Sometimes, you’ve gotta go back to the basics, refresh your memory a bit, and strengthen your design foundations. That’s what we’re going to do today by taking a closer look at the design cycle.
Design cycle is both a methodology and a nifty tool that can always be relied on to help you with your design project. No matter the scope, size or complexity of the project, design cycle has got your back!
You’ll usually find the design cycle approach under the name MYP design cycle. MYP stands for Middle Year Programme. Yes, teenagers learn about it. They learn about it because it’s so essential! And all too often, we forget about the essential things, or maybe even think that they are beneath us. That isn’t the case at all. I mean, you learn how to read when you’re a kid and it’s still pretty useful, right? 😉
With that said, let’s go back to our design roots and rediscover the design cycle!
What is a design cycle?
The design cycle is a combination of steps that lead from a design idea to a finished product. Although every designer may approach a problem in a different way, some general steps are common to all of us. These design steps form a design cycle, which underpins the design process.
Here’s what a MYP design cycle model looks like:
As you can see, the design cycle has 4 main steps:
Each step can be broken down into more substeps. However, these steps do not have to be completed in a set pattern. In some cases, you’ll have to start again, while in others you’ll have to jump ahead. You move around the cycle as needed. The design cycle is fluid – it’s not meant to be blindly followed.
The cycle naturally repeats itself, as design is an iterative cyclical process. Once you’ve evaluated your product, you’ll be able to see what improvements you can make and move back to the Planning stage (or one of the other previous stages) to figure out how to implement them.
It’s your tool to play and work with, so fit it to your specific project.
Now, let’s break down the steps and substeps of the cycle.
Design cycle breakdown
Plan and research
You should begin any new project by defining your design objectives.
Firstly, you need to explain and justify why your design is necessary. Defining and justifying your goals will help you to identify and prioritize the research that you need to do.
Perhaps you aren’t sure whether your target users really need your solution. Go talk to them and see if the problem that you’re trying to solve is painful enough to be worthwhile.
Or maybe you don’t know if it’s possible to develop your new product without a huge budget. Ask your engineers or R&D department about it and see what they think.
Another step that will help you to define your objectives is to analyze your competitors and similar products. Explore what works for them and see if you can use your new insights.
There’s a reason that 25% of the design cycle is dedicated to initial research. You really should learn as much as you can about your users and the market that you’re targeting. If you don’t have the necessary data already, this must be the first step that you take, as all subsequent steps depend on it.
Once you’re confident that you can clearly explain and justify your idea, create the design brief that will guide the Development step of the cycle.
A design brief should include most of the following:
✅ Clearly defined objectives and design problems of your project.
✅ How you are planning to solve the main challenge.
✅An overview of your business and its objectives, especially if they’re relevant to the project.
✅A description and important insights of your target users and target market.
Your team needs to understand who they are designing for and what your users need.
✅ Information about your competitors and similar solutions.
✅ Project timeline and budget.
✅ Project scope, as everyone on the team needs to understand the big picture.
If the project is big and complex, it should be broken down into simpler, smaller pieces that can be designed independently and later combined to form the complete product.
✅ Desired specifications or overall style of the product.
This part can be very specific or very vague depending on how fleshed out your idea is and how flexible you are when it comes to changing it.
If you list specific features, you should clearly mark which ones are critical and which ones are ‘only’ desirable.
✅ Definite “Don’ts” that tell the team what they need to avoid.
✅ Contact information of the project leader.
The more detailed the brief, the more helpful it will be at each subsequent step of the design cycle.
Develop ideas and find ‘the one’
Once you’ve got the brief, there are two possible steps that follow:
- You can work on design specifications first and then develop various design ideas that fit these requirements. This is usually the way to go when designing a more technical solution.
- You can develop design ideas first and temporarily forget about most specifications if you don’t want any constraints. This works when you want to explore various and diverse solutions for your user’s problem.
There are many ways of coming up with different design ideas – you can brainstorm, draw inspiration from your competitors, create storyboards, think of provocative designs, and more. You can also consider some design sprint ideation techniques, such as lightning demos or four-step sketches. It’s really up to you, your project, and its constraints.
