Design, UI, UX, Insights

Design Cycle Explained [+ Examples]

A short guide to everything you need to know about the design cycle

Design isn’t just about creating products—it’s driven by purpose. The trigger for the design cycle often arises from identifying needs that demand new products or services, setting the stage for iterative design processes.

This process might seem a bit messy, even for experts. They also take a moment to figure things out as they move through it. What makes a professional stand out is their skill to handle unclear situations. Believing in this process becomes important, especially when things get tough.

Now, let’s talk about The Design Cycle: it’s a straightforward and flexible plan that forms the backbone of successful designs. Its simplicity doesn’t stop it from fitting anywhere and helps designers work fast and adapt easily. Plus, it’s not a rigid process—it can tackle all sorts of problems and is based on what users need, backed by solid research.

What makes this plan special is how it’s tied to user research and facts. Every step has clear rules to put the user first. It’s all about learning and growing, which sparks new ideas and makes room for progress. It’s great for different design areas like UX and making products.

In this pocket guide, we’ll break down The Design Cycle bit by bit, using real examples. We’ll show how it works across different design fields, making designs that really matter.

As a start, here is a quick infographic visualization of the design cycle:

What is a Design Cycle?

The Design Cycle is a structured process guiding the creation of products or solutions. It’s a methodical approach, moving an idea from start to finish, focusing on continuous improvement and feedback.

Adopting the Design Cycle offers practical benefits. Firstly, it meets specific customer needs by putting their requirements at the core of the process. Secondly, it’s great at solving complex problems that might not be clear initially. It also encourages innovative thinking, pushing designers to develop fresh solutions. Lastly, it makes operations faster and more efficient and boosts productivity.

The Design Cycle involves four key steps:

  • Planning: Setting goals and brainstorming initial ideas.
  • Development: Shaping and refining those ideas.
  • Creation: Bringing designs to life and refining them based on feedback.
  • Evaluation: Checking outcomes against criteria, gathering user feedback, and making improvements.

Now, let’s take a deep dive into these four key steps, where we’ll examine each stage closely.


1. Planning Phase

The first and most important phase of the design cycle can determine the success of the final product as it involves research, analysis, and planning. During this stage, you define the goals and objectives of your design, and problem-solving strategy and gain an understanding of the target audience and competitors in the particular market.

Here’s what the Planning phase includes:

  • Defining Objectives: Clearly state the goals and aims of the design project.
  • Justifying Design Importance: Explain why the proposed design is crucial by addressing identified needs or problems.
  • Problem-Solving Strategy: Develop a plan outlining how the design will tackle key issues.
  • Understanding Audience and Market: Summarize insights about the intended audience and market dynamics.
  • Competitor Analysis: Gather information about competitors to grasp the existing landscape.
  • Budget and Timeline: Create a financial plan and set timelines for different project stages.
  • Project Scale and Complexity: Assess and communicate the size and complexity of the project to manage expectations.
  • Product Target Characteristics: Outline the specific features and attributes expected in the final product.


A practical example:

Imagine we’re working on a mobile fitness app, aiming to help users track workouts and get personalized exercise plans. Our main goal is to make it easy to use and encourage people to lead healthier lives. To make this happen, we’re focusing on creating an app with a user-friendly interface and real-time tracking features.

We’re targeting fitness enthusiasts who want customized workouts and looking at the market to see what people prefer in fitness apps. Checking out what other fitness apps are doing helps us understand trends and what makes us stand out. We have a plan and timelines for costs, development, and launch.

Building this app is a bit complex because we want it to have many features, adapt to different devices, and be easy for everyone to use. We aim for smooth workout tracking, simple interfaces, personal workout plans, and easy sharing on social media. This planning phase helps us lay a strong foundation to create an app that meets market needs and users’ expectations.


If you’re working on a client project, however, gathering most of the data requires communication with the stakeholders to determine the objectives, goals, pain points, and your client’s expectations for the final result. This whole process will be much easier if you write a creative brief.

1.1. Writing the Design Brief

When starting a new project, the first step is understanding its goals and the client’s expectations. Design briefs serve as a tool to communicate visions and ideas, keeping everyone aligned throughout.

Without a design brief, you risk increased mixing strategies, more emails or meetings, and confusion due to the lack of project definition and planning from the start.

A well-crafted creative brief brings several advantages. It cuts project time by detailing expectations upfront, reducing the need for revisions. It also prevents misdirection caused by vague requirements. Moreover, it establishes clear success measures like rates and views, enabling the creative team to deliver a precise final product.

Here’s what the design brief should include:

  • Clear project objectives and identified design challenges.
  • Strategies outlining how to tackle the primary challenge.
  • Understanding the target users and their needs.
  • Analysis of competitors and similar solutions.
  • Defined project scope, timeline, and budget.
  • Detailed project specifications.

With all the necessary info gathered in the brief, you can write a design specification to serve you as a guide during the other phases.

