing with.

Card Sorting helps prioritise processes
A process might exist for multiple reasons from ensuring the quality of the product, to reducing wasted effort. Some of these reasons are higher priority than others. Card Sorting helps you determine what to focus on when you start designing and implementing.

Implementing your optimal process

Once you understand where the issues in your current process lie, there are three key things to get people behind your new approach:

Think about your team culture
Changing a process might be as easy as communicating it out to people, but changing a culture requires much more work. And it is the existing culture that decides if your new approach succeeds or fails.

I've worked in many large organisations, some that have been around for decades. I've often found people work in a specific way because "it's always been done like that", even when the documented process completely contradicts them. That means you need to identify your culture's underpinning norms to figure out how to either change them or embrace them.

Add flexibility to your process
Coming up with a prescriptive process guaranteed to meet all of your teams' goals and objectives might sound appealing, but again, real life will probably get in the way with unexpected curve balls. Your team needs to be able to deal with these situations within the process, and if they can't, they will quickly abandon it. Consider the last few times something unexpected happened and how the needs of your team changed — does your new process help or hinder these types of situations.

Accept that nothing is permanent
At some point, your team goals will change, new people will join, and others will leave. So it's essential to review your process as a team regularly. Introduce this mindset as early as possible. This can help your colleagues to be flexible and not to be surprised when you want to make changes to your approach.

A final note

Coming up with a team design process isn't a linear piece of work and will require trial and error. Even after carrying out research and consultation, you might come up with something that looks good on paper, but not so much in practice. Don't despair if things don't work out the first time: make a note of any issues and use ceremonies like sprint retrospectives to work with your team and find ways to iron them out. The result will be something your entire team supports, and more importantly, be willing to protect.


Ahmed Mohamed

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