Better design practices

"Without a practice, you’re just doing design — a short-term activity." - Verne Ho

The need

Over the last year and a bit, I have been working as a designer on an exciting project, bringing innovative home-based medical services to customers. I was introduced to the project as a junior designer, fresh out of the Retro Rabbit grad program. And as one would, over time I gained experience and have learned A LOT.

During the course of the project, our team has grown and shrunk and split and merged, and changed. In the process, I have become aware and self-aware of how the team works together but also doesn't, how designers and teams have different approaches, processes, and ways of working. Even a bit of personal flair in our designs. As my understanding and awareness grows, I have picked up on a ‘broken telephone’ situation made apparent in the design of our products. A split personality has developed which risks undermining the experiences of our users and the value we can deliver.

In order to deliver a coherent and consistent visual language and user experience, we need to become cognisant of our practices as an ecosystem, how they translate from team to team, are applied to designs, and how they can enable or impede product development.

Practice Design

Many hours of research and heuristics, trialing different approaches, design methods, design systems, collaboration and more has ensued. I have been trying to put my finger on how we can deliver design in a unified voice. However, there was no single fix, no magic potion or cure for our woes. It has become apparent that it is not one thing, it is all of them.

For me, design practice has come to define a habitual accumulation of actions, applied in teams, some actions bold and obvious and others subtle and obscure. A design practice is the interface through which designers, as users, achieve their goals - designing solutions. A design practice represents the combined vision of what the designers operating in a team wish to achieve in design.

“It is important to not simply go forth and design, but to have a model that sets up a design practice for success.” - Verne Ho

Verne Ho, Director of Design at Shopify describes a good design practice as scalable, repeatable, autonomous, intentional, and transparent.

  • Scalable: it enables you to integrate new members into the team seamlessly
  • Repeatable: it ensures that great work isn’t a lottery
  • Autonomous: it removes the dependency on gatekeepers
  • Intentional: it ensures decisions aren’t made arbitrarily
  • Transparent: it is clear and accessible to everyone in the company, not just the design team

Tools, production model, rhythm, and culture; Ho explains these as the components of a practice that accumulate. Consider the tools our teams use to execute the design and facilitate collaboration, communication, and management.

The production model speaks to the techniques used to conceptualise and create great work—using feature teams, demos, retrospectives, storyboarding, crazy eights, brainstorming, and plenty of other productive techniques in the process.

“The process is the product; how you work is just as important as what you work on.”- Verne Ho

Rhythm is about building momentum as a design team, using daily stand-up meetings, knowledge sharing and collaboration methods to design, deliver and move as a collective.

Culture in a design team is built through the sharing of accountability and mutually understood ways of designing. Teams can nurture a healthy culture by sharing understanding and responsibility, having mutual respect for each other's strengths and transparency, honesty, and humility in addressing weaknesses.

There needs to be a clear and shared understanding of the space in which we operate, what the different areas of the product are, how files are set up, who the team members are, and how we work.

There should be a clear and effective hierarchy. We are all collaborators and there is little need for stuffy, boss-worker relationships. However, keep in mind that there is a spectrum of responsibilities on a team and we need to ensure that the micro is in tune with the macro and that there is accountability on both ends. We need someone to lead the entire team, while others create, aligning with the team's systems and values. Priority needs to be clear so that any team or designer knows they are focussing on the right work at the right time.

Processes should be clear, understood, and repeatable. Before, the process on our team went something like this: Conceptualisation and ideation, wireframing, front-end and user testing followed by UI design, subsequent reviews, and the preparation of final designs for development and handoff.
However, this process was not a clear nor repeatable roadmap. Each designer and team seemed to interpret and apply these processes uniquely.  The environment we work in promotes this. We are thrown business requests to develop concepts and designs with quick turnaround and the designers are encouraged to focus efforts on meeting the requirements and requests of businesses, which are seldom mindful of the design ecosystem and design alignment.

To improve, our team have begun to develop a standard and repeatable design process, a roadmap that should lead designers from receiving design requests through requirements gathering, the creation of journeys and flows, business collaboration, validation,  wireframing, review, sign off and design alignment, culminating in designs which are ready for testing, development and more testing. The intention is to take the guesswork out of the process and fill in the gaps that systems and documentation cannot reach. Having identified the challenges we face and the need for a holistic approach to addressing them, we have begun to develop good design practices.

Photo by fauxels from Pexels

Business investment and education

Designing with good practices and understanding should, in my opinion, be a business requirement, invested in by those making requests. Business needs to understand the value of an established practice and give designers adequate time, access and resources to design accordingly. We have a responsibility as design teams to educate non-designers on our practices and process, especially product owners who have the vision and determine the direction.

Our intention is to work closely with the business analysts and stakeholders who make requests so they may begin to understand the impact work will have holistically within the product. Our biggest challenge has been educating these contributors on how an intangible design practice translates into real value in the experiences and products we deliver. We collaborate with them and invite them into our environment so they can better understand our processes, tools, and the challenges we face.

The immediate value to business may be unclear but spending time and resources on its establishment provides sustainable, long-term business value. Invest time now, save time (and money) in the long run. An established practice will assist with tracking the development of the project and allow teams to seamlessly add new contributors, promoting consistency and unity throughout our products.

It is ultimately the responsibility of designers to recognise the value of good design practice and advocate for it as a business investment. A well-established practice encourages effective, scalable, and efficient design.

“When you practice design, you’re focusing on long-term sustainable success.”- Verne Ho

Our team is far from perfect and there are many areas we can still improve in. However, I believe we have made substantial steps in the right direction and celebrate even the smallest wins, appreciating that in spite of the barriers and challenges, we have been able to bring value to our teams, product and users by striving to be better in how we practice design.

The reality is that even if we had a perfect practice, where designers clearly understood how to operate in the space in every situation, we would still find things to improve on. The development of the practice is an endless pursuit of perfection, which for me, is the nature of the design.

Understanding the value of design practice has helped us develop collective understanding. We will continue to be better, and strive to encourage our collaborators to do the same. I am excited to see how our design practice grows and how it serves our teams and products in the future.

References / Further reading

A Framework for Building a Design Practice

What matters for the Design Practice | by Max Yogoro

How to build--and grow--a strong design practice

About the author

Tim Downing profile picture

Tim Downing

Tim Downing

I dabble in all things design, but mostly UX and UI. I fight the good fight for the people who use things, trying to provide great experiences and add value to their lives. Read more from Tim Downing...