Starting a design project with immersion and discovery

I’ve almost finished working on an exciting project for a non-profit healthcare client. Their existing website was no longer serving the needs of their many users and they wanted a shiny new one really badly This is the kind of project I enjoy the most. So much responsibility and I get to design everything from scratch.

I never know what I’m going to come up with and the blank sheet of paper makes me feel excited like on Christmas day. (Yeah, that’s my vision of the creative process.)

Great designs through Immersion and Discovery

What’s behind the final design? Most people don’t even imagine that there is that much, even behind the initial sketches.

Hundreds of pages could be written about the intricate universe of the design process.

But here are some of the key-steps.

It all starts with a phase that at Manifesto we call Immersion and Discovery, in which we gather as much information as we can about our clients, their business, their competitors and most importantly their users. Then we translate this knowledge into great designs.

1. Kick-off meeting

We start the creative process with a kick-off meeting between client and team (ux/designers/developers/project managers) where we all introduce ourselves and our roles in the project. The client will tell us more about their company, where it stands in relation to other organisations, the issues encountered so far, and what they would like to achieve.

Together we create a Product Vision Board, following Roman Pichler’s model. The amount of information that we collect from this discussion is invaluable: it helps us understand our client’s industry and also helps them express clearly WHAT they are trying to achieve.

As a result we get a Product Vision Statement: 3 or 4 lines that articulate clearly what the final goal is.

2. Personas, journeys, IA

What’s the next step? With a vision and a problem statement in mind, we have a look at the vision board and we start mapping similarities between the different users. Then I’d start sketching personas, which I will later refine and transform into digital format. In the meanwhile, we start taking decisions about the IA of the site, and if necessary we would run a card sort to help us structure the content in a way that makes sense to the users.

3. Backlog

Our amazing project managers will help us write user stories that we will prioritise together with the client. The key question is: “If we knew that the world would end after a week of development, what would be the feature that you would definitely want to go live with? (Obviously the world wouldn’t exist anymore but the glory of your website would echo in eternity!)”

4. Sketches and wireframes

Once we are happy with the personas and we have a clearer vision of the their journeys and the content/features they need to access, we start diving into more detail by sketching and wireframing different options for some template pages. This usually includes landing pages, content pages, home pages, search pages plus some exceptions. We then ask the client and the users for feedback. Testing wireframes and prototypes is very important to validate our initial assumptions and gives us the chance to find any flaws in the experience.

5. Designs

At this point, we are happy with the experience, the structure and the layout, I would start thinking about the visual design of the website. As I design the pages, and as more and more elements get refined and approved I start building some Digital Experience Guidelines – the main reference for content editors, designers and developers on how to use images, what is content manageable and what isn’t, best practices, fonts, colours etc – which will be my best friend until we close the project.

My personal tips and tricks for designers in the Immersion and Discovery phase

The kick-off meeting needs to be good.

I mean it. If you don’t have a meeting room you should book one that allows you to bring energy into it. Stand up if needed. Talk, explain, teach, inspire, learn, write notes, stick post-its everywhere. You must go back to your desk enlightened.

Write up your notes

If you normally have 18324083 things in your mind, or if your memory is really bad, don’t make the mistake of scribbling some notes and thinking you will understand them 3 days later.

If for some reason you are not going to work on that project straight after the meeting, you should still take some time to go through your notes, refining and/or extending them (and yeah, you should definitely translate them into English). Writing down a to-do list for later also helps. One of my recent resolutions is getting into this habit.

Research, study, read

Understand your client’s industry, familiarise yourself with their jargon, empathise with your personas and sketch their journeys until you have a clear idea of what will happen on the site. Your focus must be on the users.

Answers questions like: How do they get to the website? How often? Which device do they use? In which environment? What would be the first thing they would be looking for? What are their needs and goals? What are the commonalities and the differences between these users?

Designing without looking at things from the user’s perspective would mean designing blindly without any reasons to support your design decisions.

Working with clients: they love to be involved and it’s the best part

They enjoy workshops and challenges, especially if they are creative and completely different from their daily tasks. When we start talking about design choices there is always a moment of fun that releases some initial tension. Spend the time with your client in the most valuable way.

There is a certain art to being able to present your ideas to the client

An art that I’m still understanding, but I guess it’s all about building some suspense, bringing to the table good printed material, making sure  all the technology (TV, wifi, adaptors, etc.) is working and ready, being prepared and confident when talking.

Rehearse if necessary. We normally write a schedule of the meeting on our whiteboard wall, so we’re sure we don’t forget anything.

My best tip is: don’t think about what the client is thinking about, think about what you need to get from the meeting and leave the room only when you’ve got what you needed.

Never leave the tech team out of the loop

Their feedback is always invaluable at any point of the process. I’m not such a tech person (although my mum thinks I am) so the developers would constantly teach me things about the back-end and how it works. Tip: Yes, it’s all content manageable, but remember it’s our job to always advise what’s the BEST solution.

Understand what to spend time on

We all try to follow a creative process with structure but clients and projects are always different and some parts might require more attention and time than others. It might take ages to get some feedback, or it might take you longer to understand the intricate content you have to work with. And this is totally fine. Just be aware of any shortcuts you can take and learn to be flexible.

Sketches are an amazing tool

I hugely underestimated sketches in the past and I’m recently re-discovering them. One of my goals is learning how to improve my sketching and wireframing skills to make them look more beautiful (I know, a wireframe is not supposed to be beautiful, but my goal is to make them look absolutely fantastic…in the same amount of time).


They are an easy way to get straight feedback on the future design before you design it. I don’t know why I haven’t made more use of them in the past. At the beginning I was creating 2 or even 3 ‘pixel-perfect’ template designs and the clients would choose their favourite. Now I think that moodboards are enough to show some different creative directions.

I would prepare a digital moodboard, basically a nice pdf (something like a style tile) without going into much detail. You can experiment with different styles, colours, fonts and that would be enough for everyone to get the ‘feel’ and give you some feedback to let you know if you are going in the right direction.

I’m extremely glad and grateful to work for an agency that uses Agile methods to manage projects

I’ve found that writing ‘stories’ for each of the features we’d like to build and prioritising the backlog with the client helps me to get a quick idea of the content, the features, the elements I will have to display on the page and, most importantly, what’s the hierarchy and why.

As always, breaking down the matter in many different small points makes the whole thing look more manageable and it allows me to work much more efficiently.

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