The birth of continuous software design: Beyond engineering-centrism

Kai Brunner, Principal Designer, Electric Cloud

Software providers that improve their product or service the fastest are proven to be more competitive. This is not exclusively an engineering matter. Analysis also proves that design-centered tech companies outperform those that are not design-driven. Better tech wins, but only when its design is better.

This faster pace of development requires re-imagining how teams collaborate, which implies how they communicate. If software delivery is to become continuous, then its design must become continuous as well.

When continuous delivery emerged as the future of how software gets released, I realized it would invariably affect how design gets done. Soon enough, the process and practices of designing the user experience of software would have to evolve in step with DevOps practices. This evolution has occupied my thoughts for the past two years. Back then, I didn't know how it would happen, nor what would define it, but I knew "the times they are a-changing." Recently the departure of my close colleague set in motion rapid change that crystallized a notion of what continuous design is likely to be: how design decisions are made faster.

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Adapt to exist

The news of my fellow designer's departure to a leading design-driven company hit me like a swift punch to the gut. Over a career, you get the wind knocked out of you once in a while, so I knew I'd soon feel the hollowing effects, and started to think of my recovery. This turned out to extend into days, even weeks. I was happy for her and sad for me at the same time. There was an unspoken bond between us from supporting each other through the challenges of building a design culture within an engineer-centric organization, in addition to solving some of the most complex user-experience puzzles either of us had faced in over a decade. We had defined our criteria for success and charted a course toward it under the premise that we'd enjoy the journey all the way through to the destination. I hadn't envisioned traveling there without my teammate. What I needed to recover from the punch, as much as one needs to inhale air back into breathing normally again, was the grit to press on.

What does a software company do when one of its designers is subtracted from its delivery process? What do the adjoining teams do two weeks from her announced departure? There's only one thing to do: adapt. We were all steeped in agile practices. Every one of us in product management and engineering was accustomed to pivots and compromises during implementations. When change feels like a sudden drop to the ground, getting up from the fall is not the same as landing on your feet to keep running. We needed to land on our feet. The release date required us to keep running. How we adapted gave birth to continuous design.

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The power behind the throne of design

Before we get into the chronicles of how continuous design was born into our organization, let's step back to gain a common perspective on design and its unique nature within software development. Some years back I had joined a startup right before its acquisition. Months later, in adjusting to the new dynamics of the larger organization, during a rare moment of clarity, the former CEO of the acquired startup gave me the following understanding: "Look at who influences the design of our product. There is an inner circle of trust made of 11 people, where the decisions are made that determine the design of our product."

Many designers are intrinsically aware of indirect influences outside of their communication sphere. For me, however, that particular moment of counsel became the catalyst to looking at the dynamics of design leadership with new lucidity. None of the 11 top influencers were designers. Determining the quality and sophistication of the software's design mostly happens without directly talking about it.

Now, look at the inner circle of design influencers in your organization. It starts from the very top. The first design decision that influences all outcomes downstream is the budget allocated to design leadership, management, and talent. In smaller organizations, that usually translates into who will hire the design talent and which department will likely determine the product's ethos. Next, the design acumen of product leadership will ultimately determine whether designers will fulfill their potential and magnify the business advantage they produce. One of the most critical influencers is the engineering leadership, because this is primarily with whom trade-offs and design compromises are negotiated. From there on down in the implementation process, team members will either contribute to delivering on the promises of superior design, or they will erode its purpose of fostering trust with end users. The executive, product, and engineering teams are the three decision centers that lay the foundation upon which design operates. The dynamics of design-related communication and the focus of what gets discussed ultimately determine the velocity and the design outcome. Simply put, it's who talks about what and when.

Who says what, when

With an understanding of your chain of influence, design strategies are either magnified or constricted. Aligned influencers agree quickly on what areas of the product benefit the most from special design attention. They share a common center of gravity across the decision-making process, so the flow of communication is at its most efficient. That is the very kernel from which continuous design grows: aligned thinking and highly efficient communication. Different from continuous delivery, where automation is the accelerator of lengthy and error-prone deployment tasks, the acceleration of design is enabled by the efficient succession of decisions by the involvement of the right people at the right time.

