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Progressive Design

Progressive Design, an Iterative Design Introduction

Design is everywhere. We are surrounded by it, much like the Force. We don’t realize it, but it’s there. The chair you sit in. The computer or phone you’re reading this on. The apps you use. Design is the differentiator that separates so-so products from great ones. That’s where iterative design can help. We call it Progressive Design.

Progressive Design is a system to solve business problems, not just design ones. It’s a set of design methods, approaches and deliverables that help you and your team improve your products and services through an iterative, people-centered approach.

It’ll turn your team into a design-driven one, allowing your design practitioners to take the conn… um, lead. You’ll bring cross-functional teams together and facilitate customer feedback into the design process. 

And you won’t be leaving money on the table. Because bad design is costly.  In the Age of the Consumer, that’s a risk you can’t afford to take. Iterative design is the most effective way for getting your potential customers invested in your products and services. 

This guide is everything you need to know to get started.

A ZURB team uses Progressive Design methods to solve a design problem.
A ZURB team uses Progressive Design methods to solve a design problem.

Guide Objective

The goal of this guide is to shorten design feedback loops, drive more effective collaboration, and improve your organization’s design methods. We’ll outline basic design skills through ten sections and develop a set of design methods that improve each product iteration cycle.

Jumps are used in Progressive Design to drive the product iteration cycle.

In this guide we’ll learn how to: 

  • Inspire great product design through ideation, filtering, and prioritizing ideas.
  • Produce an audit by critiquing an interface. 
  • Critique an interface by using critical thinking to produce a web audit.
  • Generate opportunity sketches that encourage design discussions. 
  • Present design work that drives effective collaboration and feedback. 
  • Create stories that reveal customer problems and surface new opportunities. 
  • Map critical steps in the customer journey to asses the potential of ideas. 
  • Construct wireframes that define the information, interface and navigation design. 
  • Sketch user workflows to reveal key interactions. 
  • Run a Jump to bring all the design methods and actions together.

This guide will not cover: 

  • Building a project plan, something we call a Flight Plan in Progressive Design. 
  • Collecting reactions from customers or a target audience, an important part of the design  process. 
  • Delivering or specifying front-end code, an activity that happens in the later stages of a  Flight Plan. 

“Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” 

-Thomas Edison, inventor  

“Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.” 

-Chuck Close, artist

The Challenge and the Case for Iterative Design 

Design is a black box in many organizations. Some may recognize it as important and impactful, but the processes are confusing and the results are unpredictable. This is due to the non-binary nature of creative work. However, much of it is due to non-designers not having visibility into the process. 

Designers are not entirely responsible for the opaqueness around their work, but they don’t mind it either. It’s this murky quality that has prevented many business types from wholeheartedly embracing design, and it’s one of the key areas of iterative design addresses. 

Progressive Design creates uniformity in design projects to reduce confusion, support the business and pulls back the curtain on the creative process. It adds a structure and consistency. This leads to quantifiable outcomes without removing the freedom and spontaneity that inspires great design work in the first place.

When done well, Progressive Design inspires project teams while reducing frustration in understanding design concepts and methods. 

These benefits do not come without challenges. There are unavoidable, yet not insurmountable  obstacles that organizations will run into when trying to get iterative design up and running.  

But not to worry. That’s why Progressive Design makes use of a project document called a Flight Plan that builds confidence and mitigates these common roadblocks.

Now, let’s make the case for iterative design. Or how you can sell your organization to make these changes. 

Creativity Doesn’t Appear to Have an End Point 

The creative process doesn’t have a clear starting point or finish line. This can seem maddening  to a team full of critical thinkers who are used to working on projects with clearly defined goals. You know, like Bob in accounting, who likes things that neatly fit into columns in a spreadsheet.   

Progressive Design can: 

  • Help teams envision an imagined end to a design project, many of which do not have fully defined components.  
  • Give space for project variances to occur and create confidence with a team that a good result is feasible.

Bad Experiences Working with Designers 

Many companies need to improve their products with design. However, they expect too much from designers, who are not prepared to solve business problems.

Design encompasses strategic, tactical and operational problems —  not every designer will have the skills to successfully complete these projects. Inserting a designer who is not prepared to handle these challenges  can have a negative impact on the morale and the results. 

Progressive Design can: 

  • Help a designer, who is capable of working in an operational capacity, stretch their skills to provide more value in the project. 
  • Provide an incremental and structured way to get to a design result. Smaller, incremental  steps can ease fear or feelings of previous frustration. It also prevents letting debilitating performance or outcome anxiety build up. The Flight Plan creates a structure to have ongoing conversations and helps the designer manage the team’s stress. 

Leaders Aren’t Prepared to Sell a Design Process 

Many designers develop a process that is unique to their skills. And they may not have the  experience selling their work to cross-disciplinary teams. This problem is compounded when  multiple designers work together to sell collaborative work. 

Progressive Design can: 

  • Create a structured way to pull the team along for the ride in a way that is transparent  and confidence- building.  
  • Build team confidence in project progress by using milestones to review design work.

Cross-Disciplinary Teams Have Their Own Process 

Designers are used to being part of a production line process. They aren’t as familiar with business  environments where they must understand other disciplines. Customer service, business development and engineering all intersect with design. Unlike design, however, these groups tend to have a better understanding of their impact on business goals, as well as processes that were established earlier in the business’ growth.

