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Rapid product design

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I’m a pretty slow person; physically slow, that is. I like to move slowly; walk slowly, do things slowly. What’s the point of rushing through life anyway? I mean, don’t get me wrong, I can do things quickly — I just choose not to. You can think of me as some kind of sloth (I also love sleeping, though I don’t get to do a lot of that these days, courtesy of my children!).

Me, looking at you.

When it comes do my job as a designer though, (I’ve been told) I’m pretty quick, which, as it happens, is quite handy at ELSE. Amongst other great things, we do a lot of accelerator projects, where in a short amount of time, we come up with solutions to our clients’ design problems.

The rules of the game are ‘simple’: we have a limited amount of time — usually 4 weeks — to come up with a solution to a specific design problem that our client is trying to solve. Go!

Well hello, Mr. Design Thinking!

A lot has been said about design thinking. From the best thing since sliced bread to awful, you name it and everyone in our industry has (rightly so) an opinion about it. I’m not set to give an opinion about it but, so far, it’s worked nicely for me.

Why has it work for me? Simply put, it’s logical. It allows me to start from a problem and build up on it in a logical way so that in a short period of time I can reach a valuable outcome. Could I use other methods and reach the same outcome? Yes, of course. At the end of the day, it’s just a toolkit, like any other. What matters is what you do with it.

The A-Team

“I Pity the fool!”

Just like picking the right tools is important, so it is picking the right team. And when it comes to quickly and effectively reaching a positive outcome, less tends to be more. A small, tactical team, made up of people with the right skills for the job will achieve better results than a larger team (even if they’re all really, reallyreally good).

Too many cooks spoil the broth — the limited amount of time available for these projects requires quick decisions and having too many people involved dramatically slows down the decision-making process. ‘But when it comes to production, more people will get the job done quicker!’ — Yeah, I hear you, but, more people doing the production also means more time managing their work (have I mentioned that time is limited?). It’s all about manageability.

All You Need is Empathy, na-na-na-na-naaaa ????

Say what you will about design thinking but empathising with the subject and the people you’re about to design for, seems like a no-brainer to me.

It’s important to understand your client’s business. Not only what they do, but how they do it, where are they coming from, what is their goal, their mission. How do they operate? What do they want people to feel? Go to their offices; see what it’s like to work for that company. The more you can absorb, the better.

Likewise, who are their customers (the potential users of the product you’ll be designing)? Understand their motivations, their needs, their goals. Act like them, become one of them for a few hours, for a day, for as long as you can afford to do so. In the words of the almighty Bruce Lee:

“Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. […] Be water, my friend.”

Ideas Galore

So, you understand the problem. You understand the context. You understand the goals. You understand the users. You are the users. Time to get your creative hat on.

Get the whole team together and generate ideas — lots of ideas. Don’t worry whether they’re right or not. Just get them on paper. This is about quantity, not quality.

Explore any ideas that pop into your mind — let one idea lead you to the next and see where you’ll end up. If an idea doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, park it for a while; come back to it later. Just don’t leave any unexplored ideas behind.

Sketch them out, write them down — get those ideas in paper.

Wheat to The Left, Chaff to The Right

Now that you have more ideas than you can shake a stick at, make sense of them. You’ve diverged; now, converge. Based on your knowledge of the business, the problem and the users, understand which ideas will work best to solve the problem and how they might work together to form a coherent and valuable experience.

Consider feasibility too — would anything need to change at your client’s organisation for these ideas to work out? And if so, are they capable and willing to make these changes? What is their vision for the project?

Being able to make quick decisions is key at this point and having a clear vision of what you’re aiming to achieve (informed by the knowledge you previously acquired) will help you in this task.

Bringing it to Life

By now, a couple of weeks of the 4-week allocation have passed. Now, my favourite part kicks in — it’s time to bring ideas to life.

At this point, in a ‘normal’ project, we would go on to creating user journeys, wireframes, and whatever other artefacts we would deem valuable to help bring our product to life. Given our timeframe though, we can’t afford to do that. We need to dive straight into design.

To make up for the fact that we’re not having time to create all those useful artefacts, we tend to use a very simple, yet effective technique. We go straight in to our weapon of choice, Figma, and we create a ‘straw man’ version of our user journey(s). We set up one artboard per step and just add the title of the step to each artboard — this could be the action taken by the user at that point or a descriptive name.

Next, we add a bit more information to each step: the elements that will be needed in order for the user to complete that step and the main CTA for it.

What we end up with, is what I like to call a ‘text wireframe. The usefulness of this is that it allows us to, very quickly, have an overarching view of our product, the journey(s) we need to develop and the screens and elements that need to be designed, all without the need to create several other artefacts, that take a lot longer to create.

‘Text wireframes’ part of one of the straw man journeys created for the Future Cities Catapult project.

With our text wireframe in hand, we can now think about how our product is going to look. Given that we don’t have time to explore different routes, we need to rely on our gut feel (read ‘experience’) and work fast — you only have one shot at this.

First things first

  • Make sure all assets that could be needed and exist are available (they should have been requested right at the start of the project!). Fonts, logos, brand guidelines, iconography, imagery, etc.
  • Start with the basics. Defining type scales, grids, colour schemes (if they don’t exist yet) and doing a quick exploration into basic elements, like CTAs and any other character-defining UI elements (these will vary, depending on the project).

With these things in hand, we’re ready to start evolving our text wireframes into polished designs.

Two things are essential at this stage:

  • Be organised — file naming and versioning, layer naming and organisation should all be spotless. You can’t get somewhere fast if you can’t find your way around.
  • Have a clear design direction in your head. Whether you’re the one setting that direction or you’re working with a creative or design director, it is very important to know where you should be going.

Prototyping

We have our designs. They look absolutely award-winning-stunning-gorgeous. And we still have a few days left in the budget. Time to get prototyping.

The first question to ask at this stage is: what kind of prototype do you want to build? There are many prototyping tools out there and they are all better suited for different types of prototypes. So, make sure you know the tools and you know the goal of the prototype.

Next, define what needs to be prototyped. Again, this will be based on the ultimate goal of the prototype. It could be the flow of users through the product, it could be just micro-interactions and animations, it could be everything in between. The important thing is to make sure this is defined before you start.

4 Weeks And… Done.

“It’s alive!” — Well, in a prototype format… | Photo by freestocks on Unsplash

That’s it. The team worked fast, and efficiently. Four intense weeks of the purest design work and voilà, a prototype that can be used to test the product.

I really enjoy these kinds of projects. They’re fun, fast-paced and never, ever boring. And once they’re done, I can go back to being a sloth.

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