Ever tried to use the subway?
The New York subway system is a good analogy for my design process. With significant thought, luck, mistakes, experiments and some patience for the mentally unstable subway patrons (aka clients/users) you can get to where you’re going.
No trip can happen without proper research first. This step is the most important, even beyond deliverables. While it is possible to reach a conclusion without research, it won’t make any sense. You'll probably end up in Jersey.
It begins with an exhaustive series of questions and studies of human behavior to get at the most compelling needs for the subway riders.
Now, in order to have a truly effective implementation, as a designer one must understand the user’s perspective AND the stakeholder’s perspective. If there are discrepancies between the two, those need to be addressed and reconciled before any meaningful work can take place. Otherwise you might as well throw your wireframes in the garbage next to your fancy design degree. This is a comic strip that demonstrates the distance between client needs to user needs expertly:
No one teaches you this, but managing expectations is one of the more important skills you can have as a designer, and probably as a human in general.
This is where your perfect world exists. In a perfect world the subway picks you up from your front door at the exact time you need it and takes you on a scenic, ocean view trip that takes you to your destination without making any other stops. Oh and there are caramel-lattes provided on the train. Also you’re sitting next to Brad Pitt or Rachel McAdams (I’m told that men find her exquisite.) Also everything is free.
This part may sound silly, but imagining the perfect scenario with no limitations can help inform design and can give you clues on how to make the experience a better one.
This is where you create mental and physical maps that will inform how the system is structured for ease in use. This should include a lot of information architecture planning, hierarchy and navigational considerations, a practical flow or walk-thru process that the user takes to get their destination. Ugly wireframes are far more useful than any Photoshop composition.
From here you need to decide on the type of interface you’re using:
For our subway example we might need to examine task-based interfaces, like a dashboard or a wizard, or an advanced search interface. The most important thing to remember about the subway (or any website or application) is that it is essential that the user know their location and how to proceed next.
By now our design is starting to take shape. What does the inside of the subway car look like? What will our map look like to inform users where to go? What colors can we use to follow function? Have we appropriately styled primary and secondary action buttons?
Go nuts! Rationality is for engineers and developers duh.
Just kidding. If you can't make a coded prototype, or you don't have the time, there are plenty of programs you can use that can give a realistic experience of an application before you release your product into the wild.
Usually I design with a given framework in mind (limitations of html/css or something like bootstrap) so it will save me time when it comes down to coding.
So now you have a semi-working model for how you expect the system to work. Go through the process of what you think your users will do. Better yet, test some folks who have never ridden the subway (or used your application) and see if it makes sense to them.
Don’t have a budget for or time for testing? Stakeholders don't see the point in usability studies? Hopefully that is not the case. If it is, grab some co-workers, grab some student workers, grab your boyfriend, grab your parents, grab your children, grab your dog and see how they manage the subway.
Don’t understand how a metro-card works? Not sure where the train is going? Turned off by subway rats that match the size and ferocity of honey badgers? These are helpful insights that you can discover when you ask other people that the designer might not notice.
No design is perfect. This is the time to re-evaluate your system. Change positions and styling of links, eliminate extraneous elements and content. Make sure things are semantic in the visual and coded hierarchy. Follow best cognitive and visual practices for user experience design. Does this system leverage the inherent strengths of the platform, and expectations of the user?
I could spend forever on this step, but at some point you have to deem your design “good-enough” and release it into the wild. I like to make sure that I am set up to allow for future changes and tweaks, because you can always anticipate that down the road, er track I mean.
After all the hard part is not reaching Flatbush Ave, Brooklyn, it is planning your route to get there.