Not too long ago I was an Industrial Designer, creating physical products that are sold in the physical world. Today, I'm designing digital products that live on the internet. These are very different in form and function, but the processes behind creating both are becoming increasingly similar as the web progresses.
Industrial Design has a history of established, but flexible, processes where generative exercises are carried out. A young Industrial Designer works hard to develop sketching and prototyping skills early and uses these skill extensively throughout their career. Industrial Designers work in iterative cycles of defining goals, developing solutions, and evaluating results. This iterative cycle has been used for decades as a way to efficiently expose strengths and weaknesses of a design early in the development process.
Many of these iterative approaches are starting to make an appearance in the world of software/web design, taking on names such as Lean UX & rapid prototyping. These focus on the same style of iterative cycles where you test and validate the design decisions being made. Sketching and prototyping are a part of these processes but still don't receive the attention that they should. They are extremely powerful tools that are often overlooked.
It Starts with Sketching
When I say sketching, I'm not necessarily talking about pencil on paper, although those are perfectly acceptable. Sketches can alternatively exist as digital wireframes or low-fidelity photoshop mockups, but generally, the quicker you can make them, the better. However, before even starting your first sketch, you need to clearly define your goals. For example, if I was working on a piece of furniture, my goals before I started sketching would include things like a target price-point and ease of assembly. These goals are foundational and will be required to later critique your ideas. Only after your goals are fully established, can you begin the generative sketching process.
During the actual sketching process you just need to focus on getting as many ideas out on paper as quickly as possible. Don't worry about reviewing or critiquing your work until you have spent an appropriate amount of time just creating and outputting. When starting work on something such as a new lamp, I would often spend my first day just sketching. Before further development, I'd have 40-50 sketches of different concepts.
After sketching your initial ideas, review them and critique the ideas you explored. Compare them to your original goals and evaluate how well they solve them. This process should expose weaknesses and strengths in your ideas and give you what you need to start the cycle over. This iterative cycle of defining your goals, sketching, and critiquing will let you quickly think through the design while keeping focus on the original goals and objectives.
Proceed to Prototyping
Prototyping should be approached in a very similar manner. Like sketching, it's a generative process. You should iterate through multiple revisions, evaluating and learning from each one, and refining your design. Prototyping, however, goes well beyond sketching by allowing you to more fully explore how interactions will be experienced. For example, if designing a new power tool, you would have to make a physical prototype to understand exactly how it will feel in your hand when using it.
In Industrial Design, prototyping in commonplace, but it is still fairly rare in the web design world. At one time, web design was very similar to Graphic Design, where pages were static and interactions were mostly visual. But now, as the web becomes more and more interactive, it is becoming more akin to Industrial Design. This shift is creating a need for prototypes which allow designers to test and evaluate these complex interactions.
When creating industrial products, you have to go beyond drawings and build physical prototypes. Similarly, when designing products for the web or mobile devices, static mock-ups often aren't enough to fully flush out a design. When embracing concepts like drag-and-drop file uploads, css animations, and other complex interactions; a prototype is needed to truly test and evaluate what you're building.
Industrial Design has a history of proven iterative design processes developed to efficiently test and refine concepts. Many of these processes can be directly applied within the web design industry; sketching and prototyping are just two examples of these. As complex products with elaborate interactions become the norm online, these practices used in Industrial Design will become increasingly relevant to software and web development. After all, it's all just product design.