How digital design is evolving, and why we should value research over the big reveal

Craft still matters in digital design, but, argues Code Computerlove’s Tom Bradley, more important is the process of development, and the ability to accept that sometimes you might be wrong.

As digital design matures, says Tom Bradley, a different skillset required from designers is beginning to emerge. At Code Computerlove, we have recently identified the need to change the way we operate to suit the evolving needs of our clients and their customers, and are interested to know if this is the experience at other agencies and studios too. Instead of delivering a series of contained digital products, we have moved our focus to the lasting value of design and the need for ongoing iteration.

The major difference has been in mindset, away from thinking about delivering individual projects with a ‘big reveal’ towards an ongoing commitment to creating value across a client’s business through the evolution of its digital projects.

It’s about working in cycles, starting with research insights and using these to develop a clear vision of the future, then looking for the many ways in which we might begin to achieve this. From here, through rapid prototyping, we identify only those ideas that will have the biggest impact and iterate these further with additional rounds of design and testing.

Doing this reduces the risk of building the wrong thing, because throughout we have prioritised based on measurable outcomes and used the prototypes to ensure every idea has been underpinned with research – often leaving things behind despite initially being sure they’d work.

This approach rapidly moves into development, putting products live and measuring straightaway so we can learn quickly, make changes, and then move onto the next thing; all the time taking the client closer to the overarching vision.

The craft in making beautiful solutions still exists, but the creative process for the origination of new thinking is much more open and collaborative. We’re inclusive in the way we approach and think about things, working in partnership with clients to guide them through various exercises in order to reach the best outcome.

This collaboration is crucial, both with clients and team members. Relationships, therefore, need to be very much based on mutual trust and respect, since it can be difficult to say we’re ruling out a popular idea when, in testing, we observe that it’s not the most effective. This is an essential part of the process. Some clients might think, ‘why have we wasted time on ideas that don’t work?’ but longer term it’s the most cost-effective route because it’s all too easy to create something that people can’t use, by which time it’s usually too late.

We like to think of it like sculpture – removing the unwanted to reveal something amazing.

The process gives rigour and focus to the work because everything has an agreed value. We can take out what’s not working and replace it with things that we know people will respond to.

All too often clients still come to us asking for a new website or an app, but our starting point is always to qualify whether this is appropriate in light of what business objective they’re looking to attain. Frequently, what clients come and ask for is not what their customers actually need, resulting in work that is as much about cultural change as it is about delivering technical capability.

Our methods also impact on the designers we hire. They have to be resilient and self-aware because it’s natural that we can fall in love with our own creations and root for them in testing, looking for evidence to support why we think they are brilliant. We have to be prepared to be wrong, by looking carefully for signals that indicate what customers will really value most.

To a certain extent, we also have to leave traditional job descriptions behind, as we believe everyone has the ability to come up with creative solutions to the problems that they are facing, providing they ask the right questions. The designer’s job is to maximise how the principles of human-centred design can be refactored to solve business problems in an ever-changing array of contexts. We look for designers whose first thought is ‘what can I see?’ to spark an idea and then ‘what can I make?’ in response to this, rather than ‘here’s what I think, so take it or leave it’.

Tom Bradley is design director at Code Computerlove, having previously been creative director and later executive product manager for the BBC. codecomputerlove.com

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