This guide is for anyone who wants to understand the methods designers use and try them out for themselves.

We’ve grouped 20 design methods into three categories: Discover, Define and Develop. These are based on the first three stages of the Double Diamond, the Design Council’s simple way of mapping the design process.

Methods like these are used all the time in our work with clients. Browse through our case studies to see how they have been instrumental in bringing about dramatic improvements to products and services, ensuring they are clearly focussed on the needs of users.

Discover

  1. Creating a project space
  2. Observation
  3. User diaries
  4. Being your users
  5. Brainstormin
  6. Fast visualization
  7. Choosing a sample
  8. Quantitative surveys
  9. Secondary research
  10. Hopes and fears

Define

  1. Assessment criteria
  2. Comparing notes
  3. Drivers and hurdles
  4. Focus groups
  5. Customer journey mapping

Develop

  1. Character profiles
  2. Scenarios
  3. Role playing
  4. Blueprinting
  5. Physical prototyping

Discover

1. Creating a project space

What is it?

Creating a dedicated area to organise project materials, work and meet.

What is it useful for?

Creating a project space can help you make sense of large amounts of information, keep it organised, give your project visibility and communicate the story of your project to others.

How can I do it?

Find - or make - a dedicated project zone. You could use the area around your desk, a corner of your studio or, if you have the space, a separate room. Use the walls to organise your research spatially.

Hold all your meetings and creative sessions in this space so you are surrounded by stimuli.

Use the space to construct a story about your project so that you can share it with others and invite them to contribute.

Try not to be too precious or perfectionist about the way you present your work as people are more likely to make constructive comments on work in progress than something that looks polished.

As the project progresses, you can reorganise the space to tell the relevant story for the stage of the project.

Make the space comfortable to work in with appropriate lighting, sofas and tables as appropriate - and make it fun.

2. Observation

What is it?

Watching people as they interact with products, services and environments and identifying areas where problems occur.

What is it useful for?

Depending on your project, you might want to make general observations of something that already exists. For example, how people move around a shopping centre, or how people in the street use their mobile phones. Or you could test a design in a specific scenario.

How can I do it?

Pick your scenario and record your observation with photos or video. This lets you analyse the material after the event (and even catch important details you might have missed, like the expressions on people's faces). The photos or videos can also provide evidence to show to partners or stakeholders in your project.

3. User diaries

What is it?

User diaries is a design method to gain insight into people's lives, particularly patterns of behaviour.

What is it useful for?

Gaining insight into the lives of your users, particularly patterns of behaviour.

How can I do it?

Supply users with a diary and ask them to keep a written record of their impressions, circumstances and activities related to the relevant aspects of their lives. The diary can be kept over a week or sometimes longer. Be careful not to ask leading questions that will distort the results you get: keep your questions open-ended and your language simple.

Giving your users cameras, or asking them to record pictures, video or audio on their phone can be an effective way to get users to record important incidents and their environment.

These photo diaries, which can be used in conjunction with a written diary or as a stand-alone piece of evidence, can be as simple as pictures of users' houses, or the contents of their fridge, but still provide valuable insights to users' habits.

You could provide a pre-printed notebook or diary with prompts or questions, making sure the visual design makes it easy to complete.

It can often be worth talking through the diary in a follow-up interview.

4. Being your users

What is it?

A method to put yourself in position of your user.

What is it useful for?

Building understanding of and empathy with the users of your product or service.

How can I do it?

Identify your target user group, then carry out research to identify user scenarios and typical tasks users undertake.

Put yourself in the user's situation for a couple of hours, a day or even a week. Carry out the tasks that they would do, in the environments where they would do them. This could mean, for example, working on a supermarket checkout or driving an unfamiliar car for a week. Make detailed notes or keep a diary to record your thoughts.

You could also use empathy tools to simulate specific user characteristics. For example, wearing gloves and tinted glasses can simulate some of physical effects of old age, or a pregnancy suit with a weighted 'bump' can simulate what it would be like for a pregnant woman to use your product or service.