1.2. Writing the Design Specification

Design specifications are detailed instructions that explain exactly what a project needs to achieve. They outline the specific requirements for how something should look, work, and feel. These specs are like a roadmap, guiding the team to create something that meets all the goals. They make sure everyone knows what to do, reducing confusion and mistakes. They also ensure that the final product matches what was planned, keeping everything on track. Having clear specifications saves time and helps the team focus on doing their best work.

As a starting point, consider the following questions when you write a design specification:

  • Purpose: What’s the design’s goal? What should it look like? What cool stuff could it include?
  • General Design: What materials, tools, and parts are needed?
  • Aesthetics: How can the design attract customers and make them feel good?
  • Quality: What shows the design is top-notch? Will it last long?
  • Environmental: Are materials eco-friendly? How can we reduce waste?
  • Ethics and Inclusivity: How can we make sure everyone feels included?


2. Development Phase

Once you have the design specifications, you can go forward with the development phase. This is where you let your creativity flow and come up with your solutions.

Here’s what the Development phase includes:

  • Develop Design Ideas: Use the specifications as a foundation to brainstorm and create various design concepts. Explore different possibilities that align with the project’s objectives, whether by brainstorming, sketching, or employing innovative techniques like lightning demos or storyboarding.
  • Present the Chosen Ideas: After generating multiple ideas, select the most promising ones and present them to the team. This collaborative session allows for critical evaluation and feedback, ensuring the chosen design aligns with project goals and overcomes potential weaknesses.


A practical example:

Now, let’s consider a practical example in the context of developing a new mobile app for a social networking platform:

Your design specifications outline the app’s purpose, functionality, and target audience. You know the product needs to have specific features like user profiles, messaging, and content sharing. This also includes technical requirements, such as platform compatibility and security measures. Establish a timeline and budget for the app’s development.

With these specifications in hand, you start generating design ideas that bring the social networking app to life. You can sketch different user interface layouts, explore color schemes, and consider interactive features. A great way to get more valuable ideas is to have brainstorming sessions with your teammates and, of course, get feedback from potential users or team members to refine and improve design concepts.

Select the most compelling design ideas and present them to the development team. Showcase wireframes, user flows, and visual mock-ups to provide a comprehensive view. Your team members can share insights, identify potential challenges, and suggest improvements. Through collaborative evaluation, choose the design concept that aligns best with the project goals, user needs, and technical constraints.


3. Creation Phase

In the Creation Phase, a balanced approach to design is key. Rushing into the creative phase might seem tempting, but the design cycle highlights the groundwork needed for successful outcomes. It’s important to document any plan alterations and noteworthy discoveries during the design process, even capturing screenshots to aid in later testing and iterations.

Create a working prototype that will be evaluated in the next phase. Note that the initial prototype doesn’t demand visual perfection; rather, it should prioritize functionality for subsequent evaluation and iterative enhancements.

To sum up, the creation phase includes the following:

Construct a Logical Plan: Start by creating a detailed plan that shows the order of steps for making the solution. This plan includes the order things will be done, how resources will be used, and when each part will be done.

Follow the Plan to Make the Solution:  Carry out the plan carefully, doing each step and meeting the deadlines. Add design elements, write code, and put in features following the plan. Check regularly to see if everything is going as planned and make changes if needed.

Justify Changes to the Design: If you need to change something in the design as you’re making it, explain why you’re making that change. Think about how the change will make the solution work better, be easier to use or fit better with what the project aims to do. Any changes from the original plan should have a good reason and match the project’s goals.


A practical example:

Imagine you’re developing a website for an online marketplace. You start by outlining a systematic plan detailing the website’s structure, functionalities, and technical requirements. This includes defining the layout, navigation, user account features, product categories, and payment methods. You will also allocate resources and set timelines for the design, development, and testing phases.

The next step is to implement the planned design and functionality according to the outlined steps. Design the user interface elements, create databases for product listings, integrate secure payment gateways, and develop user authentication features as per the established timeline. Also don’t forget to regularly review progress against the plan, making adjustments as necessary to meet deadlines.

During the development process, if you need to make alterations to the original plan (such as adding a new search feature or modifying the user interface), make sure these changes are justified. For example, justify the inclusion of a new feature by demonstrating its potential to enhance user experience or address a specific user need. In short, explain how these modifications contribute positively to the website’s functionality and align with the overall project goals.


4. Evaluation Phase

In the Evaluation Phase, it’s time to dig into your work and assess it thoroughly. Different projects call for specific testing methods, like A/B tests or surveys, to gather valuable user feedback. By putting your product through real user testing, you’ll see how it truly performs and if it effectively addresses the problem it set out to solve.

Reflect on why you started the project and consider specific metrics to measure success. Analyzing these results helps refine the design’s purpose.

