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What is the design cycle?

Last updated

30 April 2024

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Navigating the path to completing a project can be challenging and complicated. However, it can be simpler for you and your team with the proper methodologies, such as the design cycle.

Whether you're a seasoned designer or a new project manager, the design cycle can be a valuable tool to help you at every project stage. Our guide covers the four phases of the design cycle and how to use this methodology to your advantage.

Implementing the design cycle can help your team overcome challenges and reach your goals.

What is a design cycle?

A design cycle is a methodology comprising steps that lead from an initial idea to a finished project. 

A design cycle usually has the same general framework, including four distinct phases, but the steps contained in each phase can vary from project to project or designer to designer. 

Design cycle steps can be completed in a customized order since this methodology is fluid. Adjust the cycle to fit your project and your company's unique needs.

Breaking down the design cycle

Design cycles have four phases: 

  1. Plan 

  2. Develop

  3. Create

  4. Evaluate

As you plan and develop the design cycle for your product or solution, keep these phases in mind and adjust the steps within each phase accordingly.

1. Planning phase

The planning phase is all about identifying goals and objectives. Planning is the most critical phase of the design cycle process, helping you determine the final product's success through the research and analysis you complete. Include all relevant team members in this phase and apprise any project stakeholders who might need to know the overall results. Also, what metrics and performance indicators will your team use? You might agree to emphasize usability, conversion rates, aesthetics, time to market, or user engagement.

A practical example

While researching project goals or product needs, always include a practical example of how your product or solution will serve customers so you can use it as a North Star and something to strive for. For instance, creating user personas and scenarios that illustrate specific use cases, demonstrating how your product or solution directly addresses the needs of your target audience. These examples will be reference points throughout the design process, ensuring alignment with the end-users' requirements and expectations.

Identify a problem or need

Great innovations usually stem from a problem or need that customers have. At this point, you should identify how your project will address the issues at hand, which will also help you understand why your project is not merely interesting—it’s necessary.

Research the problem or need

Even if you believe you have a solid grasp of the issue, conducting research is essential for gaining deeper insights. User research is critical here, as it allows your team to delve into the problem's specifics and understand your target users' thought processes and emotions. Simultaneously, investing time and resources into market research is crucial. Market research provides valuable data on industry trends, competitor analysis, and consumer preferences, which can inform decision-making across all subsequent phases of the design process.

Analyze existing solutions

In the planning phase, a competitor analysis shows if other businesses provide solutions to the problem or need. Even if a competitor does provide a solution, analyze that solution to see if there are opportunities for further development. Think outside the box and always keep your customers' needs in mind. If necessary and your project timeline allows for it, consider surveying to solicit customer feedback on existing solutions. If you don't have time for this, devote some time to market research.

Writing the design brief

To give direction to the rest of your team, create a design brief during the planning phase of the design cycle. The brief should contain insights and information to guide the team, including research insights, specific goals, and who you're designing the product or solution for.

Creating a design specification

Design specifications should outline precisely what the project needs to achieve. The specifications should include how the finished product looks, feels, and behaves and enough detail to ensure your team can complete their tasks on time and according to the guidelines.

2. Development phase

After the goals and specifications are in place, you can move forward with the project development. This phase is about brainstorming with your team and developing specific solutions.

Refine the design specification

While you should have created a basic outline for your design specification in the planning phase of the design cycle, by the time you get to development, this should get refined into its final form. At this stage, include information on the final product's appearance and the materials and resources needed to get there.

Develop design ideas

Use design specifications as your guide as you outline various design concepts. Include team members in this process as appropriate, brainstorming, sketching, and storyboarding to arrive at the best outcome.

Present the chosen design

You should have a few great ideas at the end of the development process. Take these ideas and present them to stakeholders. At this stage, you should be open to 

receiving feedback and identifying the most helpful suggestions.

Develop plans or diagrams

Ultimately, you should arrive at a stage where your ideas are polished and updated to include feedback from project stakeholders and team members. At this point, you can move forward to develop plans or diagrams. Include relevant development information for your team, including the resources and materials required and an expected timeline for completing the project. 

