I just read a great article by Alain Breillat describing the Apple design process: http://www.pragmaticmarketing.com/publications/magazine/6/4/you_cant_innovate_like_apple
There are a couple of things that stood out for me:
- A real design process. The article says that Apple designers create 10 different mockups of any new feature they are working on. These are then narrowed down to three options, presumably via design reviews and other processes. These three options are then developed over a longer period of time until one final option emerges as the best realisation of their initial vision.
- No market research. I've heard this many times before, especially from people who say to me 'Why do you do what you do, Apple doesn't talk to customers and look at what they produce.' :-). The article does a great job of explaining that even though Apple may not run focus groups, there is no doubt that designers and engineers at Apple know their customers almost better than they know themselves.
Bill Buxton talks about the difference between design and engineering in his book, 'Sketching User Experiences'. Design is all about considering many alternative solutions to a problem and finally agreeing on one that best satisfies the design constraints. It's all about exploring the whole design space and making sure you really are getting the design 'right'. Alain's article suggests that companies need to have a design culture and a visionary leader that enables such a process. I agree that such a culture would be ideal but I don't think you have to wait until such a culture is in place before you can start getting creative. The tools are already there to allow you to create multiple mockups. As designers, we need to recognise that it's our duty to fully explore the design space and that we should avoid the temptation and rush to quickly solve a solution before we've really explored the full design space. We sometimes use the QOC notation in meetings with other designers and engineers to make it explicit that we need to consider other alternatives. I've never had any pushback to this as it is an incredibly useful way of really exploring exactly what we are designing.
I'm also not a fan of simply asking people what they would like us to do. It's up to us to truly understand who we are designing for and what will delight them. As I wrote a few months ago, we need to think of the people we are designing for almost as characters in a movie or a novel. They have characteristics, traits and motivations that, when they are placed in certain situations, cause them to react and to behave in one way or another. We need to understand how they will react when we place them in a situation where they experience our designs. It's the experience we are designing, not the product. How will they react to those experiences, what experiences do they want and need? Again, Bill Buxton does a great job of talking about this in his book.
This isn't easy. Truly understanding the design process and your customer takes a lot of work. But the return on your investment can be huge, both for you and your customer.