Reviewing the “Design Process” for Project Managers

[Project Managers, if you’ve been working in the web and “interactive” design space for a while, you may not realize how much you know about the design process.

The thing is, we’ve likely absorbed and learned these things over the months or years. Our clients have not had the benefit of the experience. Here are some things we know, presented by Jared Ponchot at the inaugural Digital PM Summit, and could likely be better educating our clients around:

  • Design is not just “look and feel”, design is the process of imposing meaningful order to content and interactions.
  • Realize the design process is not unique to our industry and is, for good reasons, similar across industries. Look for metaphor in how cars are made, houses are built, and so on.
  • When designing, we should start to aim for “living” deliverables. It allows for tacit, ongoing approval and discussion of priorities. The ‘big reveal’ (Mad Men style) doesn’t always make sense and allow for dialog around design.

Put simply, design is the intersection of purpose, content, and style.

Purpose (why?)

Design is the process intended to figure out how we should best solve the stated problems (need more customers, want to inform the public, etc.). Fleshing out those problems, the purpose, is key to a meaningful design process.

Keep asking why and get to the root issues. Ask more “what will that get you”?

If you tell me you want to build a bridge, I will ask why? You say you want to get across the river. Why? You need to get to work on the other side. Why? Because the fields are on the other side. Why do you work the fields? Over time, instead of building a bridge we may set out to solve different problems than originally proposed.

The who, when, and overall context can affect responses to probing design questions.

Speaking with a team may yield different answers than working individually or separating the bosses from the employees. Sitting and looking at inspirational websites together may allow for more conductive exploration than on a phone call.

Ultimately define purpose statements that serve as the goals to tie decisions back to.

If you don’t know which direction you’re headed (“more customers”), how can you know if you’re actively working towards those goals?

When working with clients, being able to point each evaluation, decision, question back to the goals is the best way to ensure the design process has a good chance of resulting in success.

Content (priority not position)

Two excellent tools exist to start pulling together the content that will solve your stated problems.

Content Model

There are three things we can capture to effectively design solutions.

  • Content types: in order to meet the stated goals, what content are we creating, publishing, and making available?
  • Attributes: for each of those content types, what are the attributes that define them? (title, image, etc.)
  • Relationships: where and why is the content related? (blog posts about each product)

As you define these, you can begin creating artifacts that moves the design process along in a meaningful way.

Display Model

Describing how the content is presented can be achieved with wireframes, sketches, etc. and is typically what we think of when we think “design” (but as you see, it shouldn’t be the first step in the process):

Sketches and descriptions of the various templates start to demonstrate the priority (not just the position) of content (which was defined because it achieved stated goals). Describing the various components and the hierarchy results in a vocabulary and series of artifacts to inform the final designs.

Style (is not powerless)

This final piece is what may be considered, by most, all there is to the “design” process. Style is not simply preference. A couple points to help explain why style is not the first step and is not a powerless piece (nor the entire point), of the design process:

Color enhances priority, it’s not just a preference. When we propose a dark red button on the sparse, white screen, that color contrasts and demonstrates hierarchy (it is more important). If a client asks for it to be gray, that may not solve the stated problem (“convert more user to subscribers”) and is not just because gray is a “better” color.

Style allows for personality and can make a design more human and connect to a visitor, user, potential client. It helps express a brand and separate a business from others in the space. Picking a “flat” style versus a “textured” style should not simply be a preference.

Aim to seek evaluation against the stated goals and frame the display and style discussions (reviewing mockups, layout concepts) around the purpose and content defined earlier.