Good Design is Fast

Good Design is Fast

By Dorothy Shamonsky, Ph.D.

Getting a user experience (UX) design completed quickly is good for developers, good for customers and good for business. Surprisingly it’s part of a good design practice as well. Here are the steps I use: 

  • Begin with a rapid prototyping technique
  • Iterate frequently on the evolving design
  • Use customer feedback to drive those iterations

You will soon have a spot-on design. Imagine the reverse: you spend a fair amount of time gathering requirements, then build a detailed professional-looking prototype and after doing some user testing you realize you have to substantially rebuild your prototype. Clearly, the first method will get you a better and faster outcome, so why doesn’t it happen all the time?  

Rapid Prototyping

A common misconception that designers have regarding prototyping is users can’t respond effectively to sketches and rough drawings. I would say they really can. In fact, design research has shown that discussing early concepts with open ended designs (e.g., more abstract shapes) increased the open flow of ideas and can lead to users putting forth more thoughts of their own. It also limits the conversation to the bigger picture around the concept because that is what is represented in rough sketches, and that is totally appropriate at the beginning of a design process. It’s more productive to show very rough sketches at the beginning of any project.

A designer may feel that showing rough sketches is unprofessional because they are capable of making polished images. Don’t let slickness trump substance, or let your pride get in the way of true productivity. A sophisticated prototyping tool can make you feel like you will design something good with it, but it’s a myth that a fancy tool gets you a better design. Using the right tool for the task is important, but not because it appears to be professional.

When I’m starting a design, the first thing I reach for is pen and paper or a white board. Sketching out designs quickly with abstract shapes is step one. No fancy tools are needed initially. After pen and paper investigations, I will move to a computer tool with simple drawing capability, such as PowerPoint, Google Docs, Illustrator or Photoshop. Only later will I move to a more sophisticated prototyping tool if needed.

Frequent Iterations

If I hear a designer say, “we will need to go with my first concept; we don’t have time to iterate on the design,” I think, “big mistake.” Usually they pay for it later in change requests when it is truly time consuming to change things. Or the design just isn’t as successful as the designer or customer had hoped, but it can be blamed on the tight schedule. A better solution is find ways to express designs quicker (e.g., light weight, rapid prototypes).

The more lightweight the prototypes are, the easier it is to update them or toss them out and start again, and this makes iteration possible. Iteration is how you refine an idea, concept or design. The more iterations, the better the end result. Why would anyone discourage iterating? Unfortunately iteration has gotten a bad rep as a time waster. Nothing is farther from the truth. Iteration is a fundamental part of developing a solid design.

User/Customer Feedback

Sometimes designers try to limit the amount of user/customer feedback during a design process, suggesting that it derails the design process and wastes time. I agree that meetings eat time and deadlines and budgets are real, but something is seriously amiss with that attitude. Your empathies should be deeply focused on your user or customer. If you are designing for yourself, you aren’t really doing your job.

Gaining quick user or customer feedback is the best; use it early, use it frequently. Later and after the fact, feedback is more costly for a project overall, for the obvious reason that work has been done already that will need to be changed. Rapid prototyping makes it possible to show designs quickly and incorporate those changes fast, avoiding costly changes down the road.

Companies that have a lot of empathy for their users/customers tend to design better products. By employing flexible, appropriate design prototyping practices that include frequent iterations, a UX design team can be both good and fast.