How to get started with iterative design (and why you should)

How to get started with iterative design (and why you should)

The word ‘iterative’ means ‘small steps.’ So, when we talk about iterative design, we’re really talking about a design process with lots of small, progressive developments. You might think ‘well, I do that already.’ Here’s the catch: With iterative design, you run each of these small steps past other people. Usually, that includes your manager, other designers, and the client or stakeholders themselves.

The result is a faster way of working and a higher chance of meeting the user’s needs. It’s a simple, but highly useful, concept and one that doesn’t require too much hassle to implement. Here’s how to get started.

What is iterative design?

According to the Interaction Design Foundation, Iterative design, or rapid prototyping, is a way of designing that’s based around small, regular releases.

First, the team identifies user needs through research. Then, they create a prototype (or minimum viable product) for initial testing. Once the tests have run and the feedback rolls in, you can identify whether your design meets the user’s needs. You’ll even hear this valuable information straight from the user themselves.

Hearing feedback at an early stage is useful because it lets designers know whether they’re on the right track.

Without this initial round, the team may take the project in the wrong direction. Then, no one would be any the wiser until much further down the line. By this point, any fixes are often much larger because the project is more developed. This isn’t just a waste of time and resources: Having all that hard work rejected is also a bit of a motivation-sapper. It doesn’t feel great for the team who have put all that hard work in and then have to throw it out.

So, iterative design is essentially a testing ground for your designers’ experiments. The team can learn from their mistakes, reject failures, and ramp up the things that work.

Why do we use iterative design?

Raise your hand! Who all has thought they wanted something, then, once they’ve seen it, changed their mind? Guilty. All of us.

We all do this from time to time, and clients are no different. Sometimes, we don’t know what we want until we see something we don’t want. It’s just a fact of life.

Conducting plenty of research prior to starting your design helps negate this risk somewhat, but it’s never truly foolproof. Misunderstandings and changing moods and needs can lead to a dissonance between what the client wants and what they actually get.

In the absence of an actual product or design to use and test, the first iteration reflects theoretical use, not actual use. Designing iteratively makes it possible to quickly design a prototype that users can test. That way, the design team can see much earlier on how the product will actually be used instead of theoretically.

What is a prototype, and why is it useful?

A prototype is an early version of the design. It should be quick, easy, and cheap to create – even a sketch of a wireframe will do. It’s especially useful when the client’s brief is fuzzy, or there are several ideas floating around.

Putting a prototype out there earlier helps both designers and the clients reject the ideas that don’t work. After one step, they can now move forward with only viable ideas, ensuring no time is wasted. This strategy can be employed as early as the ideation phase.

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What are the benefits of iterative design?

  • It gives designers more freedom to experiment because there’s less risk involved.
  • Misunderstandings are resolved faster and earlier on.
  • User feedback is always a central focus, resulting in a design that better meets their needs.
  • You strengthen the relationship between the client and the team. There is increased transparency and the client feels more involved and heard, rather than the team just giving them the finished product at the end.
  • The design team has higher confidence because they know their efforts are in line with client requirements.
  • It gives clients and stakeholders better visibility into the project and its progression.
  • Regular testing creates a strong foundation on which to develop the design based on lessons learned along the way.
  • It helps the developers and/or team managers better estimate costs.

How to implement an iterative design process

With iterative design, the earlier you get started, the better. It’s easier and cheaper to test and edit a prototype than it is the finished product.

When it comes to tools, there are plenty of affordable options to choose from. Interactive wireframing tools let you create prototypes for apps and websites that can easily be edited and shared. Some things to remember when choosing:

  • Be sure to choose one that’s cloud-based, so clients and team members can access prototypes from wherever they are.
  • Version-control is a must. Moods change, and if you need to go back to a previous design, it’s handy to have in an accessible place. If nothing else, it’s for reference at a later date. You may not use something now, but it might be handy for future projects.
  • A tool with a live comments feature is also a must, so developers, designers, and clients can easily collaborate.
  • It sounds obvious, but go for one that is easy to use, with a pleasing dashboard and easy integrations. Asking your team to embrace change and adopt new technology is never easy – choose something they can start using right away.

Final thoughts

When it comes to iterative design, the earlier you get that prototype out there, the better.

If you have perfectionist tendencies, it’s scarier to show the client something that’s less than perfect. However, if you tell them the project’s in the early stages and you just want their feedback, they should be more understanding. They’ll most likely even be pleased you’re involving them in the process this early on. This ethos of transparency and regular feedback forms the backbone of iterative design. So the more you can implement these values, the more effective the process will be for you.

If you’re managing a team of designers, it’s important to promote an environment of open and regular communication. It’s also helpful to invest in tools that help you work collaboratively as a team, both in communication and in sharing work. Shop around for interactive diagramming software that lets you share designs, manage versions, and leave comments. Ideally, it’ll also be cloud-based and will send out automatic notifications. Essentially, the more you do to make the whole process collaborative, the smoother the project will be.

Georgina Guthrie Georgina is a displaced Brit currently working in France as a freelance copywriter. Before moving to sunnier climates, she worked as a B2B agency writer in Bristol, England, which is also where she was born. In her spare time, she enjoys old films and cooking (badly).