Something on the whiteboard catches your eye. You move closer, letting a hint of solvent lingering
from dry erase markers make its way to your olfactory receptors. It's you. A comic-strip form of
you. Next to your likeness are the words you have so-passionately used to describe your new idea...
Innovative. Helpful. Friendly.
Panning your head further to the right, you begin to navigate a maze of doodles until you see it.
There, on the next wall, are print-outs of phone and laptop screens of all sizes. Inside these
screens are circles, rectangles, squares.
Then you hear it in your ear. Lub-dub. Lub-dub. Lub-dub. You feel it in your chest. Lub-dub. Lub-dub.
Your heart. Your idea. It's beating.
Meet design documentation. The heartbeat of a product—from the first spark of inspiration on a
soda napkin all the way through launch... and into the future, with the product's evolution and all
its iterations and features.
Product design is a collaborative process between designers, clients and users. Design documentation
fuels that collaboration, driving a project forward and leaving a story of product evolution in its
wake. A story that includes: ideas and the user research behind them, as well as design decisions
and the rationale behind them.
Much like the benefits of having a healthy heart, great design documentation—when organized and
clearly labeled—has wonderful benefits with its own ROI.
At the start of a project,
Design documentation is an exercise for discovering a project's focus
During a project's discovery phase, it is hard to understand and hash out the design problems without
Take user personas, a thinking tool for pushing the design process along that sometimes is
misperceived as fanciful. And yet, collaborating on persona documents is crucial to set the design
process on the right course. Personas start with real data and research, which designers often have
to solicit from the client.
Through the creation of personas, a product's team gets to know and understand potential users on a
deep, emotional level. In turn, personas allow designers to question assumptions about a product's
requirements, not from their own perspective, but from the perspective of the ones who matter, the
potential users. Thus, well-created personas complement the creation of user stories, as well as
their mapping and prioritization.
After user stories are created, we have a clear focus on the requirements for a project, defined in
terms of needs and desires. Additionally, we have a good idea of whose needs and wants need to be
prioritized, thus driving the project forward.
Design documentation provides a vision for buy-in
Once the initial direction is established, win project support by winning their hearts. Design
documentation, focused clearly on people, is more persuasive than dry, technical documents simply
listing out product specifications.
During early stages of product development, you have an opportunity to use the power of design
documentation to garner stakeholder support for a project's vision. One way to communicate the
breadth and scope of that vision is with customer journey maps.
A customer journey map will give stakeholders a clear sense of how users will use a product from
beginning to end. While persona and user story documents can yield a wealth of details to last the
length of a project, customer journey maps can crystallize the way that "personas" move through the
To avoid the risk of making these maps seem like just a collection of steps, designers will often add
other information to the journey. One possibility is to integrate information from empathy mapping
into the journey. This means identifying which parts of the user's journey represent either pain
points or successes.
Given that most products require users to take on different roles and interact with others, many
journey maps show how users' actions intersect in their journeys. These multi-user maps are
sometimes organized into swimlane diagrams to clearly illustrate the system of connections required
to keep a product alive in the real world.
Design documentation keeps you engaged and happy
When it comes to large projects, we've all been there. The product team is in the trenches coding
towards a distant launch date. This is often the time when you and your colleagues are pressing for
Many design teams know this is the time to bring in the documentation. And the best design teams will
take the responsibility to present organized documentation with visuals that dazzle and with
explanations that are easy to understand. But it's hard for clients to resist asking for a
fully-visualized, glossy, close-to-final version of their product, even at early stages when the
customer journey has not been fully mapped.
Wireframes can go a long way to explain what the product is supposed to be. However, these wireframes
need to be clearly documented, or even better, made interactive. Interactive design, while
frequently documented in user stories, is often taken for granted by stakeholders in favor of
full-color mock-ups. But still images cannot document the abundance of states that one single screen
can transform into as users interact with the product.
Wireframes can easily supplant thousand-word e-mails, while also being much more manageable to update
than mock-ups. While each color mock-up can tell a thousand words, an interactive wireframe uses
more action words... in fact, it tells a story, providing proof of a product vision coming to life.
And, as a side note, if you think wireframes aren't pretty enough to make their way into
presentations with colleagues... negotiate with the designers to, in parallel, present one "hero"
screen in full-color mode. It is much easier to extrapolate the look and feel from one image than it
is to try to imagine all the actions hidden within it.
Design documentation keeps everyone on track during the project journey
Design documentation is a critical vehicle for keeping designers and developers on the same page.
Clear documentation translates into organized, actionable items for developers, so that—from
the start—they work on building the right functionality and understand why it's being built.
Skimping on documentation leads developers to create code for interactions that are different from
the design team's intentions or in conflict with user's needs.
The journey to the final product isn't overnight. We all know that. It's the process of months of
work, with frequent checkpoints of user testing, to ensure that the design changes in progress in
fact meet the needs and wants of users.
When the design and development team get buried in the details, it's beneficial to return to
high-level documentation to make sure every decision still aligns with the larger vision for the
At the project's destination, or ending point,
Design documentation is the recipe for replicating good results
Delivering changes to a team's software that translates into increased efficiency, output and profits
is hard work. And you are often busy developing strategies to bring the same success to other IT
projects within your company.
Great design documentation from one project can provide the framework for developing winning
strategies for these other projects, and even the necessary steps the design team and developers can
take to begin.
For example, there might be gold hidden in the original set of sketches for another project, as it is
less costly to explore a wider range of ideas in this format. Revisiting this stage of an earlier
project can point the way for a later redesign, or for another team in your organization to learn
from your approach.
Design documentation is a trophy for success
We all want to brag a little bit about our success, right?
Project managers often find themselves in the position of having to justify to stakeholders that
usability improvements on existing software or new product builds were money well spent while the
ROI is still rolling in.
Documentation, showing every design decision and how it resolved problems for the employees using the
software, can be a great way to do this. It also provides transparency on every step taken by the
design team, providing a clear answer to the "where did the money go" question.
Additionally, many marketing departments are looking to translate project successes into case studies, white papers and ebooks to demonstrate that the
company is still paving the future for the industry. Contained within the documentation, user
testing results and annotated wireframes is all the research for the technical writer to deliver a
white paper draft.
Conclusion: Make designers show you the benefits of documentation
Beyond being the heartbeat that keeps your project moving and improving, design documentation is what you pay for in a project... And it's the
responsibility of design teams to deliver. If you feel like design documentation is a lifeless
add-on or supplement to a project, then your design team simply isn't using best practices.
The movement towards Lean and Agile development philosophies means designers do their best to distill
their documentation down to only the exercises and assets that fuel collaboration and drive a
Designers should be using documentation to get your ideas integrated into the design process. During
the process, they should use documentation to engage you, update you and track the story of your
And next time you walk into a room full of neon Post-Its, you will recognize it as the kind of
documentation that will bring your product into the world.