The word iterative describes the repetition of an action. Thus, iterative design refers to the recurring process of creating and enhancing a product’s design. But a key element of iterative design is that it requires the testing of each design iteration as soon as you’ve completed it.
With an iterative-design methodology, not only does your productivity increase but the likelihood of satisfying users’ needs improves as well. Iterative design is an easy approach to adopt and is both straightforward and very helpful. Read on for all you need to know about iterative design and how it can increase the value of your design initiatives.
What Is Iterative Design?
Iterative design involves a continuous cycle of prototyping, testing, and revising a product to improve its functionality and usability. The concept rests on the adage that designers can efficiently produce the most viable versions of products by making incremental, progressive changes.
Iterative design most frequently takes the form of rapid prototyping. When the industry started, the first manifestation of rapid prototyping occurred when manufacturers began using 3D printers to swiftly make parts and models for testing in the 1980s. Rapid prototyping has since gained popularity in various areas of product development, including software engineering and UX design.
What Justifies an Iterative-Design Process?
One would invariably wind up designing the worst possible version of a product if one simply jumped right into product development, then tried to validate the final product by conducting research—for example, usability testing. If this occurred, the process of getting from the poorest possible version to the best version would be time consuming and expensive.
Iterative design is a superior method of creating human-computer interfaces. It helps us to learn as we go along, by applying criticism and learning from our errors to ascertain how the design should look, feel, and function. Iterative design lends the design process additional time, garners greater knowledge, and achieves stability over the long term.
If you consider how individuals act and, in particular, the discrepancies that exist between how they claim they would act in any given situation and how they actually act in that situation, you would see that the two rarely coincide.
Prior to product development, user research must address what consumers claim they typically would do. Thus, the first model of any product probably reflects theoretical use rather than real use. Iterative design takes note of this and enables you to quickly create a prototype—basically an early model of the eventual product—and test it with consumers to see what they actually do with the product.
Prototyping is an efficient way of improving designs because it is relatively quick and inexpensive to do. For example, the lowest-fidelity prototype might be nothing more than pen-and-paper sketches. This approach prevents product teams from spending all their time and money on development only to find out that there is a significant and expensive gap between what users say they would do and what they actually do.
When a product team has multiple ideas and isn’t sure which to pursue, the iterative-design approach can be especially helpful. By creating a prototype of each concept and rapidly gathering user feedback, you can develop the best ideas further and drop those that do not offer as much benefit—without spending any additional money on their development.
What Are the Advantages of Iterative Design?
The iterative-design process offers many advantages—from reducing resource consumption to promoting cross-functional collaboration, resulting in a better, more finely nuanced product. Iterative design can, therefore, provide great value to your development initiatives.
Reducing Resource Consumption
Iterative-design processes incorporate frequent user feedback—or stakeholder feedback at the very least—and, thus, drive the design process ahead at a steady pace, saving valuable time.
Positive feedback can help the design team recognize whether they’re heading in the right direction, while negative feedback can help them know when they’re heading south. Without gathering any feedback, design teams run the risk of racing to the finish line just to fall short, wasting a lot of time and money.
The iterative-design approach facilitates healthy collaboration and cooperation because it gives stakeholders the chance to provide their feedback and even submit their own ideas. This gives the design and development teams information and perspectives that they wouldn’t have obtained on their own.
Responding to Actual User Needs
Without a methodical, iterative-design process—especially a process that includes collaboration—UX designers sometimes fall into the trap of working alone. A segregated team is more introspective, which can encourage them to jump to conclusions or engage in counterproductive, perfectionist tendencies.
Using an iterative-design process ensures that the team remains focused on users’ needs and makes design choices based on the users’ objectives. Plus, getting user input is helpful in resolving any disagreements among stakeholders.
Enabling Frequent Updates
Instead of just dumping the final product on stakeholders after keeping them in the dark throughout the design and development process, an iterative-design process enables you to update stakeholders regularly on the status of the project. Therefore, development work can start even when the design is still in progress. This is especially advantageous to developers—in fact, it lets developers leverage an iterative-development process, so everybody wins.
Frequent updates can also help you build strong ties with your clients, by showing them the work that goes into the design and development of their product. You can even inform customers of regular product revisions to create marketing buzz and garner public opinion.
You can quickly distribute prototypes to stakeholders and customers, who can test design iterations that look and perform precisely as the final product will, so designers can start collecting contextual feedback. When you create adaptive versions of simulated prototypes, they can even adjust to the user’s device and screen size. Just remember to check your prototypes in preview mode to discover mistakes and prevent oversights before sharing them!
What Are the Steps of an Iterative-Design Process?
Iterative-design methodologies can vary, but in general, the process comprises five stages: planning, ideation, prototyping, testing, and lastly, review.
The planning stage addresses what the team should change during the current iteration. Iteration should be quick, but effective. Therefore, planning is necessary to keep each iteration concentrated on a specific user need. Choosing which issue to address during an iteration is the main focus of the planning stage. This sometimes entails hearing stakeholders’ perspectives, but usually involves obtaining input regarding prior iterations directly from users or perhaps through a feedback form.
In either case, your learnings from research and the goals you define are what propel this stage. Many design approaches reframe issues as opportunities. When there are multiple possibilities, this technique instructs stakeholders to vote on which opportunity they believe offers the best chance of improving the product. The design-sprint process, for example, uses how-may-we and dot-voting approaches to select opportunities.
During ideation, the goal is to come up with as many ideas as you can—regardless of how terrible they are—usually through sketching. Designers often refine their best ideas and discard their poorest ideas at this stage of the iterative-design process.
