Design Process – A comprehensive beginners guide to Design Thinking

A few months ago I shared a behind the scenes article on a freelance project I did from enquiry to delivery. It struck a chord with a lot of you – so today I am going to follow it up with another comprehensive behind the scenes walkthrough. I will touch on and tackle all the common questions that I get asked about into this comprehensive guide. I hope it can help you on your journey as a designer, so you can reach your fullest potential and allow you to do your best work. I want to help you become a creative leader and maker of tomorrow. So please strap on your seatbelt, grab your favourite beverage because it’s going to be a long ride.

The focus of this guide will take a look at the Design Thinking process. A framework utilised and popularised by acclaimed design firm IDEO. Which can be used to solve a myriad of different challenges across many mediums from digital product design to industrial design to service design. The same process that helped Airbnb go from failing startup to a billion dollar darling. There are a lot of variations, spin offs and zombie cousins of this process that carry different names. Google has Design Sprints and IBM has their version. But at each of their cores, they touch on a lot of the same ideologies. Make things with a focus on being human-centered, prototype alot (who doesn’t like to make things?), test and iterate. And this goes on continuously, until we can no longer refine further. 

So before we continue let’s travel back a few years – to when the internet was a different time and place. Facebook had less users than Myspace and Youtube was a smaller site than Dailymotion, and Flash microsites were king. When I was still a young padawan designer, still trying to find my feet. 

THE BACKSTORY

For the first few years of my career, all I cared about was designing work that looked cool. Work that could impress other designers. Users? Who the hell are users? We know what works and we’re going to make stuff that wins awards. I designed under the guidance of my mentors and had no idea about the full design process. Happy to just be in my little silo, vanish in my lair and try to design something cool. I would only dare show another soul 3 days later when I thought it was ready. We did a lot of work based on intuition in those early years. Follow the tide of what trends were ‘HOT’ in the space and try to one up that and impress other designers and our clients. Without direct thought or intention of solving the end user problems and adjusting to their needs. Don’t get me wrong – there was overlap. People still could use what we were launching. And sometimes we think they liked it. (We don’t know because we didn’t research, test nor validate any of it) We followed popular design patterns and paradigms, so there was logic to what we did. But the intent of trying to understand the people we were designing for was not a priority. But merely a byproduct.  

And business goals. What the hell? This isn’t wall street bro. Business goals to me may as well have been an alien concept from outer space. I knew my Creative Director, Art Director and MD had a strategy/direction for the projects. But I wasn’t in on the process or vision.  I just focused on what was staring in front of me. The type, the colours, the layout and the code. There was no higher goal other than to make something look nice. I would try to impress the client with something that looked good. Solving their problem was something secondary, it wasn’t my responsibility so I didn’t pay it no mind. Something that was more the domain of the sales or marketing team. 

Over time though I got to sit in enough meetings and understand a bit more about precisely what the function of our work was for. What is it meant to do? What are its goals? Is it to build brand awareness? Or to help at risk young people with mental health? Or the good old to boost a company's revenue targets? Goals matter because intention+execution leads to outcomes. 

When you work on small projects/microsites you can get away with no set processes. You can design with just your intuition and follow common design patterns. Most of the time it’ll work. But the difference between functional vs. “holy shit that was great I need to tell someone about this it was that good!!!” feeling from the user is achieved not through luck. But an iterative process.

Moving beyond solo 1 to 2 people projects. When you have a team working on a project how do you ensure everyone is on the same page and moving in the same direction with the same intent? Remember intention and execution leads to outcomes. It is important to collaborate and maximise the expertise of each department – marketing, engineering and design. A skilled designer will be able to understand and speak the language/needs of each department. To be able to put all the dots together and to be able to put abstract ideas into solutions. To allow innovation to thrive and make end users do this  :)   <----  that’s a happy user. We need to have intention and a vision for where we are going. A north star.

I only understood and focused on a very small window of the design process in my early years. And that’s why I wasn’t a great or valuable designer. 

Mental note: You may be in a similar spot to where I was. Still trying to find your feet and that’s ok, everyone has their own journey. I will show you a design process that the best in the business use. If you are starting out and don’t have mentors or experience working at a great place in the industry. You’re in luck because this is for you.

