Conduct user interviews. What are the current woes and wins for the user? What is the competition doing? Do a heuristic analysis on the current design or competition. The more user research that can be done in the beginning will ensure a solid foundation for the end design making it more impactful for both the users and the stakeholders.
Using the information from research and stakeholder interviews, I can build a project summary. All of this information along with an affinity diagram can be used to help build a persona. Once I have a persona I think about a scenario that will get the user from A to B. I build a user flow for this and card sort to will help with the UI design.
One of my favorite things to do is have a design studio with my teammates. I find it quickly brings the cream to the top. Once we have paper or balsamiq mockups, these can be used to test and find holes in the user flow. After we reiterate to a higher fidelity prototype, usability tests are necessary. This IS user experience after all! It's important to go back and reiterate again after tests to ensure the final product is optimal for all involved.
I'm fairly new to the Seattle area. I recently moved here from Minneapolis where I spent 8 years chasing "patio season". I now live at a year-round camp on a lake just outside of Port Orchard. It's pretty but I'm always in fear that a bird will fly away with one of my dogs.