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22 May 2024

From guesswork to great design: The power of design decision tracking

Michael Chambers

How better design decision tracking can empower teams to communicate, clarify, validate, and improve choices over time.

Co-written by Michael Chambers and Suliman Khan

This article is a collaborative effort which hopefully brings together a diverse audience involved across the design space. This includes but is not limited to:

  • design practitioners
  • project managers
  • client stakeholders
  • new team members
  • training professionals

Each of these plays a crucial role in understanding the significance of design documentation. It’s not just about the documentation but about how it facilitates communication, decision-making, transparency, and alignment within design projects, providing valuable insights and guidance across various roles and stages of the design process.

Here are five key takeaways:

Definition and importance of design documentation: Design documentation includes artefacts covering traceability, change management, ownership, rationale, and details of changes made during the design phase. It’s crucial for effectively communicating design decisions to clients and ensuring alignment with service standards.

Communication and storytelling: Design documentation helps tell a story about how and why designs meet user needs and solve problems. It promotes alignment among teams by establishing a shared understanding of decisions made.

Differentiation from design specifications: Design documentation differs from design specifications by focusing on communicating critical decisions made during the design process rather than detailing appearance and functionality.

Benefits of design documentation: Design documentation is a powerful tool that empowers new team members, aids in revisiting previous design solutions, and guides future design activities. It’s not just a document but a resource that ensures everyone is on the same page and ready to contribute effectively.

Clarity, simplicity, and standard practice: Design documentation doesn’t need to be overly detailed but should provide the right content at the right level. It’s a standard part of the design approach, essential for maintaining quality and alignment with public service standards in fast-paced and complex project environments.

What is design documentation and why is it important?

Design documentation is essentially a type of operational artefact that covers the traceability, change management, ownership, rationale and the detail of the changes made during the design phase of a project.

It includes the most important aspects of decisions made during the design thinking process. Design documentation serves as a crucial tool for effectively capturing and communicating design decisions to clients with clarity and precision. It helps to ensure that our solutions are articulated comprehensively and is an essential artefact when designing and delivering services against the Service Standards as part of a GDS service assessment.

Designing with user needs and business needs in mind

Design documentation helps us to tell a story about how and why our designs meet user needs and solve whole problems for users and tracking the specific changes we are bringing about. By putting things into context, design documentation helps our delivery teams demonstrate that our understanding of and insights into the problem, leads to certain changes and rationale. It also establishes a shared understanding of why decisions were made, promoting alignment among teams.

It’s also crucial to distinguish between design documentation and design specifications. Design specifications detail the appearance and functionality of a specific design solution, serving as vital guides for developers to understand your vision. On the other hand, design documentation is a communicative tool, encapsulating the most critical decisions made throughout the design thinking process.

The benefits we get from good design documentation

Design documentation is a critical tool for iterative improvement. It allows teams to transparently see which past iterations have been revisited and improved, and the rigour and methodology behind the solutions are demonstrated.

One of the ways in which our design profession continues to move forward and to deliver meaningful solutions for clients and stakeholders is by ensuring that our processes are robust and that knowledge and learnings are captured in user experience artefacts. It also helps to encourage a spirit of working in the open and collaborating across different business areas and multidisciplinary teams.
Design documentation has proved extremely useful as a reference point in revisiting previous design solutions; it is also helpful in onboarding new team members and is a tool for sizing future design activities.

Design documentation doesn’t need to be convoluted or massively detailed. Just how we strive to show the right content, at the right level, at the right time in the work we do when we build services for people, the same approach should be taken when detailing what research or decisions fed into a specific iteration of the service you are working on.

Design documentation creates room for making visible the methodological rigour that underlies the way we rationalise and iteratively design solutions to problems. Deliberate and thorough tracking of the process, methods and decision-making, as a sharable artefact, also shows our professional expertise. It creates a space of transparency and trust for clients and other stakeholders.

80% of the onboarding of not only design / research specific professions but the wider delivery team is done through good and simple design documentation. The evolution and rationale of why you’ve got to where you are is painted through something like a decision log. The 20% is additional context provided through conversation, supplementing the record that has been kept.

Design documentation is a standard part of our approach as we’re designing

We often work in fast-paced environments and on complex projects, and this activity must be documented consistently and clearly at the time the decisions are made. As we continue to nurture and progress our design quality, all our design practitioners must understand the standard of excellence and how essential this kind of documentation is to delivering high-quality agile user-centred design outcomes to the standards required of public services. To that end, we do a lot of our documenting in a structured way – not just because this ensures clarity and consistency, but because it serves as a means of building on the wealth of experience we’ve amassed. Additionally, this can be used for training new members on the team in maintaining coherence as our design profession grows and expands.