5. Brainstorming

What is it?

Brainstorming is method to enable a team to work together to generate ideas quickly and effectively.

What is it useful for?

Generating ideas quickly in response to a problem.

How can I do it?

Start with a warm-up. Brainstorm a fun problem such as 'How can we get every Monday morning off work?

State the problem clearly and concisely.

Don't lose anything. Write your ideas on flipcharts, or on the wall.

Number your ideas, and set a target, say to get to 100.

Keep the focus sharp: edgy and precise statements are better than fuzzy ones.

Keep the ideas flowing, be responsive and keep trying to approach the problem from different viewpoints.

Brainstorming will be most effective if you keep to these ground rules:

  • Defer judgment - build on ideas to make them better
  • Don't criticise!
  • One conversation at a time
  • Go for quantity - the more ideas the better
  • Have wild ideas - every idea is valid
  • Stay focused on the problem in hand
  • Be visual - draw ideas or represent them with whatever is to hand

After brainstorming a smaller group can cluster the ideas for voting.

6. Fast visualization

What is it?

Generating quick sketches of your ideas.

What is it useful for?

Visualising ideas will make them easier to understand and modify, and will in turn stimulate new ideas.

How can I do it?

Sketch ideas during a group brainstorm. The drawings don't need to be perfect: they only need to have just enough detail to communicate the idea.

7. Choosing a sample

What is it?

Choosing a sample helps you find the most appropriate or effective group of users to recruit to make the most of limited time and budget.

What is it useful for?

It's not possible to research each and every one of your users. Creating a strategy to find the most appropriate or effective group of users to recruit will make the most of limited time and budget.

Creating a sample is the first step for many methods of understanding users, including one-to-one interviews and focus groups.

How can I do it?

Start by brainstorming the user attributes that you think influence behaviours in relation to your project. Then choose the most important attributes to determine a useful range of people to study.

For example, if you were designing a bike for female commuters you might want to study people who commuted by different means (train, car, bus), and in geographical areas with different weather, as well as people of different size and strength.

Other common attributes to consider might be age, life stage, ethnicity and socio-economic background, as well as emotional characteristics or attitudes.

Be wary of speaking to more people than you have time to analyse. There is a trade-off between the number of people you speak to and the number of insights you will get. Often a sample of six to nine people will be enough.

Remember, your sample doesn't have to be representative. In fact, talking to non-representative or extreme users will often yield the most insight and inspiration for your project.

For example, if you were designing a bike for commuters you might want to include a cycle courier in your sample. And don't make the mistake of only talking to people who use your products or services - speak to those who don't use them too. Don't only talk to people who love commuting by bike, but include those who have tried it and hated it, as well as those who love commuting by car. Always be mindful of who you haven't met. The sample you choose will depend on what you are trying to get from your users. If you are researching to identify opportunities, a diverse sample including extreme users can often yield the best results. If you are researching to validate a resolved design (for example in a focus group ) then a more representative and less diverse sample may be more appropriate.

8. Quantitative surveys

What is it?

A survey which generates statistical data about your chosen sample of the population.

What is it useful for?

Quantitative surveys is a design method to understand the big picture and provide you with statistics that can help to inform the direction of your project.

How can I do it?

There are two types of quantitative survey:

  1. Omnibus surveys are regular monthly surveys, allowing you to place a set number of questions on a shared questionnaire with content from several organisations. This is the cheaper option but limited in scope.
  2. Ad hoc surveys are bespoke pieces of work and allow you to ask as many questions as you need.

Both of these could involve commissioning a specialist market research agency. It's best to look for one familiar with the territory so that they will produce a usable report that directly responds to the needs of the project. Don't forget - the information you need may already be available on the web or at a reference library.

9. Secondary research

What is it?

