Iterations — the secret to great results

Last iteration • 
Iterate title image svg

Starting to work as a designer, I couldn’t believe my luck. People would pay me to explore, experiment and try things. All I had to do is keep at it until all the pieces fit together perfectly.

What I didn’t realise back then is, that this is a technique called iterating.

Iterating is a phenomenal technique. It takes next to nothing to learn and benefits from all other experience and knowledge that you gain. Everybody knows it — few use it.

You will see the impact right away. It doesn't matter if you are starting out in the field or an experienced professional. Iterating will help you get to better results — always.

In this article you will learn some essential tips for getting the most out of your iterations. You will also learn why iterating works and how it benefits your work.

Getting started with iterating

Essentially iterating means repeating a process with changed variables to create different outcomes. It means trying again and again.

You either start from scratch or use the previous outcome as the starting point. Those two approaches form the iteration matrix.

iteration-matrix

In the iteration matrix you can iterate horizontally or vertically.

Horizontal iteration

Iterating horizontally means going broad. You do this to explore different approaches or ideas, starting fresh every time. For example when you want to pitch a couple ideas to the team or client.

Make the iterations distinct and different from each other. Show different directions, influences or perspectives to approach a challenge. Focus every iteration around a specific insight from your research, a JTBD or a persona.

Horizontal iterations are about the bigger picture. Don’t focus on the details.

Vertical iteration

Iterating vertically means going deep. You do this to find the best version of a specific idea. Starting from a previous iteration, you change some details until you are satisfied.

If you can't make an idea work, it's time to move to a different one (along the horizontal axis) and go deep again.

Vertical iterations are about working towards perfection. Creating the delights and details that make up a great user experience.

5 essential tips for iterating

Use data & inspirational material

Iterating should be an informed process. This means you research, collect inspiration and feedback as a basis for your work.

You may get new ideas while you iterate — this is great. It also means you need to do additional research for this new idea.

This is part of the iteration process. It consists of producing the output as well as the research & exploration needed to produce it.

Focus on complete-ish rather than perfect

Iterations start out like sketches. Their purpose is to represent an idea so that a decision can be made. The faster you get your iterations to a decision-ready state, the better.

This is why when you start your first iteration you should add all parts as quickly as you can. It’s an MVP for your idea, a rough draft. You can add details later.

Don’t commit too early

Iterating is a tool for discovery, learning and improving. You will throw out much of your work. This works best if you don't spend too much time on any single iteration. If you fall in love with your ideas you will be blind to the faults and have a hard time “killing your darlings”. Always keep a professional distance to your work.

Let it sink

Iterating does not only happen with your hands, but also in your head. Solving problems of any kind is first and foremost the work of your brain. One of the great things about our brain is that it chews on problems even when we don’t consciously think about them.

This is why an issue seems completely different the next day. Make use of “passive” problem solving by planning for idle time between iterations. Stretch them out over multiple days or go for a walk in-between.

Partner up, mix and match

Iterating with colleagues can push your work even further. After the first session you can resample ideas and mix your own work with that of your colleagues. As long as you give credit nobody should be mad. The potential of a team is much bigger than that of a single person.

Why iterating works

Especially in creative work, results are hard to quantify. To see the effect of iterating, you need to do it yourself, or closely observe somebody do it. The best I can do is tell you what I have observed.

Generally the idea is that of evolution. Adding one version on top of the last lets you steadily work towards a better result. Rather than expecting the best solution on your first try, you work in a loop.

The iteration loop

The idea behind the iteration loop is an evolution of your idea.

Your first idea is never your best

Your brain needs some time to chew on the problems you are trying to solve. Like in sports, warming up will help you reach peak performance.

We tend to jump to the most obvious solution. Something we have seen before. To get to something new or unique we need to get familiar with the problem first. With the constraints and possibilities in our conscious mind, we are well equipped to tackle the problem.

Ideas block your brain

In psychology there is the magical number 7, also known as Miller's Law. A theory that suggests an average human can only hold 7 ± 2 things in short term memory.

This also applies to ideas. You need to get one out to make space for a new one. The best way to free your mind is to manifest your ideas. This way you won’t forget them and your mind can let go.

Everything seems better in the abstract

You may have experienced this before: an idea seems great in your head, but when you try to create it, you can’t make it work.

While it could be a problem of skill, there is another explanation as well.

Thinking about ideas, your brain is very good at ignoring parts that don’t work. Nothing is impossible in your brain, there are no constraints. But once you start making your idea tangible, there are constraints you can’t ignore.T

he sooner you find out what may not work, the sooner you fix it or come up with a new solution.

Embracing a state of process is liberating

Working in iterations can be a huge stress reliever for you. If what you are doing doesn’t have to be the final version it is much easier to give it a shot. Coincidentally without the pressure to be perfect we often create much better results.

Only if we give ourselves permission to fail, can we risk enough on a crazy idea, that lets us change the game in the end.

Without this pressure we can think freely and overcome the "fear of the blank page".

Benefits of iterating

Always ready for a show & tell

When working in iterations, you always have a version of your idea ready to discuss.

It may not be final, but it's something you can show your colleagues and stakeholders. It may be rough, but if you follow my tips it is complete in a way that it makes the idea and intention clear. It helps people get the big picture.

A rough version helps you get early buy-in, valuable feedback and discuss options with your team.

Great effort / result ratio

Iterating focuses your effort on the things that matter. Ideas that don't work are disregarded quickly without much wasted time and effort.

Promising ideas are improved until they are perfect. Including stakeholders into the iteration process, can get you early buy-in. This will reduce the risk of wasting time and effort into an idea that you can't sell.

Your skill level doesn’t matter

As I mentioned in the beginning: anybody can iterate and profit from it.

You don’t need to be an expert. In fact, if you are a beginner you will probably be asked to iterate by your mentors or leads. Iterating is a method you can start using today, that will benefit you immediately.

It makes cooperation easier

Some people are great at starting, others are good at the details. Working together in iterations means everyone can do what they do best.

The designer may create a draft of a landing page, something the marketing team can’t do. But the marketing team can improve the copy and suggest changes for a better conversion.

Iterations for the win

What I love about iterating is that you can use it for so many things. Design, coding, writing articles, cooking, building routines, improving your communication skills, etc.

It even has been turned into a business philosophy. Wikipedia for example gets high quality content through endless iterations. The same is true for open street maps.

I use iterations for most of my work, including this website. Instead of building a major version over a month I release tiny updates every time I commit a change. The great part is that whenever I make a change, it immediately benefits my audience.

Summary

To sum up, iterating is a method you can start using today, with immediate benefits. Iterating helps you improve your work, while reducing the risk of wasting time & effort.

It’s a great tool in everybody's arsenal and you can start using it today.