4 Effective Ways to Iterate Design Work

by Tom Kenny (@tkenny)

Iterating design work is an important part of the process to produce better work. How many times has the first thing you designed been the best option? A few, but far from the majority.

Your first design will almost certainly not be the best you can make it. Even if it does seem like you’ve got something great initially, everything can be improved with refinement. Many of the products you use and love have become great through iterating and it all happens behind the scenes. From the outside, great websites look like they’ve got it right first time but in reality that’s almost never the case.

Let’s take a look at how you can improve your work with these four effective ways of iterating design:

1. A Fresh Pair of Eyes

One of the best ways to iterate before launching, is to ask someone else to provide feedback. Often you will find they will see things you’ve missed, or have ideas you would have never thought of. Even something as small as a little suggestion can spark something in your mind which can lead you in a better direction.

Bouncing back and forth with someone, be it another designer, your boss or even someone not involved in the project, can really help you push your design forward.

It’s critical you ask for honest feedback, as you’ll have been looking at your work for hours on end which causes you to become “blind” to what you’re creating. It’s also important not to take any criticism personally. Great designers take constructive criticism in the best possible way and use it to learn from and improve their craft.

I usually ask someone for feedback once I’ve designed a specific page or feature in Photoshop. This makes it much easier for someone to grasp what’s going on and provide feedback. You want to get feedback in as little time as possible so you can move forward with the project but also so you know you’re respecting the time of whoever you ask.

If you don’t have anyone to ask, try asking other designers:

Once you are done with your layout, you can ask a couple of your friends and mentors to give you their honest opinion and any criticisms that they may have. I would also suggest that you get your feedback from those who really know their stuff when it comes to web design. Most people don’t like to ask because they think that the experts would not answer, but quite the contrary. The design community is very tight-knit and helpful, so I suggest getting a panel of experts/mentors that you can refer to for any web design and development questions.

That’s the great thing about this industry.

2. Experiment

I’ve written in more depth about experimenting here but here’s the basics:

What happens when we don’t knock it out of the park on our first attempt? It can often be hard and frustrating. When it happens to me, I sometimes even question myself as a designer, although that’s the extreme case.

What I normally do to get out of this hole, is experiment. I basically try a number of different things to see what works. It can take more time but I eventually hit upon a standard of work I’m happy with. I know I will eventually come up with something at least good enough if I trust my system of experimenting.

Only yesterday I was in this exact same position in the initial stage of designing a new website. I just couldn’t get into the flow but I knew I had to force myself or otherwise I risk not completing the work in time. I struggled and got a little frustrated but remembered I’m just in the experimenting phase and sure enough, I stumbled across a direction I was happy with.

Make sure you read the article to see how you can get the best out of experimenting.

3. Align with the Goals

Every site you design will have goals it needs to achieve and it is your job to make sure every design decision takes you towards them (you should be able to explain every design decision you make). If you’ve been focused and in the depths of designing, it can be easy to forget what the goals are at times.

Coming up for “air” and assessing your work against the goals at regular intervals is highly recommended to help make sure you’re on the right track. You don’t want to go too far in one direction, only to realise you’ve got to redo a chunk of work. Worse still, you don’t want to complete a project, only for it not to achieve any of the goals. That doesn’t help you, your client/boss or the customers.

4. User Behaviour

There are two stages you can iterate based on user behaviour. Anytime during the design process before a product/feature has been launched or when it is ready and is in the hands of actual users.

During the Design Process

Just because you haven’t launched what you’re working on, doesn’t mean you can’t test it with real people. Even getting a basic prototype up and running and in the hands of potential customers can show you where you can improve that internal team members won’t have noticed, even after weeks of designing. Missing a critical need of your target users could cause the launch to fail miserably.

After Launch

Iterating can happen when your work it is live too. In fact, iterating should also happen then. You’ll learn so much about what people want and how they use websites after releasing. All sorts of things you would have never been able to guess before you create a site without any data. Learning from how people use a website is the single best way to improve it. It may well even demonstrate ways of interaction you had never anticipated, which can be a good or bad thing. How you react to that with your design decisions is key.

That’s how valuable user behaviour can be. You could have done all the iterating in the world before launch but actual user behaviour is the most valuable data to iterate with.

This is also a great opportunity to do more than the average employee or freelancer. Offer your services for more than just the launch period. Chances are you’ll be reviewing the performance if you’re an in-house designer (if not, you should) but if you’re a freelancer, sell your expertise on helping your client after launch too. With some websites, you won’t really know how they will perform until they’re actually being used. This is when you step in and increase sales/engagement/traffic (or whatever the goals are) after analysing actual usage.

Iterate Always

There isn’t a single best way to design a website but iterating should always be part of your process in order to improve the impact your design work has.

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by Tom Kenny

I’m a freelance web designer and front-end developer with over 7 years of experience designing for the web. Follow me on Twitter here.