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4 practical steps to design led development

While design strategy and design thinking have been making the rounds as buzzwords for a while, the role of design in guiding the future of your business has never been more relevant. In fact, recent studies show that organisations leveraging good design principles and a design-led development approach grow their revenue at up to twice the rate of those who don’t.  The reason lies in customer retention, a clear path to business growth that is too often guessed at rather than planned for. A good user experience means customers will more than likely come back, whereas a bad experience will almost certainly ensure they don’t. Placing the user experience front and centre of your engagement strategy is key to future competitiveness and growth — and the starting point of good design.

Better thinking through design-led development

Whether you call it a methodology, a process or a philosophy, design thinking is simply an approach to problem-solving. The distinction is that it’s problem-solving focused on what the end-user wants , not what the board thinks your business needs. This pivot may feel like a jolt to the invaluable experience or strong opinions within the executive team, but making it can create important opportunities that otherwise may be missed. Design-led development should not be limited solely to customer-facing products. It’s a way of working that can positively influence all workstreams across an organisation. Incorporating it, however, often calls for a shift in culture.

For instance, the role of the design team must be properly defined and communicated to the broader organisation. Managers and team leads should also examine where design can be better integrated into overall work processes. Remember, design thinking is not just for designers. It should involve everyone at all stages.

Elevate the role of design, improve collaboration

The position design leaders take in the organisation can help steer the broader redefinition.  To begin with, any lingering idea that a designer's main function is to make things look pretty needs to go. In its place should come an understanding that designers can influence all parts of a project’s development, whether it’s the frontend or backend , consumer-facing or internal. As an example, Pinterest, Airbnb, Kickstarter, Tumblr, Twitter were all founded or co-founded by individuals who were formerly designers. These companies are clearly defined by their user experiences.

Giving design a seat at the strategy table not only gives the design team a more meaningful voice, it brings their crucial perspective into project development at an earlier stage, when it can have more impact. This can be seen in the number of CDOs (Chief Design Officers) in technology companies. Plus, a design lead can introduce new ways of thinking to board meetings and encourage the executive team to play an active part in the process as well.

Putting design-led thinking into practice

The overall process of design-led thinking can add significant value to the development of any project or strategy. It can also integrate easily with agile or lean working processes because design can guide the overall approach, while lean or agile can shape how phases of work are executed. At NearForm we collaborate in this way allowing us to move faster by having our development teams think through the customer's lens.

Design led development

Design processes can vary in terms of the number or length of steps involved, but all tend to cover the same elements. To start, teams seek to discover as much as they can about the project goal, end user, existing challenges, team needs and so on. The more information gathered at the start, the better, so teams will aim to do as much research as time and budget allow. We have found the best way of doing this is through a design-led workshop. In ring-fencing a specific body of time, teams, product owners and executives can reach agreement quickly.  Armed with that research, teams can begin to define the scope of the project and requirements, which they then use to begin designing the product, application or solution. From there, teams begin developing concepts and applying creative thinking and problem-solving to address the user’s needs in the most efficient, beneficial and engaging ways.

During this process, the project team creates working models to stress-test concepts and investigate usability, feasibility and viability. Once prototypes have been refined, teams can test with users. At this point, a solution or prototype often goes back and forth between previous phases as new insights or user demands are addressed. And that’s okay, in fact, it's hugely beneficial since you are validating before development.

All in all, elevating the role of design will not negatively impact what already works for your company. On the contrary, design thinking and design-led development helps inform and optimise existing processes when fully leveraged.

Getting started with design-led processes

Organisations that are serious about integrating a more design-focused approach can begin by developing more user-centric strategies across functions. Prioritising the user experience improves not only UX development but also overall customer engagement and adoption. Plus, it should positively impact the broader company culture. Business leaders should look to make the most of user-focused data. It’s all but impossible to learn enough about your users, so it’s smart business to invest in research and ensure teams are able to fully understand and apply the resulting insights. Design-led processes are a direct help here, by bringing in user-focused critical thinking.

Organisations have the ability to know more about their customers than ever. How they use that knowledge will be key to driving future growth. Design-led thinking can only shift business strategy towards more effectively meeting customers’ needs — meaning it should be an important consideration for all companies looking to engineer ongoing success.

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