How adopting design-led development can help you meet your users’ needs faster and more effectively

It seems hard to believe, but the main reason new products fail is a lack of customer need. How is it possible that companies invest massive resources in launching a new product that nobody actually wants? It often comes down to a disconnect between product designers and decision makers, resulting in a failure to understand the problem that the new product is intended to solve.

This issue can be resolved with design-led development, an approach to problem solving that leverages proven design thinking methods to meet the needs of the end user.

Design-driven development is an approach to development that is holistic, interdisciplinary and integrative. The process unites designers and developers in an effort to ensure that each step in the development lifecycle of the product is aligned with the end user’s requirements. It progresses logically and creates a solid foundation for scaling design as a whole.

Why you need it

Design-led development gets right to the heart of what business is all about by ensuring you deliver a product that people will use. By targeting users’ desires and expectations from the outset and incorporating design thinking throughout the entire development process, you can set realistic timelines for reaching an agreed goal and start delivering incrementally bigger wins based on an iterative process. A constant, fluid interaction between design and development ensures that everything that goes into your product is included to solve your customers’ problems.

The alternative approach — designing and developing products in silos — is slow, expensive and often ends up meeting the CIO’s needs rather than those of the end user. Hence the prevalence of products that fail.

In contrast, design-led development provides a learning experience for your team that can carry to other projects, so that initial successes help to foster future growth. It centres on partnership and collaboration to design and build great experiences for your clients and internal customers on a consistent basis.

What design-led development means for privacy

Design-driven development is not just about delivering the features that users want. It also addresses the individual’s right to have personal control over their data. Given the ubiquity of personal info in everything from social media to big data, privacy has become a default element of networked data systems and technologies in our information society. But just as innovation, creativity and competitiveness are best approached from a design-thinking perspective, privacy should be addressed in this way too.

The Privacy By Design framework aims to address the challenges of dealing responsibly with personal information by making privacy a key driver of design. Privacy by design means that data protection is best managed in data processing procedures when it is integrated in the technology during the design process.

Privacy by design is driven by seven basic principles:

  1. A proactive rather than remedial approach
  2. Privacy as the default
  3. Privacy embedded into design
  4. Full functionality
  5. Full lifecycle security
  6. Emphasis on transparency
  7. Respect for user privacy

These principles were particularly important for NearForm when we were designing and building our first contact tracing app, COVID Tracker Ireland. Guaranteeing user privacy was absolutely vital, as was the need to secure nationwide trust so that people would use the app. The team followed privacy by design principles to ensure that the user journey was clear, transparent, unobtrusive and easy to follow.

How design-driven development enables accessibility

Design-led development is also a key enabler of accessibility. Accessible design not only ensures that people with disabilities can use websites, tools and technologies, it also enhances user experience and satisfaction for all users, across a range of situations, devices and age groups. By incorporating accessibility in the design of your product, you promote your brand, encourage innovation and grow your market reach.

Developers often build websites that are not accessible for everyone — not deliberately but because the principles of accessibility are not baked into the initial design. By approaching development from a design-led perspective, these principles can be prioritised from the outset. The following components of web development and interaction must be designed to work together to make the web accessible to everyone:

  • content — natural information (text, images, sounds) plus code and markup
  • web browsers, media players, other user agents
  • assistive technology, such as screen readers and scanning software
  • users’ knowledge, experiences and potential adaptive strategies for using the web
  • developers and designers
  • authoring tools
  • evaluation tools, including web accessibility evaluation tools, HTML validators and CSS validators

How to approach design-led development

The process of design-led development can vary, but generally it contains the same basic elements. Rather than getting a project team to speak to multiple stakeholders across various departments individually, at NearForm we use discovery workshops, which can condense the discovery period down to a much shorter time period. The organisation’s key stakeholders on the project and our paired team of a senior product designer and senior technical director work together to define the project objectives, strategy and vision. At the end of the workshop, clients have a roadmap for product design and development.

This roadmap is not simply an abstract set of recommendations; the discovery process delivers a comprehensive product prototype, a full architecture overview and a timeline of milestones to help clients measure their progress. The prototype and product roadmap generated give the development team the material required to launch directly into the project. The client is kept informed throughout, so they know exactly when they need to start preparing for launch.

How discovery workshops work

As the name suggests, discovery workshops involve teams working to discover as much as possible about the aim of the project, the needs of the end user, the challenges involved in meeting them and other considerations. The more comprehensive the information surfaced at this stage, the more effective the team will be in optimising the time and budget available.

We start by defining your product’s vision, gathering details about your team, users, strategy, goals, risk, milestones and other elements that will help determine success for you. Given that the purpose of your product is to satisfy your customers’ needs, we will build personas to model how the product will be used.

The team uses this research to define the project’s scope and requirements before launching directly into designing the product. That involves developing concepts that seek to solve the end user’s problems in the most effective way. We look at your competitors’ products and use a variety of prototyping tools to test just what a practical solution might look like.

Your team will contribute elements such as typography, colours, layout and flows while our engineers devise the best way to build the product. At this stage of the process, you can expect the prospective solution to undergo several refinements as it proceeds from prototype design to user testing and back again. User feedback is incorporated, and any kinks are resolved.

This process gives us a deep understanding of how the product will perform, both for the customer and your business. With ongoing analysis and retrospectives, we continue to refine our methodologies to investigate what worked well and what may not have been as successful.

Where to start

Embracing a design-led approach starts with a change in mindset to one that focuses on user-centric strategies across the organisation. Optimising the user experience is not just about UX; it enhances your customer engagement and adoption and leads to a healthier overall company culture.

It is every business leader’s responsibility to learn as much about their customers as possible. Armed with the knowledge, they can drive their organisation’s future growth through a closer alignment of their products with their end users’ needs. Design-driven development can help orient your business strategy so that you become more effective at meeting your customers’ needs and prime your business for ongoing, predictable success.

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