But even if you ideate individually, you should critique as a group when deciding on the design idea that you want to develop. That’s why presenting a few chosen designs to your design team is so important. Not only are they being evaluated by yourself when you’re preparing the presentation, your team might also notice any weaknesses that you’ve missed.
Once you’ve chosen the idea that you want to run with, it’s time to think about it a bit more and explain it through storyboards, labeled diagrams, blueprints, or anything else that might help you to really envision it.
Next, it’s time to move on to the creation phase.
Create a plan and a prototype
The first thing that you need to create is a design plan. A solid plan will keep your creation process on the rails. Answer questions such as:
- What steps do you need to take to create a prototype?
- Who is responsible for what task?
- What is the timeline for the project?
- What are the metrics that you are going to measure?
- What testing methods are you going to use and when?
Some designers can be a little too eager to jump into the creative design phase of their work. The design cycle shows you just how much prep work is necessary in order to maximize your chances of creating a successful design. Don’t rush it.
While designing, make sure to document any changes to the plan and important or interesting points that come up. You can even screenshot and document the whole process if you feel like it’s going to be useful during the testing and iteration phase.
In order to evaluate your design at the next step, you need to create a working prototype of the solution. The typical first prototype is destined to be revised and changed many times before its design cycle is completed. That’s why your first prototype should be functional, but it doesn’t need to be visually polished. Its primary purpose is to provide a starting point for evaluation and testing.
For example, if you’re designing a UX-based solution, start with the main features and focus on clarity and functionality, not how they look. If you’re creating a physical prototype, create a mockup from easy-to-modify materials, such as cardboard or soft wood.
Once your prototype is ready, it’s time to test, evaluate and iterate.
Evaluate and prepare to improve your design
When creating your design plan, you’ve thought about which testing methods you’re going to use to evaluate your prototype. Now it’s time to put them to good use.
You’re probably going to do some usability testing and create certain scenarios to see how your users use your prototype.
When evaluating your design’s success based on your tests, you should always ask the following questions:
- Does the product allow users to achieve their goals? Do users understand how the product works?
- Can users find what they are looking for? How much energy did it take for the users to get there?
- What are the users’ attitudes towards the product? Do the features look and feel right?
You can also measure more objective metrics, such as time needed to complete the task. There’s a lot to say about effective product testing, but we won’t go into detail here. If you want to learn more about it, feel free to read my product testing guide.
The goal of testing and evaluation is to see how people use a product, to get feedback, discuss it with your team, and improve your design.
A huge (but somewhat overlooked) part of this is documentation. For many designers, documentation is an annoyance rather than an integral part of the design cycle. However, you really should record all of your findings, even if they seem unimportant at the time.
Documentation that is added as an afterthought is usually incomplete or substandard, because plenty of relevant information gets forgotten by the time the writing takes place. In the worst case scenario, this can be the difference between a successful and a failed product.
Once you know how your design can be improved (and you’ve written it all down), it’s time to repeat some of the design cycle steps and improve the design.
The interesting thing about design is that the finished product may be totally different from what was imagined at the beginning of the design cycle. The design process may take you down an unexpected path or into an unforeseen territory.
But that’s a normal part of the design cycle – it shouldn’t discourage you when something fails on the first or second try. You may need to go through many revisions before your product meets its objectives. That doesn’t mean that you’re not a good designer. On the contrary, it means that you did a diligent job, acquired sufficient feedback and weren’t satisfied with “it’s probably good enough”.
As you can see, the design cycle teaches us many fundamental lessons that are almost always applicable. Keep it in mind and make good use of it!
You know what’s also always applicable? Design strategy! If you want to learn more about it, sign up for my free email course.
👋 Oh hey,
Design strategy consultant. Founder of DesignStrategy.guide and NUEVA / design studio. Wife. Mother.
I am a Design Strategist who holds a Master of Business Administration. I have 15+ years of career experience in design work and consulting across both tech startups and several marquee tech unicorns such as Stellar.org, Outfit7, Databox, Xamarin, Chipolo, Singularity.NET, etc. I currently advise, coach and consult with companies on design strategy & management, visual design and user experience. My work has been published on Forbes, Hackernoon, Blockgeeks, Newsbtc, Bizjournals, and featured on Apple iTunes Store.