There are multiple iterative-design approaches for ideation—such as Crazy 8s and Four-Step Sketch—to keep the creative juices flowing, while enforcing time constraints to make the process lean, enjoyable, and effective.
The team ultimately decides to pursue one somewhat-improved proposal. The chosen concept is frequently expressed as a user story to provide a problem statement to the prototyper, a clearly defined actionable task, and a sufficiently thorough visual guide.
The iterative-design process feels a little easier once designers reach the prototyping stage because they can now focus on a particular design idea. It is essential to utilize a design tool that fits your workflow because you’ll typically enforce a time limit to ensure maximum efficiency. It can be very helpful for the product team to have a design system on hand to enhance collaboration and feedback.
The goal of the testing phase is to find out whether and how well the prototype solves whatever issue the designer is addressing. This involves applying the appropriate research techniques to learn as much as possible about the solution and documenting any comments, results, and ideas.
The review stage, which is the last step, involves analyzing your study’s findings to determine whether the proposed solution matches product requirements. Typically, the conclusion is one of the following:
time to implement—Ready for implementation and release.
good, but needs some work—Return to prototyping.
flawed—Go back to the ideation stage.
The Iterative-Design Process: Do’s and Don’ts
Just as for any process, iterative design comes with a list of do’s and don’ts. While the do’s can add value to your design initiative, the don’ts can prove to be very intensive in terms of their use of fiscal and temporal resources.
Do: Fail Fast
Embrace trial-and-error to learn what not to do—even if you miss the point and adopt a fail-quicker approach. Since failure is unavoidable, it is preferable to deal with it as soon as possible, while taking note of your learnings.
Do: Be Adaptable
Design approaches allow us some flexibility to let design teams express their creative freedom. In the end, teams must choose which opportunities to prioritize, when to iterate or test more, and how many concurrent design iterations to run at once. These choices are mostly based on intuition and experience, utilizing any facts and data that may be available.
Do: Work in Sync
Use all resources simultaneously—such as tools and teammates—to complete tasks as quickly as possible by allowing other UX designers to work on unrelated elements of the product in parallel and having developers start implementing validated solutions. This can drastically reduce product turnaround times.
Do: Work Together and Listen
Which issue should you resolve first? What version of the design is the best? Is a test-ready prototype complete? What does the users’ feedback mean? Teams must work collaboratively in responding to such questions because of the unique expertise and viewpoints that cross-functional teamwork offers.
Don’t: Try to Fix Everything
Once you’ve chosen the issue to be solved during a design iteration, avoid trying to address other new problems. Although it’s common to discover other areas that need improvement during an iteration—whether through testing or observation—just make a note of them. They can provide excellent beginning points for subsequent iterations.
Scope creep, or the introduction of new issues into the process of iterating on a design only causes teams to become distracted, slows down the design process, and makes it challenging to gauge the effect of an iteration on important key performance indicators (KPIs).
Use Cases for an Iterative-Design Process
The iterative-design process has been widely adopted and is arguably the design process of choice for enterprises across all scales, verticals, industries, and scopes. The most common use cases for iterative design include the following:
rapid prototyping—Whether in software development, manufacturing, or engineering, this is where iterative design is most frequently deployed.
product development—How often do you shop online and discover that a new version of a product is available? Iterative design is a mainstay of product development because it enables businesses to keep improving on a winning product, while continuing to make money from previous versions. Plus, they continue to get feedback on the versions that are already available on the market, which helps them decide what features or enhancements to add.
analytics and marketing—Marketing is driven by metrics. Marketers model many components of the consumer journey rather than depending only on assumptions, then they frequently use what they discover to test different design elements. For instance, marketers create various iterations of an advertisement, a headline, or a landing page, then perform A/B testing to identify the most effective versions.
Applying the Iterative-Design Methodology
The earlier you begin an iterative-design process, the better. You can test and revise a prototype more easily and affordably than a final product that has issues that must be resolved.
There are many readily available, inexpensive tools. Using interactive wireframing technologies, you can develop editable, shareable prototypes of applications and Web sites. Here are some suggestions for augmenting the value of iterative design:
Use cloud-based software to enable access to prototypes by clients and team members from any location.
Version management is essential. It is helpful to save earlier versions of your designs in an easily accessible location because people’s perspectives change, and you might need to refer to them later on. If nothing else, they at least offer a historical reference. Even if you don’t utilize something now, it can come in handy for other design tasks in the future.
To make it easy for developers, designers, and clients to collaborate, having a tool with a live comments function is also essential.
It might seem obvious, but you should choose a platform that is simple to use, has a nice user interface, and supports simple integrations. It’s never easy to ask your team to accept change and switch to a new technology. So choose a tool with a short learning curve that people can use right away.
In Summary: Great Design Results from Iterating on Good Designs
For a UX team that is envisioning a comprehensive UX design strategy, the iterative-design methodology is a powerful component of your design arsenal. Viewing your application or system as a living ever-evolving project rather than a static structure and applying the iterative-design process lets you consistently improve upon your designs.
The cycle of prototyping, testing, and refining your product offers numerous benefits. By gathering a valuable collection of user feedback through testing and getting a bird’s eye view of the entire application, teams can identify issues before they spiral out of control. The iterative-design process can help you increase your product’s usability across key metrics and gain a clear understanding of what is working best in your application.
Iterative design is built on an ethos of openness and frequent feedback. The more your team puts this methodology to work, the greater the value you stand to gain from your application-design initiative. Your application can go from good to great in the blink of an eye.
Asha is a spirited leader and a driven creative at 300Mind. As a market leader in the sphere of UX design and game development, 300Mind is helping companies to grow their revenues by delivering stellar UX design and game-development services and building value-based partnerships. Asha is passionate about creating great products. Read More