With the two-week countdown till the departure of my fellow designer, I and the product and the engineering team readied ourselves to maintain design activities by first taking inventory of the remaining UX design items for the release. We categorized them by the type of design decisions that needed to be made, distinguishing those that required deep expertise from those that could be solved with existing UI patterns. Each item, treated as a small project, was entrusted to a team member who was adequately suited to deliver the desired outcome. Design quality instantly became the responsibility of many. This event dramatically improved the general awareness of the acumen needed behind making aligned design decisions. Until now, we had never achieved this mindshare. This was an organizational victory.

Reducing the number of design decision-makers down to two per project increased the velocity of solving complex architectural and interactive challenges. The artistry resided in pairing the right people at the right time based on their area of expertise. Deliberately withholding certain participants from the process can seem counterintuitive — our process prior to that had solicited the participation and approval of many. We evolved our process so that we punctuated design reviews with multiple checkpoints so that engineering leadership could ensure the feasibility of implementation within the allotted time. Just as reducing the size of releases accelerates throughput in continuous delivery, so does the design of the improvements accelerate when they're broken down into smaller projects.

The anatomy of the design decision

When I started my career, designing interactive kiosks in Switzerland, my mentor would often begin a meeting with the French maxim "Parlons peu. Parlons bien," which translates literally to "Speak little. Speak well." The gravitas he had in saying this helped all participants recognize that it was our collective responsibility to use the time effectively with an economy of words that address only what needed to get decided.

Our challenge resides in synthesizing the inputs from multiple contributors who are striving to define software abstractions. Each person is endeavoring to describe value from his or her unique vantage point. Each is seeking to manifest his or her standard of excellence in the outcome. Oftentimes, considerable effort is required for minds to align. "Seek first to understand, then to be understood." That is a habit of effectiveness that will accelerate making design decisions.

The collective ability to concisely articulate a problem statement, to clarify the opportunity for differentiation, or to create value increases when all participants discipline themselves to adhere to a common taxonomy, as well as a vernacular that adequately describes facets of design in a project. Lax communication always delays good design decisions. There is a correlation between the optimization of deploying software and the optimization of deploying ideas in designing a product. In both of these activities, the objectives are the same: Reduce errors, create repeatable outcomes, and increase the speed of delivery.

To optimize making design decisions, we first must identify where we are error prone. Design errors reside in the initial conversations, which far predate the visual deliverable. These errors stem from how an organization establishes its design influencers, so errors are simply endemic to the design approach of the inner circle. In a nutshell, one could say, "Tell me how your leadership thinks and I'll show you what design it produces." The absence of a design strategy is still a strategy; it just has no solid rationale to guide its decisions. It is like a rudderless ship that still makes headway toward a destination of competitiveness, just not predictably.

Company self-awareness

Transformation in customers' needs — in markets, in industries, in organizations, in leadership, in departments, in teams, in methods, in tools — that is the constant. So the questions are, "In response to these variations, what needs to change?" and "How do we adapt to the new environment?" We intrinsically know the answers. We change. We evolve our thinking, and it behooves us to do so proactively. To continuously design software at high velocity, our thinking needs to change first in acknowledging that design outcome is the manifestation of discussions that originated from the organization's strongest influencers. All who take part in the execution of making the product must be aware of how the top influencers think about design, whether they are adept at it or not. The organization throughout is to have this self-awareness.

Knowing the standard

However complex software is, its binary essence makes it ironically simple: Either it works, or it doesn't. Yet its design, from the depths of its architecture to its user interface, can hide a myriad of foibles, and we make due, as long as it all "works." There is, however, an industry standard that naturally emerges that is defined by measures of aesthetics and intuitiveness. In turn, an organization defines its own standards. In order to accelerate making design decisions, a clear understanding of what the company's standard of outcome is must be repeatedly communicated so that less time is wasted discussing the issue ad hoc among contributors.

Adjusting biases

Design decisions are the result of recognizable communication patterns within a department or a team. This is similar to family conversations that predictably reflect individual and shared biases. Comparably, there are design biases that predictably determine the pace and the effectiveness of the discussions. All too commonly with software, the biases lean toward engineering expediencies over end-user needs, despite the advanced state of user-experience practices known to produce superior business outcome. Engineer-centric companies struggle to internalize this to the degree of having design values as their center of gravity. From its legacies, enterprise software is notoriously conflicted in adopting a design principle that consumer-centric companies have long understood as their motto: Delight the customer.

These three key areas of awareness are to be deliberate and ongoing efforts to establish a solid footing to step up the design pace. It is achieved through formal internal communications, and departments receiving design training. From this understanding we'll discover the practices of continuous design in Part II.