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Design is never done


By Steve Gustavson | executive creative director

January 22, 2018 | 7 min read

It’s time to rethink the way design is done.

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For most of us working in digital, the days of handcrafting meticulous, artisanal work are over. Creating digital experiences now requires modular design and rapid iteration to deal with the increasing pressure of delivering more assets, faster than ever. Each new experience requires flexible, personalized, customer-informed content, and it all has to evolve as new input and data are added over time. It’s become a never-ending cycle.

So, what are the implications?

A new design reality

Customer expectations are changing more rapidly than ever before, so the long-lead approach of the traditional planning cycle is no longer effective. There’s a new reality designers have to confront —building digital experiences never really ends.

When creating digital experiences, it’s more effective to approach design iteratively — release, test, improve and repeat continuously. It’s a truth that’s been understood in disciplines like human factors and Agile software development for many years.

Jakob Nielsen was a human factors pioneer in the early days of the Internet. In 1993, he found that iterative design combined with user testing improved UI usability an average of 165% from beginning to end, and that the median improvement per iteration was 38%. It’s time to apply these same lessons to the way we develop the total digital experience — whether in design, marketing or product development.

Of course, it’s challenging psychologically. We’ve been conditioned to find satisfaction in completion — a job well done with a beginning and an end. Instead, successful designers of digital experiences will learn to find joy in the process, in improvement, in evolution and in experimentation. Successful stakeholders will learn to measure customer satisfaction and engagement rather than the completion of objectives on a calendar.

Designing with data and continuous input

When designing a new experience, a good designer will start with a sense of empathy for the user’s goals, and fuel their designs with a hunger for customer insights. In a recent Adobe study on the state of creativity in business, more than half of the designers we surveyed told us that 75% of their creative work is informed by data.

The best designs will be crafted with the intention of creating and adapting to customer data in real-time. By their nature, digital experiences generate a tremendous amount of data. But too often, translating it into something meaningful is incredibly difficult. Designers and stakeholders need to collaborate during the development phase to ensure the desired data is generated and captured in a way that can be shared and evaluated — and that the design can evolve in response.

The team at Slack is a great example. Its app for team communication is widely used across different industries and team cultures, from academia, to media, to software development. Slack’s success has emerged out of a design-led culture that emphasizes feedback and iteration.

When Slack needed to add voice calls to the app, it designed and released the feature internally, slowly rolling it out in-house and then to an external beta — collecting feedback, data and making iterative improvements along the way — before making the feature available to the public.

Unprecedented access to feedback from users with an intimate knowledge of the product helps the Slack design process mirror the open communication the company was created to foster. At Slack, usability testing is not a separate item in the design process. Instead, this testing is ongoing thanks to its massive internal user base.

Of course, it’s not enough to iterate. It’s also critical to think in terms of scale and modularity. Global brands need to be able to reach and develop relationships with millions of individual customers. Operating at that kind of scale requires the intelligent delivery of thousands of unique creative assets delivered at the right time, in the right way, on the right device. Designers and digital strategists tasked with these sorts of challenges need to think big — and understand how intelligent technologies like machine learning can be used to remix and deliver millions of iterations of assets and experiences.

Fortunately, there are design methodologies and disciplines that offer inspiration. Circular design is a great example. Originally developed by IDEO and the Ellen MacArthur foundation, it details the practice of designing for a closed-looped ecosystem. Although it was created with an eye for environmental sustainability, it’s ideas are particularly useful in the digital world where design and customer data are in a near-infinite loop.

Making room for creativity

You may be wondering, with all the talk of data, scale, modularity and workflow — is there still room for creativity?

The answer is a resounding “yes!” But we need to rethink, from the ground up, the technologies, data, and tools at our disposal, and how we can use them to enhance creativity, increase design efficiency, and improve workflow across teams.

Just look at the way Starbucks has reinvented the relationship between the app and the in-store experience. Like many apps, it’s a way to put a personalized brand experience in every customer’s pocket. But Starbucks has done so much more. Its app is seamlessly integrated with its point-of-sale and payment system to provide new capabilities like order-ahead. Baristas also have access to tools to help them recognize customers with personalized experiences in-store, and they’re even using the app on the back-end of the business to help manage inventory and planning. Starbucks is not simply a coffee company with an app. It’s creatively embraced digital technology at every level of the business to revolutionize and iterate the coffee shop experience hand-in-hand with its app.

Ariticial intelligence (AI) is another area that promises to liberate designers from much of the mundane, repetitive work that goes into working with assets at scale today. Further into the future, it’s not hard to imagine a time when artificial assistants become reliable creative partners, observing the way creative people work with their software, making helpful suggestions, or performing routine tasks — because no one wants to spend hours on something that could be done in minutes.

Designers and their stakeholders need to apply creativity with the efficiency and scale required to deliver amazing digital experiences in order to succeed. In this new design reality, a designer’s work is never done.

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