Opening Up The Design Process

#Design | Posted

Think about the things you're emotionally invested in. Whether it's your love of a well crafted cup of coffee every morning (because you care about great coffee, not just because it's a caffeine source), the type of smartphone you own, or maybe dreaming of one day driving off in your own Tesla Modal S. Chances are you are invested because you have spent time or resources to learn about the "how" and "why" those things are created.

Many companies are starting to take advantage of this emotional investment. I'm seeing a trend in organizations both small and large producing videos showing the care they put into their products in order to emotionally engage their audience and encourage them to become invested in the quality of the product. Some of it is marketing sure, but I believe the majority of these companies truly do care about their craft and want to see others care too. I believe we're much more likely to appreciate and invest in something if we understand the amount of care and passion that was poured into it.
True understanding leads to greater appreciation.

I'm not sure why, but often vendors try to shield clients from the details of their design process. As a result, the client may feel disconnected to the work. It's understandable then that when a design artifact is finally revealed to the client, they fall back on personal preferences, want to adjust things to how some other site is doing it, or offer vague "will know it when I see it" feedback.

This isn't the clients fault, but our own as designers. I believe there's a lot of progress to be made in integrating clients into the design process to get them involved, and empowering them as investors in the final product. I've personally seen this this tactic lead to a higher quality of work in some of our own recent projects.

So how do we actually "open up" the design process?

Here are a few ideas:

1. Use a sequence of leading design artifacts to get client feedback, instead of waiting until you've arrived at a complete deliverable.

Deliverables in the form of wireframes, user stories, and even Style Tiles are becoming pretty common place, but I think we can get even more iterative in our reviewing process than that. I've been trying out technique's like Dan Mall's element collages and additional deliverables like style guides as other design touch point for client involvement, especially for some projects in which using Style Tiles or jumping straight to design comps weren't a good fit.

Think of it like a progressive dinner or a wine tasting, where the flavors start simple and accessible, but get more complex and unique as you go, leading to a better complete experience and greater appreciation for the final product.

2. Design in pieces instead of pages.

Even when using artifacts like Style Tiles, element collages, or style guides, we're tempted to jump right into designing entire pages at once.

The reality is, due to the nature of the web and for most of our projects, pages on the site won't always look the same, feature the same amount of content, or even feature the same types of content. This has led to some good discussion on designing systems, but I'd even encourage you to float pieces of these systems to clients while going through the "comp" stage. It could be as informal as a progress report on a stand-up call with the client or just a continual BaseCamp thread where you post screenshots of links to your work in progress. This gives the client insight into your thought process, offers opportunity for small iterative touch points for feedback, and helps you get feedback as you go.

3. Incorporate informal touch points.

In one of our current projects, we took the previous example and wanted to focus on design for a header that needed to be flexible across an entire platform of sites with varying content/color schemes. This isn't an easy design problem to solve, and while on-site with the client team, I figured it would be a great opportunity to get input form them on this specific section of the design.

It turned out to be one of the most productive parts of the trip. We quickly went through requirements and invited each member of the team to wireframe out a potential solution. We took the best ideas from each and arrived at the solution that I then used to create a prototype. Each member of the team was able to contribute ideas, thoughts, and invest themselves in this small (but important) piece of the website. This wasn't a session that was scheduled on a calendar or a line-item in the budget, but an opportunity I thought would be great for inclusive design input from the client.


Whether it be through an immersive tour, watching a "making of" video, or through a documentary, we've all experienced how getting to know how something is made and in particular how carefully things are made, has led to greater appreciation and personal investment in that product.

Mike Monteiro sums it up nicely in his book, Design is a Job (required reading):

"Mutual success is predicated on how we empathize with your client’s perspective and professionally explain your own. Annoyance is easy. Empathy is hard."

Don't be afraid of opening up and letting clients in on more of the design process. It helps them understand the complexity of design decisions, gets them invested in the solution, and in the end, I've seen it lead to more effective final solutions.  Check out the design process of my most iterative projects and most challenging client: The Phase2 Redesign.

Dave Ruse