A question I used to hear all the time was: “How do I do it faster? We have to ship a new version every six months — three months — two months — we only have six weeks for requirements definition. How can I fit Contextual Design into that time?”

Since the collapse of the dot-com bubble people have become more thoughtful and serious, and of course in the last few weeks they’re even more so. But this question is not going to go away: how can people do a complex requirements definition process in short time frames, with few people?

Here are some tips if you find yourself in this situation:

Get real.

You are not going to redefine your company’s product strategy for the next five years in six weeks, by yourself or with a part-time team. Don’t even try. If you’re asked to do this, nod sweetly and interpret the request the way it’s meant: “What should we do next?”

Choose your battles.

Where are the leverage points, internally and externally? What can you change in the next release? What is the major pain for your customers? If you don’t know, plan 2-4 simple interviews to scope out the territory. If you do know — and often you do — start there. You’ll see more once you start gathering data.

An apple a day is better than an orchard.

It doesn’t matter how short each release cycle is. Two years for you is just as long as two years for anybody else. So plan a two-year strategy, not a six-week strategy. What can you do this release? How can you build on it next release? What can you do that’s strategic after that?

Some is better than none.

Don’t try for the definitive user study when you’re pressed for time and new to the process. Start with a few interviews and build from there — remember you’re in this for the long haul. It doesn’t have to be done all at once. Only time for two interviews? Do two. After the next release you’ll have four. Then you’ll have six.

Plant seeds.

Things you do now can make gathering user data six months from now much easier. Go to user groups. Make friends with salespeople. Find out who’s participating in field test and visit them. Start a contact list. Then, when you want a few interviews in a hurry, you’ll have friendly people to call.

Don’t do extra work.

Remember, CD techniques help you do your job — they aren’t in addition to your job. If a technique or a model isn’t helping to flesh out your design don’t do it. Focus on interpretation sessions for insight, sequence and artifact models for low-level re-design, and paper prototypes for fast iterations. Other models can wait.

Accept no excuses!

If you have time to design, you have time to design well. If you have time to ship product, you have time to make sure the product is useful. You’ll find your life is saner when you have data to guide your design, however short your turnaround time is.