How DocuSign uses Abstract to build a culture of thoughtful collaboration
A people-first approach helps the DocuSign team make design decisions together
Any employee at DocuSign will tell you that the company is about more than signing documents electronically. Whether it’s a contract, offer letter, statement of work, or any other type of agreement, the DocuSign Agreement Cloud is about allowing people to agree better—from preparing to signing, acting on, and managing agreements. Compared to traditional paper processes, DocuSign helps eliminate the paper and streamline the process. The result? Work gets done faster, greener, at less cost, and with a better experience for all involved.
“For all involved” reflects an ethos of inclusion steeped into every aspect of the company—from hiring practices and people management to the way it names its teams. Whereas most companies would have a design team full of, well, designers, DocuSign goes one step further.
Dot Dotter, DocuSign’s mobile design lead, belongs to the Product Experience (PX) team, which is made up of designers, researchers, and UI writers. “Design is a loaded word,” Dotter explains. “Why just talk about that? We’ve reframed ourselves as creative technologists. Our work is about the many pieces that we don’t always have a clear name for that can be under the umbrella of product or experience.”
At DocuSign, that work encompasses everything from information architecture to product marketing and branding, to how the daily and weekly rituals for delivery function within a team.
Clearly, much consideration and thought have gone into how DocuSign gets things done, but like most fast-growing organizations, there came a time when it was clear that the design tools being used weren’t cutting it anymore.
Moving away from busywork to people-first design
As the company continued to grow and expand, it was getting harder to keep track of design files. The PX team was using many different tools to get work done, resulting in clutter and redundancy. Not only was there confusion around file versions and access permissions, but these accessibility issues contributed to a larger issue of design work not being democratized properly. “We needed to be able to make better, faster, decisions,” Dotter says. “And we needed to make space for listening, responding, and resolving.” Finding a way to consolidate design tools while doing all this was the ultimate goal.
While the PX team’s design tools did allow decision-makers to relay feedback directly to individual contributors, the way those tools captured feedback prevented an element of thoughtfulness to enter the equation. Rather than using a tool that showed the collaboration and workflow that went into design decisions, anyone signing off on a design would simply add a comment to the prototype. The IC would then work to address that feedback. But the ICs would often lose sight of the project’s core purpose as they worked to resolve those comments.
Dotter also knew that many organizations fall into the trap of equating a high volume of work with progress. It’s often too easy for teams to create—and get stuck on—busywork. They knew that the design tool they chose would need to showcase the progress of work, not the volume. In other words, Dotter needed a truly innovative tool.
Then they found Abstract.
“Abstract is innovative because it lets you work in parallel with others and you can keep developing,” Dotter says. It’s the place for thoughtfulness and workflow, and when you combine those two things, you can be a more thoughtful collaborator.”
Abstract allowed the PX team to move away from rigid, role-based thinking. Whereas before work might be divided into what a product designer versus a product marketer versus a researcher should be in charge of, Abstract blurred those lines to allow for more collaboration.
“With Abstract, you can get progress and get things done,” Dotter says. “It lets you step back and say, ‘How do we make this decision together?’” Now it’s not uncommon for a UI writer, a product marketer, a designer, and an engineer to be equally involved in contributing feedback and approvals to a single artboard.
How richer discussion leads to better design decisions
By using Abstract, the PX team now had one source of truth for design files, solving the initial accessibility issue they faced. But the larger problem of needing to democratize design was solved by Abstract, too. Dotter noticed that projects were starting to be re-framed with goals that were more focused on intention versus an end goal.
Now DocuSign’s PX team comes together regularly to look at their goals and metrics and, if necessary, even adjust or reset them.
“We can look at them and say, ‘Are we still aligning to that? Are we still focusing on that?’ Without doing this, it’s easy to trail off and get lost in smaller achievable goals, resulting in stale performance goals and products not meeting the actual user need.”
It’s more obvious now than ever that DocuSign’s PX team is made up of thoughtful contributors that combine disciplines to create something greater than the sum of the team’s parts. “That is where I would say the best of Abstract is happening right now,” says Dotter. “Our organization allows everyone to come into design and challenge it.”
“The best thing is when we have an intention and are working together with UX writers. Now we can look at projects together and make better decisions. Abstract gives you the 50-foot view of your organization,” says Dotter. “Everyone from an executive to an individual contributor can visibly see work that is happening and maybe impact what we decide to focus on. It’s helped us map our organization digitally.”
A tool that enhances discussion enhances decisions
But Dotter knows that a tool designed to enable democratization should not replace democracy itself.
When your tool respects that human space without getting in the way and lets you flow, then you can make really great products.
Dot Dotter | Mobile Design Lead, DocuSign
“We use [Abstract] as a place to start a discussion,” they note. “We still need to create human space to do design together. But when your tool respects that human space without getting in the way and lets you flow, then you can make really great products.”
Dotter says Abstract’s greatest value is its ability to help organizations and teams share the burden of responsibility.
“It’s a shared baton,” they add. “We are carrying this together. We are making our work more visible. It also helps make the world more agreeable about things that are hard to understand, that are complicated and that are sometimes framed as ‘design.’ But that’s not a design decision. That’s a human decision that’s going to impact people’s lives. Abstract is powerful because it becomes an agreement. It’s time-stamped, it holds you accountable. Abstract is the evidence we need to make decisions. Because sometimes design is so ambiguous and so archaic and chaotic. Unless you have a source of truth, the decision is lost in the ether.”