3 Product Design Processes and When to use Them

16 Aug 2019 by Scott Middleton

Process has become a dirty word, but using a tried and tested product design process when designing products is a tried and tested way to get better outcomes.

Process, when applied in the right way, is the best way to unleash creativity, fast forward results and bring stakeholders along on a journey. Process also has a great way of allowing you to stand on the shoulders of giants by giving you a way to gain from lessons learnt by others.

If, like me, you would prefer to stand on the shoulders of giants rather than relearn lessons yourself, then you’ll want to apply the best processes out there rather than roll your own. But, with the multitude of product design processes out there part of the challenge is choosing the right one for your situation, your team and your organisation.

This post is about giving you a starting point to narrow down the product design process that is right for you and your team for the opportunity/problem you’re wrestling with right now. I say right now because I’m a big fan of flexibility, adapting the right process to the right situation rather than a blanket application of the one process to everything.

To help us narrow down the best product design process to use, let’s first turn to Google search volumes to help us identify the processes with the most interest (yes I hear you, popularity doesn’t always equal quality but we need to start somewhere).

Product Design Processes by Interest

Google Search Trends tells us that the design processes with the most interest are (in order of search volume):

  1. Design Thinking
  2. Google Design Sprints
  3. Double Diamond

Some others that didn’t make it due to lack of search volume but deserve an honorable mention: 

  1. UX Mastery’s UX Process
  2. Zurb’s design process 

Design Thinking

Design Thinking is a process or set of processes for designing concepts like new products, buildings and machines. It has become closely associated with innovation and the creation of innovative products and services.

Design Thinking, especially when combined with human centred design, is about starting with the human at the end (or in the middle) of your product, developing empathy with them, understanding them and working through solutions to their problems through ongoing experimentation. 

The Design Thinking process has the following steps:

  1. Empathize
  2. Define
  3. Ideate
  4. Prototype
  5. Test

Importantly, the steps do not need to be followed one after the other. It is encouraged to jump between steps and repeat steps in an effort to best address the situation you’re working with.

When to use it

Design Thinking is great for understanding or solving open-ended problems in a specific domain. It isn’t useful in situations where the outcome is mostly known in advance. It can be useful as a tool in helping to choose the domain to get specific, but it isn’t always the best fit for this.

Some useful links

If you want to learn more about Design Thinking then here are some useful links:

  1. IDEO
  2. Interaction Design Foundation 
  3. Harvard Business Review 

Google Design Sprints

Design Sprints, a methodology developed by Google, provides a short, focused approach to bring together a team, understand and then solve a problem.

The beauty of a Design Sprint is how it compacts different frameworks, methods, steps and considerations into a nice 1-5 day package. The simplicity of the approach, and the contributions of Google as well as the community make this an accessible and easy to apply process for product design.

The main steps in a Google Design Sprint are:

  1. Plan
  2. Understand
  3. Define
  4. Sketch
  5. Decide
  6. Prototype
  7. Validate

The plan step tends not to show up in diagrams for some reason however, planning for a Design Sprint is every bit as essential to the process as running the Design Sprint itself. 

When to use it

The Design Sprint Kit by Google says Use Design Sprints:

  1. At the start of a new initiative to define your product or create a shared vision
  2. When you need to inject speed into your decision making process
  3. If your product team has become blocked on a problem 
  4. After uncovering new insights you want to action/leverage

Don’t use Design Sprints:

  1. If you don’t have a strong enough understanding of your customer base
  2. If you have clear product direction and just need design time
  3. If you don’t have leadership buy-in

However, to provide some perspective, I’ve seen counter examples of Design Sprints helping understand a customer base and gaining leadership buy-in. I’ve also seen situations where trying to run a process like a Design Sprint slows down time critical situations and you just need to get on with it (usually a leader needs to just make some tough calls and set people going).

Finally, another area where Design Sprints aren’t useful is as a process for choosing which direction to go more broadly (e.g. what market do we want to be in?) although it can be a tool here. 

Some useful links:

  1. Design Sprint Kit by Google 
  2. Sprint (book by Jake Knapp)
  3. Really practical no-extra-clicks guide to running Design Sprints from Toptal
  4. Some adaptations, additions and usage comments from Invision:
    1. When a design sprint doesn’t work 
    2. Hacking design sprints 
    3. How to get business value 

Double Diamond Design Process

The Double Diamond Design Process, mapped out by the Design Council, captures the commonalities of the creative process across disciplines and divides it into four distinct phases: Discover, Define, Develop, Deliver. 

The visual image of two diamonds next to each other makes it memorable and easy to understand. The visual of the diamonds also depicts how ideas need to go through divergent thinking (the opening of a diamond) then be refined through convergent thinking (the closing of a diamond).

The visual metaphor of the diamonds helps teams apply the appropriate tools and techniques for the part of the diamond their product work is in. 

When to use it

The Double Diamond is most useful when a longer running process is required and a broad canvassing of ideas is required. Walking through every step of the diamond isn’t particularly useful when you’re dealing with a situation where the result is mostly known and you just need to get on with getting it done.

Some useful links:

How does this relate to Agile, Lean Startup, prioritisation frameworks and other methodologies?

The Product Design Processes I’ve listed above can be incorporated into agile teams and those following the Lean Startup. You can also apply product prioritisation frameworks based on what you learn or to what you’re planning to do. 

Using some common sense you can practically combine this into exactly what you need for the situation at hand. If there is conflict, unnecessary steps or anything like that, then just remove it and use what you need.

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