Discovery is often thought of as the first stage of a project, but learning shouldn’t begin and end there. By baking learning into your long-term workflow you can ensure you’re celebrating a site launch, not a site funeral.
Starting with Discovery
When kicking off a redesign, projects will start off with a formal discovery phase. In a nutshell, the purpose of discovery is to unleash a team of highly trained design and research commandos on those with the most investment in the outcome of your project. Tactics often include:
- interviewing and observing users
- meeting with stakeholders to draw out business needs and website objectives
- wrangling and prioritizing requirements in an actionable way
- planning implementation tactics that will work within budget
High on Insights
At the end of a discovery phase, sprits are high and heads are overflowing with insight. Optimism is at its peak, and everyone’s eager to dive into design. Design as it happens, is precisely what comes next. Design decisions, based on research findings, are made in pursuit of established objectives. Iterations ensue until development ultimately begins and eventually, a new site is deployed.
Running out of fuel & relinquishing control
The insights captured at the beginning of projects are the fuel that feed decision making throughout the course of the project. Over time that fuel burns up. As projects progress from each stage to the next, the insights captured originally erode away. Early findings start to carry less weight and relevance, as the new design overtakes the old. If left unchecked, an unhealthy relapse can occur during the transition between design and content admin control. The relapse is to a state of mind; it’s the “Thanks for the fixer-up, I’ll take it from here” mentality. This is cringeworthy for a few reasons:
- It’s a fast track back to the impending cycle of slow decay. The status quo decision making processes that led to the need for a redesign in the first place often remain in place. Sure the site has been realigned to do a better job of mapping to business and user needs, but what will keep it on track? What’s in place to break the site out of unending cycle of incremental deterioration and big redesigns?
- It’s the first step in a dissolution of principles and intent. Rationale and design principles that went into the decisions made during the design process often get overturned and replaced. In the spirit of iteration, this should be expected. What's worrisome is when iterations evolve haphazardly. When changes are driven by the HIPPOs and howlers1 in the organization, rather than rigorous research and rationale. Immediate emergent needs trump coordinated strategy, leading to the arbitrary creation of objectives and misguided experiments in art direction.
Perhaps this twinge of pain I’d feel—handing over the keys to this newly redesigned CMS-controlled kingdom—was just a case of separation anxiety. I mean, here’s this big project we’ve poured ourselves into for months on end, and now we’re relinquishing control of it. Yes. It is hard to let go. We take pride in every project we’re involved in. I (although I think I speak for our whole team) want your site to frame you for success. I want the people who use your site to have a better experience, and I want your boss to give you a big raise because your new site has measurably advanced your business’s goals. What I've been trying to come to terms with, is why, amidst all of our joy and the wonderful sense of accomplishment of handing off a site to its new owners, did it sometimes to me, feel a bit like a funeral?
Refuel or Fade Away
It’s not about control. It has nothing to do with faith in the site administrators. It has nothing to do with the confidence in the work. What I realized I'd mourn was the end of the learning cycle. The end of the test driven design. You see, Discovery is not a phase, even though it’s packaged that way.2 Discovery must be an ongoing activity. Discovery is the perpetual source of fuel. If you want your site to flourish and evolve over time, learning and structured experiments must be integrated into your workflow. Good news: It’s an extremely achievable goal. Here’s how you can do it.
Track and measure.
Good design decisions are based on both qualitative and quantitative information. Find out where your users are going, what they are doing, and how that maps back to your goals and scenarios.
Run rigorous experiments.
When you identify certain goals that are not being met, don’t base design decisions around assumed causes. For example, let’s say your site is failing to generate the number of leads you want. Perhaps you attribute this to the lack of contact form submissions, and determine the solution is to make all buttons pointing to the contact page 50% larger and brighter. Don’t fixate on the solution. Focus on the problem and what you need to learn. The problem is that you aren’t getting leads. What you need to learn is why. Do research and create hypotheses. Set up experiments that will test your hypotheses.
Routinely conduct usability testing.
Routine usability tests will help you gain insights in ways that quantitative data and testing cannot. Usability testing can reveal new and unmet needs, and it can also be used to help validate and disprove hypotheses.
Stick to your principles.
You can easily A/B test your way to creating pages that succeed in improving metrics, but fail to build brand loyalty or create long-term engagements. Design principles work as a sort of check and balance to your decisions. Keep them front and center when making changes to help you stay true to your brand and present the quality of experience you want site visitors to have.
Create a culture of discovery
Expensive and time consuming as they may be, big redesigns are rewarding. You learn so much, and it’s thrilling to watch a site undergo such drastic evolution. Now you’re in control. The question is, will each day moving forward be a countdown to your next big redesign? Or will each day be an opportunity to improve your site through learning and knowledge gained? Control of the site is in your hands, and with it, its fate. That’s a great responsibility and also a great opportunity. I don’t know about you, but funerals bring me down. Let’s celebrate the birth of your new site instead. If you need help building learning and testing into your workflow, you know where to find me. I’d love to help.
- Hippos and Howlers. HIPPO stands for the “highest paid person’s opinion”. Howlers are those people most vocal with their concerns, in hopes that by being louder it will increase the perceived importance of their request.
- We package it that way, because it’s critical that we begin with immersion and understanding. We need a way to claim time and resources for the ongoing investigation and user research through the duration of the project.
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