I’m not going to bullshit you, I wasn’t always huge on processes. It was always just a selling point that you put in slides during your pitch proposal. A series of checklists that you tick off at each stage for the sake of it. As a matter of fact I am still conscious of that sometimes. Processes if done right, is the opportunity for you to do your best work and not to limit it. The frameworks is not there to add unnecessary complexity to the work, but to uncover new truths, to be able to make, experiment and test a lot of different things. 

Tip: Processes are great. But the moment you let them paralyse you into unnecessary checklist work, you’ve fallen into the bullshit trap. I'm looking at you extensive wireframing! And 100 page user personas. More on that in a bit. This is what a lot of agencies do and I think it’s bullshit. The churn and burn mentality.  You’ve wasted your time doing something that is billable vs. trying to make something truly better for the user. 

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DESIGN THINKING THE BASICS

So let’s dip our toes in the water and start with the basics. With some of the textbook stuff. What is design thinking exactly?

“Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology and the requirements for business success.”

TIM BROWN, CEO IDEO

 

It’s a cool quote but a bit of a mouthful. So let’s simplify it – there are 3 main pillars to design thinking.

1.  Numero uno is our users. Be empathetic and have a human-centered approach, really get to understand our users.  We need to gain insight into their motivations, their needs, their goals and their pain points. In order to design a great solution we need to understand the people that we are designing for. What do people want and need. How will it positively affect them? What do they say and feel? What do they do and use? What are their hopes, dreams, motivations vs. their fears, pain points and reservations. I used to think this was hokey–bullshit but through the successes of many projects over the years that focused on users I’m a big advocate now. 

The ability to emotionally connect and deliver on an experience that “makes users not want to punch us in the face”. That’s our first goal. The second goal is to make them want to “give us a hug” because the experience we helped design solved a real problem that either brought joy to the user or a lack of frustration. To design beyond basic function and needs, to something that is delightful and even meaningful. This emotional response builds brand equity over time. Nike make shoes – something that you put on your feet. Pieces of rubber and various bits of fabric and plastic, bonded together to create a protective layer for our feet. And yet – for many we don’t think of Nike this way. Nike shoes can make someone feel like they can fly. Can fill someone with confidence. Can make them feel like they belong. These are the benefits, the emotions beyond just utility. Understanding people first allows us to achieve this, with digital product design. 

2. Is business outcomes. Why should clients pay us good money to do what we do. There needs to be viability in the solutions we create. What outcomes do these businesses want achieved? How can these be met and aligned with users best interests? Make money is a companies goals, but how can we do this ethically and still provide a ton of value for the user? etc.

3. Is technology. How can we leverage the capabilities of technology to facilitate a solution that delivers on user objectives and business outcomes? Chatbots, AI, VR, mobiles, websites, apps all the buzzwordy good stuff. What’s relevant and can best help us solve and meet the objectives of the 2 above pillars? 

At the intersection of these 3 pillars is design innovation. That’s where we want to get to. 


So that is the high level ideology. Next is the actual stages of design thinking. So this is the framework which will be our creative sandbox and guide. It’s not rocket science, but if you do it right with an open mind, have the timeline to uncover truths, and make a lot of things that’s when magic happens. These are the 5 stages it goes through. 

1. Discover /  Empathise

2. Interpret / Define

3. Ideate

4. Prototype

5. Test

Note: Like I’ve mentioned in the past, this is not a linear process. We don’t do this and then this and then this. There’s a continual iterative loop that occurs and exists within each phase/sprint. What I love about this process is you just keep making, prototyping, testing in an iterative loop. Going from 1-5. Then back to 3-5. Then back to 1-5. You get the idea. Allowing you to ‘fail fast’ and gauge and track what is working and what isn’t. There are a lot of applications and nuances. 

Here’s where I’m going to pause for a moment. There’s a lot of this stuff out there which are awesome resources. So rather than me reinvent the wheel and go step by step with how to’s on the theory, there’s this video by IBM which you can watch to help you grasp the concept even further. 

And if you want to understand how to implement Design Thinking as a facilitator or sprint master. Refer Google Design Sprints, you can’t beat this doc. This is your how to guide and a near identical framework that I use for large scale collaborative projects. Google Design Sprints.

Pause: Feel free to watch/read these first.

Cool you back?

