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  • February 21, 2013

One Size Fits None

Who doesn’t love to talk about process? Every week, it seems, someone has discovered “the new way to work that everyone should be doing.” While I love a healthy process debate, I find discussions that promote a one-size-fits-all design approach problematic. Decorative Illustration

They tend to minimize all of the nuanced decisions we make and oversimplify our complicated jobs. They also don’t take into account that each project is vastly different, and that our clients have distinct processes of their own to which we must adapt. Just because a specific technique may work for one expert, doesn’t mean that it will work for you and your clients.

I would switch the discussion from finding the “perfect” process to creating a strategy that helps us find the right tools for the right job.

We need to create processes that are flexible and built to adapt.

A Flexible Process

To me, a good process:

  • Works for me, my teammates, and the client team. It’s tailored to the problems I’m solving.
  • Is built from a collection of interchangeable parts. These parts can be tangible artifacts, like prototypes, style tiles, mood boards, and full-page comps. They can also be the tools we use to create these artifacts, like Photoshop, HTML prototypes, and paper sketches. Communication methods like phone calls, Basecamp messages, and in-person meetings are even part of the arsenal, because how we talk about our work is just as important as the work itself.
  • Is adaptable. If an artifact isn’t resonating, it should be painless to adjust or switch it out for one that works better for the task at hand.

There’s a fair amount of trial and error that comes with finding the right combination of tools to use. The following are some questions I ask myself that define not only WHAT I design, but HOW I design.

Project Questions

How well-developed is the client’s brand?

If the client has a well-established brand, chances are, a mood board is going to be a waste of time, because the surface-level details have already been defined. Translating well-established brands to the web requires context that mood boards don’t provide. However, if the brand is new, a mood board or style tile can provide quick confirmation on style without wasting a lot of project hours.

How condensed is the timeline? What is the scope of the design work?

For large sites with many templates and content types, I like to start with gray boxes, because they quickly allow me to map out the range of what I need to create. For a smaller site with a tighter timeline, I may jump into defining styles after some pencil sketches.

What is the extent of our engagement with the client?

If Happy Cog is doing a full CMS build, I have more flexibility in my design artifacts. I may design fewer comps and spend more time creating flexible modules—then work with the development team to implement those modules.

Client Questions

Does the client have any internal processes in place that I should adapt to?

If we can tailor our work processes to better align with those of our clients, we’ll be able to save time implementing and create systems—together—that will last after our engagement is over.

What will the feedback cycle be like?

If the client stakeholder team is large and needs several weeks to provide feedback, I’ll design and present work in larger chunks. If I’m working with a smaller client team and have a shorter feedback cycle, then working in smaller, faster pieces makes more sense. Quick projects, especially, benefit from iterating rapidly on small parts.

How does the client like to communicate?

Going back and forth in a Basecamp message is going to waste time if the client prefers to talk things over on the phone. Understanding the best method of communication for each deliverable saves me hours and saves the project money.

Is there a member of the client team that I can work with directly?

I wrote about this a few months ago, but getting quick confirmation on a rough sketch or concept from a client liaison saves a ton of hours and limits false starts.

Above all, designers need to be nimble. We need to improvise and adjust as we go along. If our process comprises an assortment of exercises and techniques, we can replace parts as they become antiquated or misaligned with a particular project without needing to overhaul everything. A flexible process, therefore, makes it easier to adapt to new technologies and industries. No more designing for mobile, designing for higher education, designing for luxury, and so on. At the end of the day, it’s all design. It’s all problem solving.

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