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How to solve design’s ‘work around the work’ problem

It’s easy to lose sight of the bigger picture when design work becomes fragmented
How to solve design’s ‘work around the work’ problem

“Hey, is this the final file?” “Just trying to find the JIRA ticket for that… give me a moment.” “What was the product team’s feedback on that?” 

To be a part of a design team today is to navigate quite a bit of communication unrelated to design. There’s feedback coming in via Slack. There’s confusion over whether or not something is approved. There’s toggling between tools, trying to stitch together a narrative that shows how certain decisions were made. Well-meaning though it may be, all of this so-called “work around the work” makes it more difficult to actually do our work. This hasn’t always been the case — and it doesn’t have to be today. So how did we get to this place, and what is the real cause of this state of affairs? 

Are our tools hindering productivity?

Taking a quick inventory of the types of tools used by today’s teams points to at least five different kinds of tools that a designer can interact with every day: 

  • Core drawing tools — think, Sketch or Figma for product designers and Photoshop and Illustrator for brand designers. 
  • Whiteboarding tools like Miro help the team envision customer journeys. 
  • Prototyping tools help designers show how people can interact with the design. 
  • User flow tools help us understand how something will look from a 50,000-foot view.
  • Motion graphics tools allow designers to create animations to hand off to developers. 
  • Developer handoff tools themselves, Abstract being one of them, give engineering teams the details they need to actually build the design.

Each of these is necessary for today’s designers to do their jobs well, but it’s not hard to see how adding another tool to the roster could spark frustration. Could each new tool we add to our design toolbelt actually cause diminishing returns in productivity? Well, yes and no. The real problem — and here’s that phrase again — is there’s just too much “work around the work.”

We surveyed over 1,000 designers last year about the challenges and expectations their teams are facing. The responses told an interesting story: It’s not the tools themselves that cause drops in productivity; it’s all the extra work that comes up as a byproduct of using these tools. That means double-checking what’s been approved, trying to locate files, or trying to parse feedback. Twenty-six percent of survey respondents said that gathering feedback was where they lost the most time in their day-to-day work. Another 26% reported that getting approvals was their biggest challenge.

When we asked for anecdotal feedback about which challenges teams were facing, we saw answers like this: 

There’s too much confusion between ready-to-execute work, exploration, and archived work.

Maintaining a single source of truth and tracking all the design decisions that have been taken in the project is difficult.

We have fragmented information streams.

Getting approvals on the right thing, at the right time, and documented well.

Being in a startup, the challenge is mostly outside of any given tool — wrangling people, adjusting to shifting priorities, shifting responsibilities, etc.

The more a design team grows and the more work they are entrusted with, the more they will have to collaborate and compromise—with other stakeholders throughout the organization. 

“There really is not a standardized process for gathering design feedback and approvals,” says Sarah McIlwain, our Director of Product Design. “Nine times out of 10, it's happening either in a meeting or over Slack, and both of those things are ephemeral. Especially in a meeting, unless you've got someone who's taking notes and posting them to a centralized location, it often comes down to remembering who said what.”

For growing organizations, this complexity can feel inescapable. Especially in large enterprises, each designer’s work can become more fragmented, making it easier to get caught up in minutiae and lose sight of the bigger picture. 

The solution? Streamlining work processes 

Though the issue of too much “work around the work” plagues many design teams, it’s also one that many aim to solve. 

“All the high effort, low impact stuff you're having to do to connect the dots gets so time-consuming,” says Abstract CEO Kelly Watkins. “The ability for a designer to get into a flow state produces better work, but that flow state is very challenged right now because everything has to be so manual.”

When we asked our survey respondents about how they’re currently collaborating with other designers and stakeholders, their answers highlighted that wherever we’re headed, we need to focus on streamlining processes and communication — an initiative 40% of respondents reported they wanted to focus on in the near future.

Meanwhile, 53% of respondents reported collaborating with other designers daily, which entails providing critique (90%), brainstorming ideas (85%), sharing work (80%), storing and versioning files in the same place (54%), and co-editing the same files (54%). Respondents also said the most important things to them while collaborating with others were sharing and managing files in a centralized place (71%) and managing feedback and conversations in one place (70%).

When it came to collaboration with stakeholders, 47% of respondents reported collaborating with stakeholders weekly, while 36% collaborate with them daily. For this relationship, collaboration means gathering feedback and approvals (93%), providing visibility into design work (77%), and sharing designs for development (73%).

Of course, in our remotely distributed world, we’re relying more than ever on tools that can help us reach a quick consensus around feedback. But it may be a good idea to take a step back and think about the processes and guidelines that dictate how we use these tools, says Chi Thorsen, Brand Design Manager at Thumbtack. “Gone are the days where you can just pop over to someone’s desk and ask, ‘Hey, do you know where this thing lives on Google drive? Do you still have that sticky note from that meeting?’ Fielding those tiny requests builds up, so protecting your time and time management is more important than ever.” 

She suggests making an explicit effort to talk about what needs to be a Zoom meeting, for example, or what can simply be a quick phone call to check-in. “I think now, we're all getting really good at knowing what doesn't have to be a meeting,” Thorsen says. “I can already see a difference from when we first went remote to where we are now. Things are a lot smoother.”

Overall, the message seems to be, look further than the tools and focus on the processes that guide them. Finding efficiencies here is where you’ll make real productivity improvements. 

Want to read more about the challenges today’s designers are facing—and how to solve them? Read the State of Design 2021 report.