Setting aside to explore a range of published information about your customers, your competitors and political, social and economic trends.

What is it useful for?

It’s vital to explore and understand the context you’re working in, and stay up to date with the latest developments.

How can I do it?

Search online or at your local reference library (where you can ask for help). Services like Google Alerts allow you to receive automated updates about new articles in your area of interest as they are published.

10. Hopes and fears

What is it?

A way of getting everyone involved in a project or workshop, designers and non-designers alike, to express verbally their hopes and fears.

What is it useful for?

Setting expectations to establish from the outset which hopes and which fears the project can and can't address.

How can I do it?

Ask the gathered team for their hopes and fears, write them down on separate sheets of paper and pin them up as a reminder to be revisited throughout the workshop. Discuss the outcomes of the exercise and establish from the outset which ones the project can address.

Define

11. Assessment criteria

What is it?

A method of selecting the most promising ideas to develop further.

What is it useful for?

Agreed assessment criteria are useful for taking into account the concerns of multiple stakeholders when deciding the best ideas to take forward.

How can I do it?

Brainstorm, refine and agree a shared set of assessment criteria. These need to be structured to encourage participants to consider the perspectives of the other stakeholders when making their assessments. For example, if you were selecting a product design to take forward into production you might give each of the ideas a score of 1-5 on the criteria of:

  • Technical feasibility (the concern of Engineering)
  • Cost (the concern of Finance)
  • Passion for the idea (the concern of the project team)
  • Portability and size (which might be some of the concerns of the customers)

Score all your ideas against the criteria then add up final score for each idea.

12. Comparing notes

What is it?

Comparing notes is a method of visually sorting and prioritising a large amount of information about a problem and is a useful aid to decision making.

What is it useful for?

When presented with many pieces of information it's not always obvious where to start, sorting and grouping these ideas in order is often the best way to begin.

How can I do it?

  1. Write all your ideas on individual sticky notes
  2. Reduce the number of notes by rejecting low priority items and combining notes that deal with similar things
  3. Compare pairs of notes in turn and put the most important one higher up the list
  4. Use the same criteria in each comparison to find the most important notes in each pair
  5. When no more swaps can be made the list will be in order of importance

For example, if you wanted to determine the most important factors in choosing a pushchair you could take all the potential considerations from your research (or brainstorm them) and then Compare Notes to determine the most important considerations. This method also works for ranking things other than by importance, for instance in order of speed, cost, quality or desirability. You could also use this method with users to get them to put their considerations in order of importance, for example, 'What are the most important considerations connected with buying a new home?’.

13. Drivers and hurdles

What is it?

Drivers and hurdles is an exercise to help you identify where to concentrate your energies for most effect in the next stages of your project.

What is for?

Use this method to understand people's perceptions, manage their expectations and identify where to concentrate resources for most effect.

How can I do it?

Gather together a diverse group of stakeholders in your project. Brainstorm what the workshop participants perceive to be the motivators (drivers) and barriers (hurdles) to a project's success. Collect the ideas on two separate sheets of paper. Establish what the project can and can't address, and agree which drivers it would be best to focus on in order to overcome the hurdles.

14. Focus groups

What is it?

Focus groups usually involve six to ten respondents in a group discussion lasting two to three hours, moderated by a skilled facilitator.

What is it useful for?

It helps you get a broad overview of users' reactions to, and ideas about, a topic.

How can I do it?

A facilitator can lead the group through a series of exercises designed to uncover their thoughts on the given topic. Good preparation of these exercises is vital, as is creating a democratic, supportive and informal atmosphere. The aim of focus groups is to get people talking freely and informally, so it's important that the people feel comfortable with the others in the room, otherwise they might go quiet. The sample of people you choose to come to the session will usually represent part of your user group. Sometimes a video link or two-way mirror is used to allow the development team to observe the focus group. The session could also be videotaped for future reference.

15. Customer journey mapping

What is it?