The best way to learn and to internalise things is simply through doing. That’s the best way. You can read all you want about skydiving, but until you jump out of that plane, heart pounding a million miles an hour with the wind smashing your face, you won’t truly know what it’s like to skydive. In my opinion practicing design is no different. We all know roughly what we should be doing and we can learn all the theory we want. But until we actually do and implement the concepts we won’t truly understand the hidden truths within.

Tip: Make sure to take action. Try some of the techniques and concepts here when you’ve finished reading. Climbing everest starts with a single step. To become a better designer you need to take those first steps. You might fall at first but you’ll learn and eventually find your footing.  

The next best way to learn is to find someone who has done it and learn from them. Someone who has done it countless times and has done what you want to do, they can help navigate and show you the way. *Looks around* Since it’s my journal I will to step you through how I would do things and share some of my experiences.

Not a how-to textbook example, but on a real project. I wanted to implement the same processes I used for large scale clients, and all the findings I’d discovered over the years to my own project. Design Thinking delivers results through iterative creation and testing, with a focus on feedback loops from users. And how we can make it better for them. But rather than me fumble around  with more of my below par writing. I’ll leave it to someone better.  It’s summed up wonderfully by Director of Design Thinking at Capital One Labs, Evelyn Huang. 

“This human-centered methodology, coupled with a ‘fail fast’ attitude, allows us to quickly identify, build, and test our way to success. We spend less time planning, more time doing, and, above all else, challenge ourselves to see the world through the eyes of our customers every step of the way”

EVELYN HUANG

 

 

CASE STUDY – PROCESS MASTERCLASS

Here I will step you through a Case Study of how the Process Masterclass used the Design Thinking framework. Which allowed me to launch a side project that ended up generating ~$60k in revenue within the first few months. With a key focus on continually improving the content and experience for students. To humanise processes as much as possible. I will also offer tips that can be used for collaborative and larger scale team projects. This has been written in a linear format but the Design Thinking Process is not linear and goes back and forth in continuous iterations. There are a lot of convergent and divergent phases. Essentially what that means is when we are diverging < we are going to explore as many options as possible. We are collecting seemingly disparate bits of data. When we converging > is when we narrow down those various data points/ideas into a defined strategic vision or a set prototypes of the best ideas. It probably sounds more complicated than it is. 

“Good ideas come from bad ideas, but only if there are enough of them.”

SETH GODIN

 

The idea is to give us permission to fail. Create a volume of different ideas that we can iteratively test, giving us live feedback from users, and permission to innovate and think outside the norm. Make a lot of prototypes and test things! My idea of fun. 

 

1. Discover / Empathise

The first step is to discover and empathise. This is where we try to understand the parameters of our project. Relating back to the 3 pillars. What are the user needs, business objectives and technology capabilities? This is the holy trinity which will become the bedrock of our decision making. This process is where we are looking for as much data as possible. Which we will use to interpret and define a vision and key strategy in phase 2. 

Tip: Define these 3 pillars through constructing a thorough briefing sessions/workshops/meetings with the client and key stakeholders. Take a look at existing data, analytics, what competitors are doing and any existing websites, apps, experiences that can aid in the project. And the other external factors, timelines, budget, assets, brand guides etc.

When I started the Process Masterclass I started with the why? What was the purpose of the Process Masterclass? (Then codenamed side project X) I had been freelancing and wanted to launch something that involved my passions as a side project. It needed to meet the following criteria.  

1. Be about and involve design

2. Teach and help people

3. Allow me to make a lot of interesting stuff

4. Make money using a different model. A 1 to many model

5. Learn and stretch my own comfort zone

They were my business objectives if you will.

 

After thinking about options – I converged with a few product ideas. 

1. Create an ebook

2. Create a UI Kit

3. Create a course

4. Create a theme

5. Find existing design channels to teach on.

 

In the end I knuckled down on creating a UI Kit that could be coupled with a course. And then I ditched the UI Kit idea all together and went all in with the course. Based on user observation, feedback, data and my own intuition I mapped out a  rough course outline. I wanted to have a comprehensive course that merged business skills, design thinking and creating beautiful design work that was valuable. Skills that could help one evolve into a creative leader and also charge more for their work. And have the skills to work on peoples dream projects or get hired at peoples dream companies. But I needed to validate the structure. So I used some customer immersion tools to uncover more insight about the users I am servicing. It is very important to be user-centric every step of the way. Don’t think about what you want – think about how you can help your users. To be able to walk a mile in their shoes if you will. And to provide value based on those findings. To succeed is to help and to give, and naturally people will reciprocate. I try my best to go above and beyond.

