Designing an Internal Design Process

You’re subscribed to the InVision blog, Magenta, and a half-dozen other publications that show up weekly in your inbox proclaiming the pure joy, innovation, and success of a UX design process. You read their advice, but something still doesn’t resonate. The topics seemed geared to a different type of organization than the one you work for.

What happens when you work for a company that does something a little bit different? Say you work for a government agency, or a business, or a consulting organization that isn’t agile and isn’t design first. How do you implement a design process that challenges your team to be creative, innovative, and produce comprehensive designs that put the user first?

I recently worked for a small content writing and editing shop that struggled to follow a design process. It was a group of smart, creative individuals that had many great ideas but few formal processes to test and iterate on their ideas. One of my major tasks was to document design methodologies and tools and formalize a design process for the organization.

Discover

Whether you’re a new employee, or simply starting a new project, approach the process with a fresh set of eyes. Start this project as you would any other design project, with a discovery phase.

I conducted formative interviews with different areas of the company including designdevelopment and content. I asked them questions about their work including:

How does the process currently work?
What has worked well in the past?
What has not worked well in the past?
How do you like to work?

Listen closely and take notes. If you’re looking to make a case to higher ups that you need to revamp or create your design process, you’ll need to provide the same type of evidence you would provide to a client after a discovery phase. Provide examples of projects where people felt successful or where they did not. Try to capture quotes that demonstrate the feeling of where the design process is and where it could go.

Document and Analyze

Write down all of your findings. Create a document for yourself where you track the current design phases, who wants or needs buy-in at each phase, what deliverables the company currently completes (internal and external) and where the gaps are. Highlight areas where you hear the same information from multiple sources and include any ideas that emerge during your conversation. I used a giant Excel sheet to keep track of all of my ideas and input from my interviewees.

Create Client Deliverables and Quickly Validate

Create a deliverable to share with the management team. Take your huge, messy findings from your discovery phase and deliver them in a clean, clear deliverable such as a concept map.

As you start documenting what you’ve learned in your discovery phase, continually share your findings with your interviewees. Especially if you’re new, they’ll be able to validate your work and may have additional ideas.

Customize

There are many good resources available and examples of design processes. I used UXPin’s The Guide to UX Design Process & Documentation and EightShapes Unify System (no longer posted online) as a starting point. But ultimately, you’re creating an internal product that works for your organization. You will have to spend some time thinking through your organization’s priorities and workflow.

In our case, the majority of projects had a huge emphasis on content creation and strategy. As we looked at external design processes, we realized that content is frequently left out of the process or left until the end. As a content-first shop, we needed to think critically about how our content process aligned with our design process.

Visualize

We’ve all seen something like this:

or this:

Both of these images visualize the abstract idea of the design process. What you’ll need at this stage is a highly personalizedconcrete view of your company’s ideal design process. Reflect your company’s priorities and values in your visual document.

I began with a linear visualization that looked something like this:

But quickly realized that I needed something that demonstrated the length of phases, how they overlap, and major deliverables at each phase. Ultimately, our visual looked something like this:

Empathize

As you work through the process, keep your user in the forefront of your mind. As I was designing our internal process, I kept thinking about a generic project manager who does not have a design background. What questions would they have? Where would they get stuck in the project. Where would they go to find answers? Framing the process in this way helped me define the methodologies and tools that would be most useful for them.

Provide Examples

The purpose of implementing a design process is to get every project and team moving in the same direction. As an organization, you want teams to implement projects in a consistent way and ensure that they’re doing their best possible work.

Don’t rely on institutional knowledge and the most senior team member digging through a shared drive to find examples. Spend 20–30 minutes with a senior staff member and make a list the projects and deliverables they continually refer back to. Unearth those gems from the shared folders and provide them to everyone in a well-organized, easily accessible place.

Iterate

Once you have your draft process bring it to each team for feedback. In our case, that included researchers, writers, developers and project managers. Use their comments and thoughts to iterate and refine your process. You’ll want your design approach to be truly user-centered so that everyone will support and use your newly implemented system.

Finalize

Let’s be realistic, you’ll never be quite done with this, but there will be a point where you to report back on your accomplishments. For me, I defined success as having a high level visual of the company’s design process, a checklist of which departments needed to sign off at various stages, a list of recommended deliverables including whether they were internal or external and an example of a use case, and a repository of good examples.

What I learned

  1. Get buy-in- This process is hard enough when someone at the top is asking for it. It’s nearly impossible if they’re not. Use your UX skills to make the case that it’s a worthwhile investment to spend time defining an internal design process.
  2. Keep it simple- No one wants a giant Excel sheet listing every possible UX tool and deliverable. Spend some time thinking about the context and specific challenges of your organization and provide the necessary tools in the easiest format to address those challenges.
  3. Get everyone involved and excited- Everyone likes to have their voice heard. Make this a true participatory process, and you’ll have the demand you need, at all levels, to make your internal design process a success.