Critical questions designers should be asking during 3 major design phases

The best designs begin, develop, and evolve with the right questions. If you disagree, read about Designing a chair: A story about Junior vs. Senior Designers or consider Whose design is it anyway.

I have always seen design as a process of questioning, so when learners of the Design stream we ran at the CSPS Digital Academy asked to help them make sense of everything they learned during the 7 week curriculum, I could not find a better way to capture it than in a list of questions.

If we look at design as 3 major phases of problem definition, solution development and implementation, we will find that each stage has its own sets of questions that are critical and will influence the quality of the outcome. I am particularly interested in how design practitioners can support and practice daily ethical design and uphold the designers’ code of ethics.

As such, this evergreen list of questions is influenced by the ethical perspective and will be updated, as more relevant questions emerge.

Problem definition (including discovery/research)

  • What personal biases and privileges (video) do you bring to the design process?
  • Is this a product or a service problem? From whose perspective (business, user, government-wide, etc.)?
  • Is this the right problem to solve?
  • Are you the right people to solve the problem?
  • Who are your users (everyone = no one)?
  • What topic(s) does this problem relate to?
  • Do you have quantitative and qualitative sources of information about users and their behaviours?
  • Do you have the right people asking the right questions to interpret the data about users and their behaviours?
  • What are the users’ pain points, environmental and emotional contexts of use?
  • Is there still something you are left wondering about?
  • Have you defined terms and got the team agreement on the definition of important concepts?
  • Always ask WHY?

Ecosystem scan

  • What does the ecosystem of your problem look like?
  • Who needs to be involved in the discussion of this problem to help the solution succeed and to ensure we understand the context of the problem and all the different players of the ecosystem?
  • Who are your partners?
  • Who is not included in the conversation?
  • Is there an existing solution to the problem we are trying to solve?
  • Is your solution situated at the ‘point of users’ true need’?
  • How will the users find out about your solution?
  • Is this the place and format in which users would expect to find and use the solution? Is this only a partial solution in a user’s workflow?
  • If so, would it be more of a hindrance than help in performing a task?
  • Is there something where you wonder about what’s the difference between x and y?
  • What might be the unintended consequences of the solution?
  • Always ask WHY?

Impact and outcome definition

Understanding outcomes is understanding what happens when your design is out in the world, and beyond your control. — Sheryl Cababa

  • What are you trying to accomplish?
  • What is the intent?
  • Have you mapped your solution to real user needs?
  • Have you checked that the outcomes you’ve identified are understood in the same way by the users?
  • What is the the anticipated impact?
  • Is the design ethical?
  • Always ask WHY?

Accessibility, ethics and inclusion check

  • Who is the solution going to benefit?
  • Who might the solution disadvantage?
  • Who are the ‘edge cases’? Are they included?
  • Is the cross-functional team diverse and intersectional (pdf)enough to create an inclusive solution?
  • Are there ethical, privacy or other implications of the solution?
  • Is the solution accessible?
  • Have you defined values that will guide the solution (trust, fairness, transparency, accountability, etc.), using these as anchors for the design?
  • How might people benefit if our design included people from historically marginalized populations? (from Omidyar Ethical Explorer)
  • Always ask WHY?

Development of solution (including testing):

  • Are the information, visuals, and design elements communicating information clearly?
  • Will the users be able to complete their tasks easily?
  • Does the solution include all of the information users need about a topic?
  • Are the flow and organization of design elements and information logical?
  • Is the design intuitive enough that no manuals or guides are necessary?
  • Does the design use the language of its users?
  • Does the solution use design elements of existing design systems where possible and if applicable?
  • Is the solution going to offer a ‘seamless experience’ for the user?
  • Did you consider and design for worse-case scenarios?
  • Have you assessed (stress-tested) your solution against each one of these lenses:

Service design

Content design

User-interface design





  • Have you referred back to the knowledge you have about your users and their needs (whether personas or journey maps, etc.) to make sure your final solution aligns/maps to their needs?
  • Always ask WHY?

Implementation of solution (including maintenance)

  • Is this solution sustainable
  • What are the maintenance costs?
  • Do those who will have to maintain the solution have the right skills to do so, do they care to do so?
  • Will the user’s current knowledge help them understand how to use the solution?
  • What is the longevity of this solution, will it get outdated or limited in its scope quickly?
  • Have privacy and accessibility risks been properly assessed and documented?
  • Have you reflected on the successes and weaknesses of the current solution and put measures in place to improve it as well as the processes that supported its creation?
  • Always ask WHY?

What other important questions should designers be asking themselves and others during the design process?


:: digital content specialist — passionate about open learning + inclusion + collaboration + systems + stewardship + learning design + reflective practice ::

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store