Tip: When you work in a team, it’s important that all parties involved truly care and believe in the vision. From the client/stakeholders, to the engineers to all the designers involved in the product. 

 

User insight tools

These are some simple and great tools that you can use in your own design process to gain user insight. I used each of these tools to learn more about the user to understand how I could reach and service them better. 

Surveys – I conducted surveys from people who had signed up via the Process Masterclass landing page. I received hundreds of responses via typeform (from a list of a few thousand), which I received from my mailchimp list which was invaluable. I picked up qualitative data. With the following information.

1. What do you hope to learn from the class?

This information helped me adjust and iterate on my course outline to provide a more relevant selection of lessons for users.

2. After completing the course what do you hope to achieve?

This information helped me adjust and iterate on my course outline to provide the desired outcomes that users wanted. It’s important to save and keep the responses to exactly how users have phrased the responses. Relevant findings can later go into your design vision doc. 

“ I would just like to be more confident in my design decisions. Especially when it comes to font-pairings and typography stuff..”

Present high level ideas to clients comfortably completely pin points what I'd like to be able to do after passing this course”

The ability to feel comfortable charging for the service.

Only to improve myself, my skills and thinking. It will be valuable for every potential job or project I'm sure. :)

“I want to take my work to the next level; I want that senior position. I also want be able to confidently say whether or not the right decisions are being made during projects.”

“I want to make cooler stuff. Work that I can be proud of and that the people who I make it for can be proud of. That includes the client as well as the people who use it.”

And so on. What this allows us to do is speak the users language to deliver on outcomes that students wanted. These are the pain points and aspirations that my users had. My job is to deliver on these outcomes. Keeping your promise, and delivering on your users objectives is important to a great user experience. 

3. What made you sign up for this course?

This is important so I can understand what channels are working. What are the driving factors that would make someone interested in taking my course? 

Tip: A great question for your own project. Why do you use XYZ? 

The responses were:

“I like your work and you inspire me everyday”

“Love your work! Been following for sometime now, on verse and dribbble.”

“I want to learn more from someone who have a lot of experience on this field”

“I like your work and think you have all the experience and advice that can help me”

“I love your work and follow your blog and think you'd put together a pretty rad course. Your case studies have also been really great.”

“I really enjoy your work and the eye you have for tasteful simplicity. Your use of Typography is always eye-catching and it is great to see a mix between functionality and visuals.”

From this subset of responses I can see what the motivating factors are for users to want to take the course. To these users my work is important, sharing knowledge is important and experience is important. Along with the main channels dribbble and Verse. If I need to do marketing activities focus on these channels and factors. 

4. Have you bought an online course before? Or paid to go to a conference?

This gauges the likelihood of someone buying and their willingness to invest in their own growth. I haven’t gotten around to cross checking the data on this, and if theres a correlation to signups vs. past purchases. But I may check it out one day. 

Tip: When conducting survey questions have a purpose to each of the questions you are asking and truths you hope to learn or uncover. Whether they are pain points, aspirations or other opportunities. This is will aid with your design solutions. 

 

Analytics – Next I took note of the most popular posts on Verse to validate if there was an opportunity and a need for what I wrote about. The most popular posts were definitely sneak peeks to my design process and how to improve as a designer. This gave validation that there was an audience out there that was interested in the Design Process and improving.

Tip: You can use google analytics to uncover other truths of a project you working on. How many people are using mobile devices? Which pages are the most popular among visitors? What is the number one task that users are performing? What is the most common user flow? Are they inline with our business objectives? Why, why not? etc.

 

User types & Personas

Once we have enough bits of data about our users. We can map common findings into clusters and groups. This is when we can create personas. Each persona will have a slightly different set of values, motivations and detractors. It’s important to understand them and the different nuances to deliver the best experience possible to each of these users.  