Progressive Design can: 

  • Create confidence and pull people into the design process.  
  • Develop a path by which design can have influence on cross-disciplinary groups. The fact that there’s a plan in place builds confidence and allows design to help guide the process.

Misalignment of Strategic, Tactical and Operational Problems 

Design has the capacity to solve problems at all levels of a business. It’s a transformative discipline in an organization because it can be used to solve highly variable challenges. Not all designers will be strong in each area and the impact of their work will also vary from project to  project. 

Progressive Design can: 

  • Validate and open up strategic initiatives 
    • Uncover product opportunities in a strategic plan 
    • Define projects that could create value for an organization 
    • Highlight gaps in the operational plan 
    • Identify new customer segments or opportunities 
  • Stretch the thinking in new products and services 
    • Find new ideas to create value for a user
    • Discover usability problems in a workflow or action 
    • Create compelling workflows through prototyping 
  • Drive implementation and production work 
    • Refine a set of icons across an application 
    • Create a new website visual identity 
    • Test and refine a checkout page

Confusion from Highly Variable Design Methodologies 

Design uses a combination of divergent and convergent thinking methods to create amazing outcomes. These design methods can be frustrating to non-designers who feel more comfortable using a defined process to arrive at a goal. 

Progressive Design can: 

  • Reduce the anxiety that comes from variable methods by creating uniformity in the feedback loop. 
  • Bring clarity to the design methods a team will use by helping everyone visualize the next  phases in a Flight Plan. 

Trust Issues Based on a Lack of Results 

Design projects are prone to create frustration across disciplines when there isn’t a strong design leader or process in place. Flight Plans reduce risk in the organization and increase the likelihood of a successful project by inspiring action among team members, speeding up results through incremental gains, and building confidence in the design work.  

Progressive Design can: 

  • Earn trust by producing incremental results. 
    • In many cases, design teams try to solve too many problems all at once. A Flight Plan helps teams create momentum by breaking the design problem into smaller chunks. 
    • Three wins are better than one. Especially when trust is at a minimum. 
  • Smaller workloads reduce the long term stress and promote eustress. 
  • Build confidence in “what’s next” with patterns. 
    • It’s easier for a designer to sell the next piece. 
    • Repetition of process 
    • Visualizing methods and deliverables before doing them helps relieve stress. 
  • Inspire action in the entire team. 
    • It’s imperative that a Flight Plan works well for the leader who is driving a design  process. 
    • After running numerous projects, it becomes easier for teams to anticipate what’s next. This lets them jump into the work without as much reluctance.


Teams are averse to change and people have a natural negativity bias that hinders design  projects. Iterative Design encourages teams to overcome this aversion through iteration and incremental change. Below are some important concepts that will help mitigate these challenges and get these design ideas to stick. 


  • It means collaborating with your team to find the human component in the problems you’re  solving. 
  • Great design starts by finding empathy with the people you’re designing for then going  out and sharing your creations with those people. 

Fail Fast 

  • The goal is winning — failing fast lets us get there at breakneck speeds. We end up making less wrong turns and hitting dead ends.  


  • Constraints spark wild creativity. It seems counterintuitive to say that, but it really does do the trick. It can lead to some great designs,  products, and even great music. As Orson Wells once said, “The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.”
  • Constraints necessitate a different way of approaching a problem. Confining it forces  more novel solutions and releases preconceived notions because a problem can be  viewed from several different angles. 
  • Constraints force timeboxing, where you continually limit what you’re doing based on the  availability of your time. By doing so, you’ll actually focus on the result and get products made more quickly. Deadlines don’t have to be debilitating and can actually work to your  advantage. 
  • Constraints allow  you to say “no.” Constraints cut out a lot of possibilities. While it isn’t easy,  constraints help eliminate the crappy stuff before wasting time on a problem. It’s  easier to be innovative because you aren’t worrying about accomplishing a billion things.  As Steve Jobs says, innovation means saying “no” to a 1,000 things. 

Systems Thinking 

  • Systems thinking is the process of understanding how objects or services influence one another within a larger system. It’s an approach to problem solving by looking at problems  as parts of an overall system, instead of reacting to individual parts, outcomes or events.  Systems thinking enables further development of ideas that may have unintended  consequences on the larger system.  
  • Systems thinking utilizes patterns and concepts to create an understanding of the  interdependent structures of a larger, dynamic system. The goal of designing with systems  thinking is to help people better understand the larger system so they can discover the  leverage points that shape an outcome. 


  • Iteration is a cyclical process to improve the quality and function of design.  
  • Iteration is a systematic, cyclical design loop. Products are prototyped, tested/analyzed,  refined and prototyped once more — where the process starts all over again. And it doesn’t end once a product is finished. Iteration happens well after a launch, improving  functionality and adding complexity. 


  • Thinking about the good qualities of someone or something can create a great result.  
  • Being hopeful or optimistic can help teams overcome design challenges that would  otherwise not be possible. “ Yes, and…” is great to inspire further creativity and positivity. 


Building products as a team requires: 

  • Sharing a clear goal that everyone understands. Designing with a clear end point and  process. 
  • Working physically close to each other. Staying connected by IM and phone when  you aren’t. 
  • Speaking in pictures. Use sketching to simulate the actual UI and avoid abstractions of  simple, detailed problems. 
  • Shared feedback with team members and from customers. Keep it out in the open every day,  which builds confidence in arguing and makes new conversations really easy to begin. 
  • Staying together through thick and thin. This  builds trust in one another. This takes time and  can’t be forced!

Next Up: Critiquing