A customer journey map is a visual representation of a user’s journey through a service, showing all the different interactions they have.

What is it useful for?

It allows you to see what parts of the service work for the user (magic moments) and what parts might need improving (pain points).

How can I do it?

  • Identify the key elements of a service
  • Consider all the touch points including those front and back of house
  • Understand the links between all the different elements over time
  • Identify opportunities where improvements could be designed

Develop

16. Character profiles

What is it?

A way to create simple character sketches and visual representations of the most important categories of user you are designing for.

What is it useful for?

Having character profiles visible and to hand during the design process stimulates ideas and aids decision making. They can also help justify innovations to stakeholders in the project.

How can I do it?

Based on research of your user groups, or a brainstorm, identify the key characters that you are going to design for. Give the characters names and visually represent how they look and dress, their aspirations, behaviour, lifestyle and any challenging peculiarities. It is important to create profiles of extreme users as well as typical ones. It can also be useful to write 'stories' about a typical day in their life.

Display the profiles prominently. They will help you to stay on course and stop you designing for yourself. At decision points, ask yourself, 'What would Mary or John think of this?'

You could also make composite profiles by merging the characteristics of real users you have met.

17. Scenarios

What is it?

Scenarios are detailed accounts of situations in which your users will interact with your product or service over a period of time.

What is it useful for?

Gaining an understanding of the context in which users may be interacting with your product or service in order to refine it. It’s particularly useful when a series of interactions are necessary from the user.

How can I do it?

Define a set of characters who will use the product or service you are designing. Consider the details of their lives - their job, their regular activities and their attitudes. Identify key moments where these users interact with your product or service, then realise them as scenes in a short text or a storyboard.

Test the scenario on users or yourself. Use what you learn to improve the design further.

To investigate the full scope of user interactions, you may need to construct three or four scenarios around the needs of a different character and improve them with each iteration.

18. Role-playing

What is it?

Role-playing means physically acting out what happens where users interact with products or services.

What is it useful for?

Taking the role of the user and acting out their interactions with a product or service can prompt more intuitive responses and help you to refine your design. Role-playing is particularly useful for prototyping interactions between people, for example in a service context.

How can I do it?

Define a character or characters who will use or deliver the end product or service you are designing. Isolate key moments where these users interact with your product or service, and then act them out - with or without props.

Use your intuitive responses prompted by the enactment of the scenario to refine your design. You can also use role-play as a method to test physical prototypes.

19. Service blueprints

What is it?

A service blueprint is a detailed visual representation of the total service over time - showing the user’s journey, all the different touchpoints and channels, as well as the behind the scenes parts of a service that make it work.

What is it useful for?

A Service Blueprint helps everyone involved in delivering the service understand their role and ensure the user has a coherent experience.

20. Physical prototyping

What is it?

Building a model of your idea. An early model can be very simple to test underlying principles, when it comes to the later stage of the design process a more accurate model is required to refine details of form and function.

What is it useful for?

Physical prototypes help iron out any unanticipated problems with your creative ideas. Prototypes give you insights into how a product or service will be used, before you create a finished version.

Physical prototypes are also particularly effective in communicating design ideas to diverse groups of stakeholders.

How can I do it?

First decide which aspect of the user experience you want to test, and build an appropriate model to test it. This will vary according to the stage of development your project is at.

At an early stage a 'quick and dirty' prototype that people are not afraid to criticise is best for testing principles.

At a later stage a you may want to create 'works-like' prototypes to detail aspects of build and functionality and a (possibly separate) 'looks like' prototype to test response to form.

For example, you might first test the principles of a new office workstation by building it in foamboard using hot glue. In later stages you may test a detail of the mechanism by building 'works-like' mechanical prototypes, and the form of the furniture by building separate 'looks-like' models at scale and with no moveable parts.

Build your prototype using available material and test it with end users, or role play how you might use the design yourself. Use what you learn to improve the prototype design further.

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