Let’s design this thing as we go.
Since the dawn of the Internet, the workflow process of website development has been pretty straightforward and unchanged. Essentially, it went like this: When Web/browser technology, design styles and/or a client’s business model evolved, we recommended a project to design and build a completely new website to replace the previous one. So every few years, it was out with the old, all of the old, and in with the new, something entirely new.
Recently, my mindset had a seismic shift about how this process should work. To be honest, I can’t take credit for it. It’s been bubbling under the surface of the most forward-thinking digital interfaces for a year or two. I first heard about it at SXSWi two years ago, and this year, at the same conference, I learned a little more – just enough to make me want to dig deep into the topic when I returned home. Now, having researched this idea a good deal, I feel like I’ve entered a new age of Web design enlightenment, and I’d like to share it with you. My new nirvana is called iterative design.
In general, iterative design is a cyclical process of prototyping, testing, analyzing and refining. The designer changes and refines the product to improve the quality and functionality of the design. User interaction becomes material to research and inform each successive version of the product.
In terms of website design and development, here’s how it works:
We evolve each website in its form and/or functionality in small iterations, one little bit at a time. The change might be a new style of button here or a different icon there. Each change takes place on the live website, and analytics of users’ behavior, not the personal opinion of the designer or the client, determine whether each iteration was a good design change or not.
For example, take Amazon.com. All day, every day, Amazon tracks every click to determine what’s most effective for users. The Amazon design team will introduce one small change to the interface, and the analytics team studies user behavior and tells them if it was more or less effective at achieving Goal X. Amazon’s goals may range from simple usability – making the login button more apparent – to a revenue-centric function – determining what “Buy Now” button helps generate more clicks. On your website, any user activity is track-able. You just need to be able to store and study the data behind the activity. In Amazon’s case, and for other companies that practice iterative design, the iterations that prove most effective endure, and the things that prove less effective disappear, never to be seen again.
Granted, most companies don’t have the resources required for Amazon’s level of analytics and development, but the good news is the work is completely scalable to your needs. Because your website probably doesn’t receive the same volume of traffic that Amazon’s does, you don’t need to support daily analytics and optimization. Maybe your iterations occur once per month or quarterly, and maybe the data could be analyzed a month or a quarter later, but the outcome is that we’d continually evolve your website to be evermore effective. So instead of improving your website in one fell swoop every three, four or five years, we’d improve it every chance we’d get.
Some of my fellow, more shortsighted creatives might feel indignant about all this analysis and hair-splitting, feeling like their work is a frog splayed out in Biology 101. But they’d be foolish to overlook what iterative design can do for them. More than ever, the iterative approach gives designers and developers the freedom to create even more compelling brand stories for clients. See, if we build one website and walk away from it for years, it’s like writing one book and putting it on the shelf to collect dust. But when we start thinking of each website iteration as a chapter, we can continue to write that story, making it fresh and new with each iteration of the site, with each new chapter in the book. From a creative’s perspective, there’s something very exciting about writing a story that’s still evolving, something that can change and grow at any time – with new product initiatives, different web technologies or even your real-time social media activity.
As with anything new, making the leap to a new process can feel a little intimidating. But remember, with iterative design, that’s what the data is for. The data is the voice of your customer. If you let that be your guide, there’s nothing to worry about.
All things on your website should be part of an iteration. They’re as close as you’ll ever get to guaranteed effective design. If an iteration is more effective than what you were doing before, it’ll stay. If not, it’ll just go away on the next itera…