3. Creation phase

The creation phase is exciting but requires careful planning and attention to detail. It can be tempting to rush through this, but the ultimate success of your project depends on proper documentation. Document project alterations as you go and capture all notes or comments you or your team might have.

Outline a logical plan

A plan should highlight the order of steps for arriving at the solution, including when and how each part will happen and what resources will be needed. Share the plan with every team member involved and those project stakeholders who need to know.

Follow the plan to make the solution

Follow each step in order, doing your best to meet deadlines. Have regular check-ins to see where you sit with the overall project timeline. Notice if anything needs updating. 

Justify any changes made

A few changes are inevitable in almost every project. While you shouldn't balk at making adjustments, it's important to document them as you go. Think about whether the changes are vital to the project's success and whether they match the project's goals. Communicate changes with your team so no one feels left out or confused.

4. Evaluation phase

You have made significant progress, but ample work still needs to be done.  At this stage, you should be getting ready for usability testing and garnering user feedback. In the evaluation phase, your users take the lead in providing feedback on your proposed concept. Their insights will guide you in identifying areas for improvement and refining your design. 

Evaluate the success of the solution

When considering whether your solution is successful, check whether it works according to the goals established during the planning phase. Can users achieve their goals? Does it solve their problem? Gathering user feedback is also essential during this stage since you'll need real-time feedback on what customers think about the solution.

Explain how the solution could be improved

The evaluation phase shouldn't be seen as the end but rather as an opportunity for continuous improvement. Be open to tweaking features and conducting additional research. Always prioritize data-driven enhancements and emphasize the value of ongoing research to all stakeholders involved.

What are the guiding principles of the design cycle?

Two principles drive the design cycle process: Inquiry and action. These are both necessary to make informed decisions.

  • Inquiry. Inquiry is the principle that helps project leaders and team members gather the insights necessary to guide the project. Inquiry should be part of every stage in the design cycle process, from planning to evaluation.

  • Action. As inquiry is about research and asking questions, the principle of action is about completing tasks one step at a time. Actions allow you and your team to make better decisions as you witness the results in real-time.

Both principles should be given equal weight in the design cycle while incorporating the four distinct phases into your project.

Getting the most from the design cycle

The design cycle in action sets the stage for success in every organization. While there are many ways of developing ideas, incorporating them into an established process helps implement them. Here are a few tips for getting the most from the design cycle.

Rapid prototyping

To get feedback quickly, prototype your ideas as rapidly as possible. If you spend too much time building any one prototype, you could lose valuable time that could be better spent elsewhere on your project, especially if that prototype does not get traction. Additionally, when you spend substantial time on one prototype, you could become too close to the work and resist receiving feedback.

Cycle through as necessary

For best results, treat the design cycle process as cyclical. You can improve your team's ability to collaborate and build a solid knowledge base by going through the design cycle process multiple times.

Move around and backtrack as needed

Every team has a different way of working and approaching projects. It's alright to adjust steps in the design cycle process to make them work better for your team and your organization. Be bold and change steps around and backtrack or skip ahead if needed. It's better to admit that a step needs to be revisited than to get to the end of your project and realize there are unresolved issues.

The design cycle can teach you many things, from how to better work together as a team to improving the customer experience. Even as you experiment with establishing your design cycle process, be open to trying new things and incorporating new customer research methods. Above all, be open to learning more about the methodology. 

FAQs

How do you teach the design cycle?

To teach a design cycle to a team member, familiarize yourself with the process's four phases: Planning, development, creation, and evaluation. It is important to follow the general outline of each phase while also allowing for adjustments in the steps to increase the likelihood of project success.

What is criterion A in the design cycle?

Criterion A in the design cycle refers to the steps early in the process. Namely, this is when designers and project leaders must justify the need for the project to stakeholders, producing a design brief that outlines the necessary resources and explains the project timeline. Proper planning at this stage sets the stage for success, so everyone involved should be as precise as possible.

What is criterion B in the design cycle?

Criterion B in the design cycle happens after the initial project brief gets the green light and enters active development. In this stage, designers determine what materials are needed and how much time is necessary to complete the project. While some general details might be similar to criterion A, criterion B should include more specifics since project leaders might work directly from these documents for purchasing and planning. 

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