Design should be an Iterative Process not a Linear one

Anders Ramsay, a UX designer, has done an excellent job in explaining on his blog the advantages of an Iterative Design Process versus a “Waterfall” (or Linear as I call it) design process.
He gets a nod from me for explaining that Industrial Designers have been practicing Iterative Design methodologies for a while. However, I have often noticed that with the pressures of time and budget, Industrial Designers tend to slide back to the more linear processes. This is very dangerous to do, why? Please let me explain.
The premise of an Iterative Design Process is, as described by Anders, “…until you have actually built what you are designing, you are not going to be able to fully understand it.”. He also adds that Iterative Design is more about reworking and refining, rather than Incremental Design that is about adding new features or specification.
What I also like to add to this discussion is, while an Iterative Design Process is about Do-Learn-Rework and Refine and then Do again, we should not forget that designers should apply an Iterative Process when there is new information or input introduced to a design solution.
The important thing here is to not keep going (ie in a Linear process), but to reflect this new information back to the design brief, and question if you need to start the whole Design process from scratch. Sometimes having to start from scratch is the most painful but right decision to make to ensure you can deliver the right design solution. For example, changing target market requirements often will change your product’s component specifications. As a result, the selected design concept will grow out of proportion, and thus the right thing to do is to start from scratch and come up with a new concept that works with these new requirements.
In closing I like to summarized Ander’s suggested 3 key benefits of an iterative process with my comments after:
1) Discover problems earlier
Rather than polishing up a perfect brief from the start, get the ball rolling, and then tweak the brief accordingly. Sounds great, but business leaders, designers and project managers will really need to be in a tight communication loop to keep track of the changes made. In today’s environment of limited budgets, one down side of this process is that the lack of up front clarity will mean less accuracy in planning and a possibility to blow the budget. Good communication with key stakeholders is vital for success here.
2) Get Reliable User Feedback
This one I whole heartily agree. Basically Anders is asking us to “Get Real Fast” and build prototypes to test with your business partners or target consumers. An Iterative Process will allow you to make changes to the design to respond to these insights uncovered during the testing. The trick here is to involve good project planning to allow additional time to execute these changes in the design. Unfortunately extra time is something that seems to be lacking all the time.
3) Spend less time documenting, more time designing
This is an interesting one that is perhaps more software related. The upfront specifying of scope in a Linear Process could be a huge documentation task that would bog down rather than facilitate. In industrial design, the upfront documentation is usually just the creation of a design brief. The full documentation only comes before the tooling for manufacturing phase, as the design should already be frozen by then.
That’s it from me, and if you have the chance, do check out Ander’s full write up on his blog.

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