Designers have seen their impact magnified this past year, as demand for better products have grown amidst a generational shift in user behavior. Our shared experiences have accelerated the adoption of new tools, workflows, and software that we now rely on to do our suddenly remote jobs. Design plays a pivotal role as the layer of interaction through which all this work happens. However, in many companies, design teams are still treated more like a service desk than a strategic business function capable of pushing an organization to the leading edge. It’s time for design teams to create more than outputs; we need to focus on delivering real outcomes.
Evolving the job to be done for design isn’t just my opinion. We’ve been serving designers since 2016, and nearly half of the Fortune 500 are customers who’ve recounted similar stories about this shift. In our State of Design in 2021 Report we collected feedback from more than 1,000 designers, and were struck to see the volume of design teams shifting from purely asset creation to business impact. McKinsey’s own Business Value of Design report shows the same trend as companies that scored highly on their Design Index (reflecting the strength of their design capabilities) “had a strong correlation with superior business performance.” Across the study’s three industries—medical technology, consumer goods, and retail banking — design-forward companies saw 32% increase in revenue and a whopping 56% total returns to shareholders over a five-year period.
As the data reflects, in companies that are excelling, design has already shifted away from being a supporting function to a more direct contributor to the success of the business. However, this isn’t the only shift happening to our industry. Creators are also choosing tools that are increasingly web-based, multi-user, and interconnected to one another.
Six years ago we recognized the importance of version control for design files, leading the industry to a more sane way to work that has been adopted by thousands of companies around the world. Now, amidst new waves of change, we’re continuing to see what’s ahead and introducing a whole new platform called Notebooks to give design teams the missing ingredients they need to make a lasting impact.
Why we built Notebooks
As designers ourselves, we know that creating assets is just one part of the job. The other major piece? Things like research, resourcing, feedback, and handoff, plus all the interactions that happen as part of a cross-functional team. We call this the “work around the work.” Not only is it a huge part of our days, but it’s often overlooked as an area of wasted time and friction. We wholeheartedly disagree. Not only do we want to see more designers recognized for the broad scope of work they do; we also want to give design teams better tools and data to elevate their role.
The foundation of our strategy is Notebooks: a new designer-specific platform where cross-functional teams can gather requirements, review designs, and continuously measure what works, all in one thoughtfully-built space. We built Notebooks to help design teams work hand-in-hand with their peers in engineering and product management to:
- Narrate design work and provide context for all stakeholders
- Connect the basis of designs with the process of reviewing it
- Track contributions from concept to iteration and deployment without getting lost across multiple tools
- Consolidate and address feedback in more visible and actionable ways
And, ultimately, deliver amazing products that drive business impact.
If you want to know more about the nuts and bolts of how Notebooks actually works, I’d recommend reading this post by our VP of Product and Design, Matt Colyer. We care so much about this path, we’re doubling down on our mission to bring more attribution, connection, and measurement to design. For my part, indulge me as I tell you a little bit more about the guiding principles behind why we’re investing our time into building Notebooks.
Designers want to be let out of the design box
In our State of Design Report, Harrison Wheeler, Product Design Manager at LinkedIn says, “Having a seat at the table is table stakes. Our responsibility as design leaders is to move beyond thinking about our role as a core discipline and evolve into being strategic partners. This means thinking about the impact, value, and consequences of our decisions on the business, and our users."
However, it can be hard to demonstrate the value of design work and design thinking when that work happens across disciplines and functions. Not only are there multiple specialities within design itself; there are more teams than ever involved in the design process (copywriting, legal, accessibility, etc). We should embrace these contributions, but without the right toolset it’s nearly impossible to manage all this feedback.
At Abstract, we often say that “looking at the same thing doesn’t automatically mean people are on the same page.” Yet design teams today are left to use generic tooling, so diluted for everyone they actually slow down meaningful collaboration. There’s no shortage of collaboration software in the world, and it’s common for designers to choose whatever space others are working in. This has its costs though. In our State of Design Report, we saw:
- 70% of designers rank “sharing and managing design work” as a major barrier
- 68% of designers say that “managing feedback and conversations” is overwhelming
- 67% of designers report that “bringing visibility to the team’s work” is a challenge
This research and our deep conversations with our current customers have revealed to us that designers need tools that are custom-made for facilitating the whole design process—not just the creation of visual assets. We believe this is the missing link in the design toolchain, and one that will unlock creativity and enhance design’s impact.
Designers deserve tools that support their whole process
If you look broadly at design tools today and compare them with the ones used by counterparts in product and engineering, you quickly see a missing piece.
Engineers and product teams have tools for their creative work (e.g., writing code and designing products) and platforms where they can communicate and collaborate with others. This set up affords for a number of benefits, most importantly that the people doing the work have both the focused space they need to problem solve and the power to pursue collaboration on their own terms.
While we have incredible tools on the market for creating visual assets (e.g. Adobe’s Creative Cloud, Sketch, Figma, and many more), these tools don’t answer core questions like: How do we collaborate using a design’s context as a guide? Can the review process be less scattershot and more meaningful? How do stakeholders understand and track design work as it unfolds over time without interrupting the creative process?
Arguably, design is just as critical to product development as engineering and product management, but without being equipped for all of the work in the design process, design teams are hampered from achieving their full potential.
Design can’t grow impact if it can’t be measured
Beyond the obvious productivity costs, there’s a less visible, but more worrisome issue when designers are left to bounce from tool to tool following the flow of an internal product development process. This breadth in tooling makes it nearly impossible to measure the actual impact of design work, even though this is exactly what companies are asking from their design teams.
The appetite for being able to tell a data-driven story about the work of design is there. In fact, 75% designers surveyed in our State of Design Report said that the design tools they use are lacking most in reporting and analytics. That’s not a slight on the tools; rather, it’s an indication that design has evolved so quickly that there’s now a lag in tooling.
That’s why we built out Insights within Notebooks, as a much-needed data layer giving design teams more information about their work and their process. Insights surfaces information from actions taken across Notebooks. It can answer questions like: Which projects have the most design activity? How long are reviews typically open? What stages of our design process are the fastest or slowest? And more. Design teams and their leaders can use this information to replicate what’s working well and make improvements in areas that might be falling behind.
Melissa Cullens, former CXO of Ellevest and founder and CEO of Charette, captured the need for better measurement in design perfectly when she said that, “Any designer who's uncomfortable being held accountable for their design choices — whether that's fiscally or performance-wise — should be comfortable giving up their ability to own design decisions.” As design teams continue to play a bigger role in driving growth and revenue, the need for clear data will only continue to increase.
Better bring your Notebook
When design teams are empowered to shift from creating outputs to delivering on outcomes, entire products and companies change for the better. With Notebooks, we aim to be the platform that helps enable this evolution for product designers and beyond. As everyone always says, there’s more to come from Abstract: Notebooks is just one stop on the road to better design.
Just like designs, our products only get better with your input. We’d love for you to join the waitlist to give Notebooks a try, and let us know where we can improve. Also, if you’re interested in helping us build this vision, apply for one of our open roles.