Improving Midweight – (I will add the details in down the track)

Young guns – (I will add the details in down the track)

Transitioning Creatives – (I will add the details in down the track)

 

Secondary

Agency Directors – (I will add the details in down the track)

Startup founders –(I will add the details in down the track)

 

Customer Desire Map  Post it notes are your friend. Seriously. I used to be so anti post it notes – where I thought they were only for photos you put on your website. Like ‘look at me, I’m a designer and looking clever by posting things on to a wall!!’ No you fucking sham I thought.  I was happy just to think about things and jot them down in my notebook. I thought post it notes were all show and no substance, but now I’ve gone complete 180. I think they’re awesome. They’re great for communicating concepts to clients and other team members. Great for collaboration and discussions. But also for you to draw parallels and correlations that you may miss using purely the mental model. I setup a wall with some post it notes for my customer desire map. This actually occurred after launch, so we’re jumping a few iterative steps here but it makes sense to add it here as you can do this much sooner in the process for your own project. 

I have ugly handwriting I know ;) The pink post-it’s cover the top level categories, and the yellow post it notes cover specific points. Here’s what is currently mapped. 

1. Detractors – What are the main detractors from customers to getting the masterclass.

2. Pain points/Motivations – What would make customers motivated to take the course. (This relates back to the responses in the survey, what outcomes do users want?)

3. Customer types – I hypothesised of 3 main customer groups and 2 secondary ones. I then mapped a couple of real users to each quadrants to make sure they match personas I created. To validate if these were correct. And in the end the users who gained the most from the course matched the personas.

4. Customer hopes & dreams – How can I help and make the Process Masterclass help users reach their hopes and dreams. This is the highest level of achievement with the design. To be able to create a product that can deliver on this. This is something I am still iterating at this very point to help my students get there. 

5. Channels – These are the channels to which customers frequent.

Tip: Try using customer desire maps for you next project. Feel free to vary the variables to what is relevant to your project

 

Preorders – What people say vs. what people do. I actually conducted a series of tests. I selected a small subset from my email lists to offer the Process Masterclass to. I made it as paid preorders to see if there was enough motivation or demand for the course. And I was stoked that people who interested enough to invest their hard earned money into the Process Masterclass. In the end I received a lot of great feedback and some suggestions to make the class even better. I used this knowledge to keep testing and iterating until the full launch. I don’t like letting people down, to this day I am still trying to make the course even better and adding more value to those people that put their faith in me and invested in the Process Masterclass. 

Fun fact: The first subtle mention of my course to one of my email lists that had a few thousand subs resulted in expressions of interest for preorders from only 2 people. It was a disaster haha. And I was devastated. But I persevered and knew that there was more work to be done. The first official beta launch for preorders resulted in 50 students. So I kept iterating based on user feedback and persevered! In the end hundreds of students have registered and have benefited from the course.  

Next is to think about the technological capacity for delivering on these outcomes. After researching, and iterating this was the tech stack I ended up with. Mailchimp, Wordpress, RestrictContentPro, Semplice, Stripe and Intercom. 

2. Interpret / Define

Once we have all our disparate bits of data. It’s time to consolidate it all and converge into a clear vision. 

Tip: Collate all key bits of data and interpret and define it into a strategy and a clear design vision. Create a design vision document to share across the team. You can use keynote to compile some of your key findings into a coherent vision. It can cover the following. 

1. High level business objectives for the project

2. User personas – consolidated findings of the customer desire map

3. How we can fulfil the needs of users - through user insight tools, how do users think, say, do, feel etc. 

4. What are users objectives and most common user flows/tasks they want to perform

5. Technology stack (If relevant)

6. Summary of the overall design vision. 

“I will create a design course that can help designers increase their value. By offering a more comprehensive roadmap that covers, business, thinking, execution and all the skills required to become a more valuable designer. To help them get paid more, improve their skillet, do work they love and achieve their goals.”

You can view more overall visions and things you can include based on some of these startup pitch decks. https://attach.io/startup-pitch-decks/

7. High level deliverables and execution steps

And any other relevant bits of data that you think is relevant or contributes to a projects overall vision and goals. So everyone on the team shares the same vision and north star. 

Beyond the design vision this is where we can consolidate and define a thorough brief and set of deliverables with the client. Audit of the project/companies current positioning, goals and objectives (Can be smart goals – 10% increase in revenue for 4th quarter), design direction and competitors, users and design project plan.  

As well as creating user epics and user journeys for our users. 

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Phew there are 3 more phases.  Ideate, Prototype and Test.  But it’s getting late so I’m calling it a day for now. I will go back and add them in when I get a moment. Once again this was a monster to write and edit, so I apologise if it was a bit of a brain dump. Thanks for reading and I hope you learnt a few things.