Documenting design is too often a neglected task. And rightfully so.
Who wants to browse through hundreds of pages or update the docs every time your product gets even a minor do-over or when a new idea comes to mind?
That’s why we have teams that completely abandoned design documentation in favor of interactive prototypes and screen flows. Surely, clients and dribble lurks love production-level visuals, but do we ever measure how much background information gets lost with that approach?
Truth is, documenting design is as important as ever. It saves us from costly misinterpretations, allows us to track the history of changes, helps us to operate within business constraints, and methodically improve our design process.
So how do we document our design process in the most usable and useful manner?
Let’s talk about it.
Design documentation is an organized recording of a product design process. Design documentation consists of design goals, design deliverables, design solutions, design tools, and any resources and notes that depict or move the design process forward.
To understand what constitutes useful design documentation, let’s look at the design process itself.
Each stage of the design process has its own deliverables.
For example, at the Empathise stage, when product designers try to understand more about the target user’s pains, the typical deliverable is user personas, whereas at the Prototype stage designers are concerned with delivering low-fidelity and high-fidelity prototypes.
But the design process is rarely linear and often iterative. This means that these stages and their deliverables are often scattered across time and the space of plenty of tools. Inviting the chaos.
Design documentation aids in taming the chaos. By clearly describing project goals and projects’ history, design documentation glues stages and their deliverables together and allows designers to treat their design process as something meaningful, rather than a mix up of chanceful encounters.
Here are the most common benefits of design documentation:
Organize thoughts and ideas. An effective design process excels at organizing complex and often chaotic creative environment. With well-structured design documentation, a vague product idea can quickly grow into a fully operational prototype.
Boost your ROI. Organized design documentation lets you estimate project costs more effectively, reduce resources wasted on miscommunication and misinterpretation, and spot inefficiencies in your design process.
Inspect and improve your design process. As it glues together different design stages, design documentation lets you spot issues such as too many unnecessary design deliverables, too few design deliverables, communication silos, ineffective ideation and brainstorming process, and flawed design decision process.
Repurpose design documentation for extra value. Design documentation can be easily repurposed into meeting briefs, training videos, contract requirements, and even marketing content.
Single source of truth. Having a single source of truth is paramount if you want to achieve a shared vision among your team members, clients, and users. Regularly updated design documentation can serve as a single source of truth throughout your whole company.
Manage client expectations. Presenting design documentation to clients helps them adjust expectations or helps you spot any tensions or inconsistencies early in the design process.
Quickly onboard new hires. Effective design documentation helps to quickly bring new team members up to speed instead of spending hours and weeks on getting them familiar with the project.
Resolve creative blocks. If your team stuck with something, either inspect your design documentation or start writing it to move the process forward.
Product teams usually have their own variation of a design process that works for them, hence their ways of documenting design may vary.
Below are the most common sections of effective design documentation:
The project description is a crucial part of any design documentation. It casts an all-encompassing effect on the rest of the design doc and acts as both a summary of your design efforts and the manifestation of your intents.
Goals of project description:
Create a short overview of the design project and its goals for clients
Quickly get new hires up-to-speed
Set a starting point for technical and budget assessment
Provide a mental map to properly understand the rest of the design documentation
Project description consists of:
Project overview. A short summary of the project and its goals
Project design overview (optional). A short overview of a design process used to deliver the project and any notes
Target audience. A brief paragraph about the target users and beneficiaries of this project
User Interface, whether it’s an abstract mockup or a full-fledge Figma prototype, is a starting point for any design effort. Documenting changes to UI and the thinking behind them is one of the easiest ways to progress is to track the efficiency of your design process.
Goals of documenting user interface:
Align team members, outsourcers, and clients around a shard visual image
Track the history of changes to your UI
User interface documentation consists of:
Sketches, wireframes, or mock-ups.
Design documentation should include a visual representation of your user interface, whether it’s a rough sketch or a polished UI mockup.
Sitemaps are crucial when you’re working on a website or any app with complex navigation, as
navigation has a strong impact on the user interface at every stage of the design process.
In a way, user flow is a combination of mockups and navigation. If you have time and resources, a well-developed user flow diagram may become a highly useful section in documenting your design.
There are many design deliverables, but when it comes to documenting your design, simply throwing all the deliverables in one doc won’t do anyone good. You need to be strategic as to how you organize them and make them useful.
Goals of design deliverables in design documentation:
Enhance various sections of your design documentation. Deliverables have a strategic value based on where you add them.
For example, you can link to the results of user testing sessions in the project description section to explain updates to user personas or project goals. Or you can add mood boards to the UI section between a sketch and a mockup of your UI to track how the mood board affected the design decisions there.
Establish a timeline of the design process. Track when you add various deliverables (e.g. add dates when you add deliverables to your documentation) as later it will allow you to inspect your design process and analyze your progress.
Tracking changes in your design document is crucial. In case a deliverable takes up a lot of space in your design doc (e.g. a lengthy usability report), it’s best to replace it with a link and provide a short summary and a date of addition.
Examples of design deliverables:
Low-fidelity and high-fidelity prototypes
Assigning and tracking project milestones in your design documentation allows you to keep your design process streamlined and structured.
Milestones are not necessarily deadlines, as they reflect the order of key stages in product development, not the deadlines.
Goals of the project milestones section:
Organize stages of your design process
Easily track any changes in the order of your design and development stages
Assign design deliverables to stages of your design process
Create an initial backlog of items in development
[Optional] Asses project costs at every stage
[Optional] Asses deadlines or constraints at every stage
A nice addition to the already well-established design documentation is video walkthroughs.
Explaining videos help to minimize misinterpretations of complex parts of your design documentation, especially for people reading it for the first time or without some form of guidance.
Today with tools like Loom and Zoom, it’s easier than ever to record a short video that explains complicated parts of your design documentation (UI interactions, project goals) with insightful commentary.
Such videos boost comprehension and ease the communication between team members and clients.
Every product team has its own issues. While small teams struggle with mismatched client expectations and often severe constraints, enterprise product teams might struggle with communication silos and outdated processes.
While design documentation doesn’t solve all the problems at once, it helps teams to reveal them and minimize their influence on the design process, and, ultimately, the quality of their work.
Make sure to treat the process of documenting design as an opportunity, not a burden, and soon you’ll find many ways of using its often neglected practice to its maximum potential.