Thoughts on Design Process

Rubber duck

I was recently asked,

I’ve just finished reading what we’ll be using as a primer to UX/UI design and it’s fairly good (I guess), but misses a few key bits of information.

The author gives a good bit of basic theoretical information (what and why), but assumes that the reader already knows the basics of the UX design workflow (missing the HOW). Example: he’ll talk about heat maps and eye tracking, but doesn’t care much about explaining the steps along the way.

If I were to be asked to design an app from the ground up, or redesign a substantial pre-existing website, where would I start? What are the weigh stations along the way? Where would I introduce the information architecture and what form(s) would it take along the way?

Here are some of my meandering thoughts on the topic. Let me know if I'm using any industry jargon that needs further definition. P.S. I've never used heat maps or eye tracking. 100% not necessary for version 1.0 of any app.

1. Research

  • At Walmart Labs, this means lots of meetings with people who use the website.
  • When working on a recent movie tracking app, I studied existing apps in the space.

The goal is to get a full understanding of how things currently work, and what problems need to be addressed.

2. Design Specification

I consider this the most important step - a design spec is the source of truth for everything related to the current project. I like to say it's a living document; it gets revised and updated as roadblocks are discovered and changes are made. Whenever any new “artifact” is created (writing, mockups, etc), it gets referenced in this document. If an engineer has questions about why part of the app or feature is designed a certain way, they should be able to reference this document for the explanation. The goal of creating this is to capture the full scope of the project and answer as many potential questions as possible before building it.

3. Wireframes

Ideally, these are hand-drawn or put together in a design tool with simple shapes - whatever format allows for quick iteration on the layout/composition. At this point, it'd be good to start referencing the guidelines for whichever platform is being designed for. For instance - if this is going to be an Android app, then there's a decent chance the app will need to adopt Android's built-in navigation buttons. This would impact what navigation you'd include within the app. You'd also potentially include a FAB. Android's guidelines are called Material Design and Apple's are called Human Interface Guidelines or HIG.

4. Mockups

Once I'm feeling good about the design spec and wireframes, and after gathering feedback from my team, etc, I open Sketch and start building. For the iOS app I worked on, I pulled in a library of HIG components and started piecing together the app. Apple has a Resources page that includes libraries of their components for a bunch of design apps, including Sketch. At this point, it's essentially like building with LEGO.

Note: This is not quite as simple on the web, since the web doesn't have a set of guidelines like this - everyone kind of has to build them for themselves. One of the apps I work on uses Bootstrap and another uses Material UI, which is a React implementation of Material Design for the web.

5. Developer Feedback

This may not deserve it's own step since I'd generally recommend gathering feedback from developers along the way (also, I frequently am the developer that ends up implementing what I designed), but at some companies, this is considered the point at which the design is “thrown over the wall.” Developers put together a technical specification, which is similar to the design spec - except it gets into the weeds about what needs to get built, how it should be built, what data will be necessary, API endpoints... etc. They often discover limitations that were unknown during the design phase that then need to get applied to the designs, so there can be some back and forth here.

Bonus Thoughts

I think the biggest things I've learned semi-recently are -

  1. Designers should be writing A LOT. First, mockups only tell half the story (if that). Mockups are usually static, so it's not possible to see how certain elements should act or interact. Behavior needs to be written down. Second, when working in a company, designers are expected to have put thought into why their designs are structured a certain way. Writing is the best way to crystalize your thoughts and generate a reference sheet for the choices made.
  2. Designers can't work in a silo. It's impossible to solve a problem without fully understanding the context, and they can't get that without talking to people.