Generous design is the way forward: 3 keys to transparency

To build superior products at scale, combine a classic business toolset with a design-thinking mindset.

It takes a lot of effort, coordination, and skill to deliver superior products. The product design industry is maturing at an incredible pace, and our customers’ expectations are so high. Very practically and unintentionally, this may end up being a breeding ground for some broken relationships between the teams making digital products. 

As designers, when the stakes are high, we tend to play our cards too close to the vest (I hide). When the barometric pressure to deliver is pounding, we tend to relax our standards (I become more of a layer slob than a layer mayor). When we feel adrift in the corporate labyrinths, we tend to shut down emotionally and professionally (I tend to blame). The pressure to deliver cascades to how our teams work with other teams in coordination of building those amazing products.

Design teams could take a passive approach to working with others. But passivity devalues our craft by undermining our abilities, and ultimately becomes a breeding ground for frustration that we could have managed. Alternatively, design teams could take a more authoritarian approach to working with others. But this approach devalues our partnerships, and ultimately becomes a breeding ground for frustrations that other teams will harbor.

In both approaches, relationships are damaged. As a parent of three children, it’s taken me a few years to realize that people don’t rebel against authority. They rebel against a lack of relationships.

People don’t rebel against authority. They rebel against a lack of relationships.

To make the way forward with your teams, a central theme of generosity tends to align the misaligned. “In healthy cultures, people rise by elevating others and fall by undermining others,” writes organizational psychologist Adam Grant. “In toxic cultures, people are forced to choose between helping others and achieving success. Choose the workplace where success comes from making others successful.” 

Transparency fuels generosity — it’s our way forward in this complex relational dance of product creation.

After speaking with colleagues in the design industry, I believe there is a possibly counterintuitive and primary technique that is emerging as the way forward in generosity: transparency. Transparency is the foundation of “open design.” With an open workflow, I’ve found that the product, teams, and companies can be more successful when we include others and show our work. Transparency fuels generosity — it’s our way forward in this complex relational dance of product creation.

Make design less about “magic” 

No one trusts magicians. Why should we? A magician is paid to trick you, to make an illusion so convincing that you suspend your belief of reality. Showing your design work to other stakeholders within your organization is the best thing for a design team to do when struggling with proving trust.

To show what you’re proposing is reality. Your process might have a “™” or is out of a design manifesto or UX playbook. This is even more fuel for showing your work. When you prove your efforts by opening up your processes, thinking, and tools, you’ll likely find that other stakeholders and partners will either employ them (and thereby make better decisions on their domains), or will invite you to become more involved. At its core, Abstract can enable this type of transparency because it sits at the crossroad of delivering your process, thinking, and design.

Overcoming silos and barriers can seem like a fantasy, but there are strong examples of open and generous working concepts that are rooted in transparent design. IBM is a good example of a large company that embraces transformation. There are few companies that have evolved so many times and yet still manage to be leading the way toward change. Their design organization has opened up, broadened out, and taken root in shaping their own futures. I love what Scott Strubberg writes in this Medium post about IBM’s design toolchain: “I’m part of a 366,000-person, Fortune 500, 108-year-old tech company and I think I just figured out how to scale design tools to our entire organization.” Those are some impressive stats…TIL: IBM has been around a long time.

If we continue to operate like magicians, we perpetuate the distortion field that is our craft.

If we continue to operate like magicians, we perpetuate the distortion field that is our craft. I’d argue that it demotes design from “craft” to “nice-to-have.” When budget season comes around, do you defend from “we craft experiences of value” or “we are a nice-to-have” team in your ever-complex company?

Here are three key commonalities we can share across our organizations that foster impactful generosity in our craft.

Transparency = common goals

Becoming more transparent and less of a secret society of magicians starts with sharing common goals with your organization. When a goal is stated and common, we can all agree to rally on it. That being said, not every goal is totally simpatico with your goals in design and UX. Working transparently can allow you to defend your standpoints while also asking for clarification. 

Conflicting goals can become common goals pretty quickly when we come from a place of thoughtful opinions.

It’s a two-way street here, and Alastair Simpson (Head of Design at Atlassian) reminds us: “Have strong opinions, but loosely held.” Conflicting goals can become common goals pretty quickly when we come from a place of thoughtful opinions, but we don’t grip them so tightly that we couldn’t make something better together.

