TL:DR When creating a digital product, approaching the project using these five phases helps maintain understanding throughout the team. That being said every digital project is different and may require different project artifacts (design files) in order to maintain consistent team understanding. These five phases are more of a broad framework where individual tasks, workflows, artifacts, and workshops can be used interchangeably depending on the need of the project. The five primary phases used in this process are; Discovery, Definition, Design, Development and Deployment. The final element of this process is Optimization (not a “D” but just as important), ensuring that our decisions are aligned with user expectations and not broken.
Discovering the Problem (Discovery)
The initial phase of any digital product project is the Discovery Phase. This first phase is primarily concerned with; introducing the teams, user research, understanding the business landscape it will exist in, determining project stakeholders and finally developing the scope of the project. Depending on the size of the project, during the discovery the UX designer will work through a myriad of tasks including, but not limited to; a kickoff workshop, a competitive and business analysis, creating personas, looking at existing analytics and heatmaps, conducting initial user interviews and jobs-to-be-done analysis.
During this phase, the primary concern is understanding the problem that the users are facing. This is done by learning and understanding the needs, wants, attitudes, expectations, and frustrations of your consumers and how the business plans on meeting those expectations and easing their frustrations using their new digital application. At the end of this phase, the UX designer will be able to provide a project outline and final project scope.
Defining the Best Solution for the Problem (Definition)
After the background research has been conducted into the project’s goals, the projected problem being solved and the people involved, the project moves into the definition phase. This part of the digital project is concerned with finding the best solution to the problem that was discovered during the discovery phase of the project. Information architecture, screen mapping, storyboarding, wireframing, user scenarios, low-fidelity prototypes, and preliminary usability testing are all examples of user experience design artifacts that are created during the definition phase.
This part of the project is focused on ensuring that the team is building the optimum solution with the information that they have. Organizing the project first using information architecture and screen or content mapping before proceeding through wireframes and low-fidelity prototypes (for rapid iteration) for preliminary usability testing. Each step allowing the product to be refined in order to provide the most intuitive experience.
Designing or Creating the Solution (Design)
Using the information and prototypes created while working through the definition phase of the project, the design phase builds on those an appealing interface. Typically this phase is the general public’s knowledge of digital product designer’s role in a project. This phase involves creating compositional layouts or mockups of the application in Sketch, Photoshop, XD or any other of the myriad design tools. Once the aesthetic styles and various breakpoints have been designed, the project can be moved into an interactive prototype to allow for additional user testing and user scenario analysis, further improving the product’s interface.
Developing or Building the Designed Solution (Development)
The development phase of the project is rather self-explanatory. It is the phase in which the product is built and coded. Generally, the development process is broken up into cycles where the development team works on specific features in short stints called sprints. Each sprint focuses on one feature, generally starting with the MVP or Minimum Viable Product for the project, then continue until the designed screens from the previous phase are built out. Building with an MVP in mind first allows our development team to deliver the site incrementally, developing trust between the project owner and production team on more extensive projects. Once the back-end, front-end, and all relevant APIs are communicating and the site has gone through a thorough quality assurance and device testing step comes the time for deployment.
Deploying The Finished Digital Product (Deployment)
Deploying or publishing the final product into the digital world I would consider a step on its own. Invariably going from a local or testing environment to a publicly accessible environment falls prey to Murphy’s law (anything that can go wrong will go wrong). Given the number of variables in play when migrating environments it is always important to give time for your development team to smooth out any wrinkles and stomp any bugs.
Optimization (The Step That Isn’t A “D”)
The final step of this process isn’t necessarily a step in the traditional sense, as something that happens apart from the other steps, but is included within each of the previous “D” steps. Optimization is the process by which we test our assumptions, prototypes, and explanations against user data or technology. This can take the form of user interviews validating personas & jobs-to-be-done, user testing with prototypes, or quality assurance testing with developed software. This step is crucial to ensure that the digital product being built will work seamlessly for its intended users. Additionally, the optimization phase continues long after the build of the project has been completed, using analytics and other data gathering software the digital product can be constantly improved to consistently engage its users.
A few caveats to what I wrote about here; this is by no means the only way to approach a digital project, just one that I have found that works pretty well. As I mentioned at the start of this article, every digital project is different and the people involved will have different sensibilities. Understanding the people involved in the project as well as the users become an important tool for planning out projects and their deliverables to ensure that the team remains adequately informed and involved.