“You can use an eraser on the drafting table or a sledge hammer on the construction site” – Frank Lloyd Wright
Imagine for a moment that you’re building a house. Friends and colleagues have referred you to several architects, you’ve chatted with each briefly and talked price, and now you’ve selected the firm that’s going to design your dream home. What happens next?
Do you just send the firm off to design your dream home based on a 20-minute sales call? Of course not. The firm looks at the land you’ve purchased, maybe investigates any local zoning restrictions, talks to you about what works and doesn’t work in your current space, explores styles and features that resonate with you—gets to know your situation and what will work best for you.
Here in the world of user experience and user interface design, the need to understand the project at a deeper level is no different. So many clients ask designers to just blaze ahead and create their site or application with only the information gathered in a one-hour kickoff conversation, and it’s up to the design team to put on the brakes and take a deeper look.
Designing a Web application—or even a marketing site—is a significant investment in both time and money. For many clients, the success of the app or site we design has significant impact on their bottom lines. In some cases, it’s the primary vehicle for their business. It is our job as a design firm to make sure that the resources spent on design are maximized.
Insuring that the UI design we deliver is rock solid requires a fair amount of work up front. Before jumping into Photoshop, Fireworks, or any other design software, we go through a design strategy phase. This is typically a two- to four-week deep dive into our client’s business and the minds of the users.
We used to call this initial phase “Discovery,” but that implies a single activity: information gathering. In fact, this phase is not just about gathering information, but also processing it in ways that help us better understand the business landscape, the user needs, and the technological possibilities. We research, we develop a vision, we strategize, we sketch, we map, and we plan.
In a typical design strategy phase, we talk about user characteristics, user stories, and user journeys (notice a theme?). We diagnose existing weaknesses and pain points. We put together a task list and information architecture and begin mapping the various paths users might take to reach their goals. We explore the competitive landscape and identify strategies and best practices that will make our client’s site or application stand out from the pack. If the project is a public or marketing site, we’re likely to spend some time exploring possible sales funnels or discussing the attributes necessary for A/B testing. We can then take all of this work and put a solid plan of action in place—schedule, list of deliverables, feedback strategy, technology requirements, etc.
This process of careful consideration and planning is where our real value lies. It allows us to move into the design process with total clarity and provides our clients with confidence that we understand and share their goals. Without this preliminary work, any design work we show to the client is essentially a shot in the dark.
There’s another important value-add built into the design strategy phase: relationship building. This initial phase gives both our team and the client team a chance to understand each other’s working styles, preferences, and quirks before jumping into design reviews. It gives us a chance to assess the level of their design and technical knowledge, the presentation format they’re most comfortable with, and the kind of language that resonates most for them and adapt our approach accordingly. It allows us to build a solid working relationship and create a sense of trust for the client as we move into design.
Projects that lack a design strategy phase are ripe for miscommunication and design work that misses the mark entirely, whereas projects that allow adequate time for foundation building are much more likely to produce successful UX/UI design, satisfied clients, and happy users. You wouldn’t want to live in a house that was built without drafts or plans. Don’t expose your users to a website or application that hasn’t been the subject of an equal amount of forethought.