Ryan Rumsey, formerly of USAA, Apple, and Comcast, has built a career out of traversing the complexities in corporate culture and letting design shape and become shaped by that journey. He recently started a company called Second Wave Dive to help design leaders level up their business acumen. “What if I mix the classic business toolset with the design-thinking mindset and incorporate behavior change and deliberate practice theories?” Ryan says.

Building common goals might require us to go beyond thinking about our typical domains, and sharpening our pencils in our stakeholders domains. This has enabled Ryan to partner with others, without totally compromising what got him here in the first place: a solid understanding of design. For more on this, Ryan writes some thought-provoking essays on Medium.

Transparency = common language

Building a common language with the rest of your company can inspire trust as you work toward an open design framework. Jenifer Sessums, Fannie Mae’s Director of Experience Design, worked with her design leadership team to bring innovation training for the company’s design teams. The training didn’t stop just at design, because rarely is design the only group that can usher innovation. Jenifer’s teams joined others across the organization and trained with the LUMA Institute (thanks to the efforts of her colleague Aza Damood). “By going through the LUMA Institute program, everyone in and outside of design is coached on design thinking practices. This created a common vocabulary for us,” Jen says.  

I can echo the importance of a common vocabulary. In my previous experience in design, I attended a cross-functional training hosted by our leadership and the Silicon Valley Product Group leaders from engineering, design, product, business, and beyond. From those shared moments and shared vocabulary, the teams approached problems together as an actual team instead of a group of teams who often had conflicting and orthogonal goals. We could center on the customer rather than just the business goals (or, at least we could hold up the same ideal together).

Common language can come from common experiences. That’s why going on a road trip with family or friends results in so many inside jokes and inside memories. It’s a shortcut for time, space, and trust. Building this within your design group is awesome, and when you build common language broadly, the degree of openness grows exponentially. Back at Fannie Mae, Jen asked her team these simple questions: “do we have a spark or definable quality in our work?” Now on the other side of common vocabulary building, one respondent said “Yes, because 1/ we now trust each other and 2/ now we know each other. And, the knowing causes the trusting.”

Transparency = common tools

The idea of design systems are All. The. Rage. There’s no shortage of writing on the topic. Design systems address some of our fundamental needs to corral designed and developed experiences into a rational framework.

We crave frameworks. To build effective frameworks, the design industry started becoming more efficient with design principles and practicing collaboration to build a system that’s usable and reusable. But in the building of these designed experiences, keeping the collaboration at the forefront requires a set of commonly used tools among other stakeholders in your company.

It’s a long shot to expect a CEO to open up Sketch or Adobe XD or any other kind of drawing tool. And that might even be true of some of our development partners. Personally, I know I’ve resorted to unholy ways of communicating design intention to my stakeholders. In a way, we lose some fidelity when we build and deliver artifacts that are deliberately different from what we drew in design. It hasn’t felt very open to work without bringing our stakeholders closer to design using a common tool.

There are a whole host of design tools that provide a common ground for communicating intent now. The likes of InVision, Framer, Principle, and other prototyping tools bring our ideas to life and continually are being refined to help design teams meet the rest of their company on common ground. Here at Abstract, we believe that the place where you design can also be a common ground for feedback, approvals, and reviews. Using the workflow in Abstract brings your company uncannily close to the design work you and your team labors over by using Collections and other features for collaboration.

Alan Galura, a design lead at NeoGov, started collaborating with the various teams at his company using the tool sets already in flight. Alan engages his stakeholders by using Atlassian’s Confluence as a table of contents for their designs, and leverages the live embed feature from Abstract’s SDK and API. “We are all happy with the project results and the level of collaboration and productivity between the team members in a stressful project — using Abstract was a key factor,” Alan says. “When an executive wanted to see the latest work, he was able to go through all of the designers’ latest Branches on the spot. All of the sudden, his concerns were alleviated.”

Alan has met his company where they are and brought together new tools into their whole organization’s common tool kit. This kind of common tooling creates a thread of openness in a company that can break a culture of walls.

Be the change you want to see in your world

As a designer, I love problems. I love them because they represent an opportunity to use design to actually make change. Not every workplace culture “gets what we do,” and that can be a drag and even poison some of the passion we have for addressing real problems. Starting with not only a spirit but a practice of openness in our work is a means to an end… and the end itself.

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