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Working with design detail

Why prototypes can be more valuable than specifications or documentation

A good rule of thumb for designers:

If you need to get into a finite level of detail, make something.

Artefacts are most useful when they become the design, rather than a plan for doing the design or building a product.

This is the principle in a design process that creating a working prototype is more effective for learning than creating a detailed specification or documentation for how a design might work.

Most product or interaction designers, as well as content designers, already spend the majority of their time looking at the finite detail of a design. Every word counts if you design content, and every interaction matters in an interface or flow when you’re focussed on making it as usable and accessible to everyone as possible. Service designers focus on a higher level view of all the components of a service which can introduce a vast amount of complexity. The detail of their work is eco-systems or how all the individual parts of a service work together within an organisation, and often, across multiple organisations.

In my experience, design ‘detail’ doesn’t add value as a list of specifications or documentation. This is detailed analysis rather than creative work. Whereas a business analyst should be focussed on scoping and requirements, a designers job is to show how something could or will work, as a means of testing and improving solutions.

Show the thing

It’s much more useful to make something to show how it will work than to focus on creating a detailed specification.

This means designing real content and interactions into working prototypes, and then working through the detail required for every single touch point. You can also prototype entire services as a way to explore and learn about how to best meet user needs and how to run, scale or sustain a service successfully.

I don’t know who said it first, but a prototype is worth a thousand meetings. It can even become a build specification given the right process and level of fidelity used to design and test new ideas or concepts. Most of all, having a prototype allows conversations to happen. This then leads to iteration and the potential to make changes in response to user feedback–we quickly learn about the detail within parts of a service or products, applying changes to improve how they work.

This blog post is also published on Medium.

Ben Holliday is an experienced design leader, writer and speaker. This is his blog (started in 2005). You can follow all of Ben's blog posts by subscribing to the RSS feed, or follow him on Twitter for more regular updates.