4.1. Usability Testing

This step focuses on checking how easy and effective it is for people to use your product. The evaluation checks whether users comprehend how the product operates, can locate desired elements efficiently, and gauges the ease or effort it takes for users to navigate through the product

For instance, imagine you’re designing a new mobile app for shopping. Usability testing would involve observing if users can easily find and buy items they want. It’s about making sure the app is user-friendly and meets their needs, checking if they understand how to use it and if it’s easy for them to navigate through different sections.

4.2. Documentation

The documentation involves recording and compiling comprehensive details about the evaluation process, its findings, and outcomes. It basically serves as a repository of insights, observations, and results obtained during usability testing. Writing such documentation will help you keep a structured record that aids in understanding user behaviors, identified issues, and recommendations for improving the product.

Let’s say you conducted usability tests on the shopping app. You’d write down what users did, what worked well, and what didn’t. This record helps you understand how users behaved while using the app, pinpoint any problems they faced, and note down ideas to make the app better based on their experiences. This information will guide you in making improvements or fixing any issues with the app.

To sum up, this phase isn’t the end but a chance for continuous improvement. It’s normal to revisit earlier stages, conduct more research, tweak features, or even discard initial ideas that don’t quite work. However, any changes should stem from research and test results rather than solely from perfectionism. It’s a cycle of refining and seeking better solutions, emphasizing the importance of data-driven enhancements.


Web Design Cycle: Putting Theory into Practice

Let’s see the design cycle in action. The web development cycle mirrors the classic design cycle we explored earlier, this is why we will look at the web design cycle instead. It typically encompasses five to eight steps, however, we will group these steps into the familiar 4 phases.

1. Planning

In the initial phase of web design, planning sets the stage for success. You start with product discovery, which involves setting clear objectives, defining target audiences, and analyzing competitors and market trends. During this stage, you can also start your documentation to capture all the valuable info you will get from your brief.

Let’s imagine you’re creating a website for a fictional online bookstore.

For your online bookstore project, the product discovery phase involves setting clear goals—providing a seamless user experience, catering to book enthusiasts, and competing in the online market. Understanding your target audience—avid readers, book lovers, and students—is key. You conduct a thorough market and competitor analysis, identifying gaps and opportunities. Detailed documentation captures these insights and acts as a reference throughout the project.

2. Development

The development phase in web design involves creating the information architecture. You will focus on the internal structure and organization of the website, and determine how information will be structured and accessed by users. Simultaneously, here you also decide on the coding languages, technology, and tools.

Continuing the online bookstore example for this phase, you will decide how the bookstore’s pages, like categories (fiction, non-fiction), authors, and book details, will be organized for easy navigation. Simultaneously, you finalize the coding language, opting for HTML, CSS, and JavaScript, and select appropriate tools like Bootstrap for responsive design.

3. Creation

The creation phase here is split between UX design and UI design. First, the UX design team will focus on crafting user journey maps and wireframes, ensuring intuitive and efficient user experiences. Next, the UI designers will create the visual aspects: visual designs, animations, micro-interactions, style guides, and prototypes.

For the online bookstore, for instance, you will sketch user journey maps, ensuring seamless browsing, search, and checkout experiences. This involves wireframing key pages like the homepage, book listings, and the checkout process. Simultaneously, UI design brings the website to life. You will focus on visually appealing designs, incorporating book covers, animations for page transitions, and defining micro-interactions for adding books to the cart.

4. Evaluation

As the design nears completion, the evaluation phase kicks in. Here you test the website across all relevant browsers and platforms, ensuring functionality, compatibility, and performance are optimized. During this phase, you can also perform user testing to obtain objective data and user feedback which will be relevant for further development iterations.

For example, when you’re done designing your online bookstore, you thoroughly test the site on various browsers and devices, ensuring compatibility and functionality across platforms. You check for page loading times, and responsiveness, and optimize performance. The user testing involves gathering valuable feedback from book enthusiasts and potential customers, allowing you to fine-tune the website based on their experiences.


Let’s Wrap It Up!

To sum up, the design process is a continuous loop where ideas evolve, solutions improve, and products transform over time. It’s a dynamic cycle that involves research, development, testing, and launch, creating an ever-evolving journey. Designs often change, shaped by new insights and emerging possibilities.

The Design Cycle stands as a practical and adaptable framework, guiding ideas from conception to a finished product.

It thrives on teamwork, pooling everyone’s skills to solve tricky problems and keep momentum. Working together allows each person to feel part of the solution, making the final outcome stronger.

Creating quick prototypes helps get feedback faster. It lets us focus on what’s most important and change things easily if needed. Spending too much time on a prototype can make us attached, so quicker builds are better.

The cycle isn’t a straight line; it’s more like a loop. We should move fast, learn a lot, and keep improving our work. After putting our solution out there, we get the best information, which helps us decide what to do next.

This process isn’t about doing things in the perfect order. It’s messy, and that’s okay. Each step teaches us something new, guiding our next move. If we feel we should go back or rethink something, we definitely should. It’s all about learning and improving.

In the meantime, let’s explore more insights and resources on web design and web development by checking out our other articles!

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