Iteration is the Only Way to Design

Jul 28, 2023 | Discussion

Great is the enemy of good

There is a strong temptation when creating anything to try to create the best thing possible: to imbue your creation with every last feature or embellishment that you can think of and then polish it within an inch of its life. And then, once you have created your Perfect Thing, you release it to the world to universal acclaim and unrivalled success, right? Like Leonardo who kept the Mona Lisa to himself in his studio for twenty years: thinking, transforming, layering, adjusting. And to be sure Leonardo achieved an amazing result for all his labour of love, but his success and acclaim for this particular work were a long time coming.

But really, who among us is Leonardo? And who has twenty years to polish their Perfect Thing? At least in the realm of digital design, Things need to move a little faster than this. Also, genius Renaissance people aside, how can you know if your Perfect Thing is indeed perfect if no one has ever seen it but you? Design in the digital context is about balancing quality with speed – more on this later – but it is also critical to test your assumptions and check your design with real customers before you invest too much time “getting it right”. How can you know what “right” is unless you have customers in your experience?

A smart person once told me that every design is an essay – an attempt to solve a problem. It is an assimilation of all of the research, business goals and metrics, usability, accessibility, platforms, etc. that the designer has put forward as a potential solution. It is never perfect, and that is not the intent. The idea is to test your design hypothesis and see if it is working at least somewhat as intended, and what can be done to refine it. With this in mind, designers must focus on creating the best solution they can put forward in the shortest time possible, and then release it into the world and see what happens. Of course it’s not perfect, it was never intended to be, but it will give you a place to start working towards something that more closely approaches perfection.

Insert here the entire process of building out and making available to the public the hypothesis ecompassed in your design. Another very compelling reason to keep your first iteration simple – minimizing the time it takes the developers to actually build it.


Iteration is evolution, but we don’t have a million years

Noticing a trend here? Time is everything in digital design because the marketplace moves so fast that any delay could literally cost you the game. It can be stressful but it’s also one of the great disciplines of our work. As Tim Brown said, embrace the constraints. The constraints are what make the design. But that’s a topic for another post. The point is, time is everything and the natural process of evolution takes a long time. So how can we speed it up?

Firstly, obviously I am referring to evolution metaphorically here. The design is not going to sprout legs and walk away – not on it’s own at least. The task, then, is to figure out what the next step of our design evolution should be and make it happen. But if we go about it without the appropriate strategy, the process of iteration can easily become self-defeating in it’s minimizing returns. Sure we COULD make the buy button bigger, but what indication do we have that this is going to have a measurable impact – or at least a positive impact. Remember too that every change you make to a design that is working at least somewhat risks making the whole thing worse.

Start with user feedback and metrics. Analyze your funnels and KPIs to see how well or badly your design is doing what it is supposed to do. Speak to customers, ask questions. Some areas for improvement or at least interesting hints should emerge. Build a hypothesis around these findings. Then find some simple ways to test if your hypothesis is correct. Making the buy button bigger comes to mind – and that would be a pretty simple test that might even add to your conversion numbers – but what else will it do? Will it push other important content like return policy or customer reviews out of the user’s view? Will it create a negative brand impression because it seems too pushy? These things can be diffiucult to measure but always keep your eye on the other metrics that might be critical to your success. Always imagine a balance of competing, sometimes contradictory, metrics.

If you validate or investigate your hypotheses this way you should be able to come up with a list of potential improvements that will give more than an incremental evolutionary return on investment in the next iteration. And hopefully avoid a few of the evolutionary dead ends and zero sum returns that plague natural evolution. Design your evolutionary leap forward, your version 2 design solution, and launch it as soon as possible with the same iterative mindset. Every design is an attempt to improve on the previous solution in a meaningful way within a reasonable time frame.


Repeat, repeat, repeat

If you follow this approach for even a reasonable length of time, say 6 sprints or 3 months, you will see how your design has grown and developed intelligently with input from users, stakeholders and the market to become something more than it ever could have been in it’s first iteration. No matter how long the first iteration was, it necessarily could not encompass all of that learning and – to overuse an already belabored concept – evolution. Your masterpiece may have been incredible – and the Mona Lisa defintely is – but it could never be more than a reflection of yourself if you had never let it go out into the world and become something that belongs to everyone.