Maria Skaaden

@mariaskaaden

Continuous Design

What we make, and how we make it, is rapidly changing. Right now it’s all about delivering value, continuously.

Credit: unsplash.com

Over the past few years, how we design and deliver new digital products and services has changed dramatically. In the world of digital products, projects rarely have a clearly defined beginning or end any more. The days of waterfall IT projects are in the past. Nowadays, most companies are organized around a portfolio of digital products and services that are in continuous development.

A need for speed

With the dawn of digitalization the speed of development has increased substantially, while the cost of changes has gone down. The path from concept to live code has been decimated (even with the possibility of technical debt that can steal time), making it easy to launch new features and fixes FAST. This makes the speed in which we must deliver value to the end users critical for the businesses we work for.

At BEKK, we use the phrase “Continuous Design” (“Kontinuerlig design” in Norwegian) to describe the way we, as designers, have changed the way we work to meet the industry’s need for speed.

We want to make quality digital products and services

While delivering rapidly has become a critical success factor for our projects, the goal has always been to create digital services that have value for people and our society as a whole. So what exemplifies a quality digital product or service?

A quality digital product is:

  • Desirable for the user. It does the job it was ‘hired’ for and it helps a business deliver on its promise to its customers.
  • Viable for business. Puts money in the bank so that the business can continue to deliver on that promise.
  • Feasible. It is possible to deliver with the resources that are available to the business.

Quality digital products need a team that can cover all these aspects. Design has always been an important part of the puzzle with its strengths in creativity, user perspective and an eye for meaningful experiences. However, how we deliver this perspective to our teams and the products we work on has changed.

The first release must be just “good enough”

Industrial design is a process of design applied to the design and production of physical products. Software is something else altogether. The really big difference is at which point in the process you are trying to reduce risk. Designing physical products, teams worked to reduce risk as much as possible before launch: “Have we done enough research? Do we know what the user needs and wants? Have we tested this enough?” etc. etc. In contrast, the greatest risk we face when developing digital products is the opportunity cost of someone else launching sooner.

It is critical that we launch a product that is “good enough” and learn quickly than to wait to launch the “perfect product”.

For designers, this means that we need to start with “good enough,” and then learn and continuously improve the product. This way of working conflicts with the linear, iterative design process that works toward a perfect problem-solution fit. These two methods were created for different mediums which operate in different ways. A linear design process takes place on paper following a plan. A continuous design process takes place in production responding to feedback.

Does digital product development still need a North Star?

But how can we ensure a good, holistic experience if we only ever deliver bits and pieces that are just “good enough”? Designers often yearn for a North Star — an overarching concept to steer decision making, and an artifact from the linear design process. Just as developers resent releasing bad code, having to release things that don’t feel quite refined or thought through enough can be painful for designers.

Designers in teams with continuous deliveries often feel this strain. The prioritization of speed is so pervasive that some have tried to start the turning of the pendulum, and urge the community to slow down to go faster by learning before you build. It is the balance between learning and building that we must master. A quality product delivers on a business’s promise to its customers, and the reasoning behind design decisions should be connected to a larger concept or strategy to deliver that promise.

If you force a designer to make a decision without first letting her understand how this stance works towards a greater goal, then you have hired a printer. Designers still seek out ways to reduce risk. They want to be sure the decisions they make are good and justified before resources are dedicated to develop the solution in code. But how important is it, really, to justify all of our decisions before release when the answers lie with our users — in production?

Continuous Design: Design’s response to the new pace of development

It is our responsibility to both deliver on our promise to customers and keep up with the high speed of development. The linear design process that most designers have learned comes from a time where it was expensive to fail and therefore important to be complete and get things right on the first try. In the digital world, we no longer have to wait for a prototype to come from the factory for quality assurance. We can release things that are only partially done.

What’s important is launching a first release quickly that can then be continuously learned from and improved on, not the first release in and of itself.

Continuous Design is to continuously measure, learn and improve — in production

The output of a digital product development team is a continuous stream of small and large decisions, taken from various perspectives. A designer delivers design decisions. To meet today’s fast-paced speed of development, designers must work to be able to make grounded design decisions faster, and tackle uncertainty.

The essence of continuously delivering value is being able to assess if a solution in production is delivering on its desired effect. Launch is when the true work begins — it is only then you can start to see if your concept actually works. Learning in production is key to finding out if your concept delivers the value it is supposed to. To do this, we need good feedback loops in place that make insights available to the whole team.

Continuous Design is about seeing the short-term and longterm perspectives — at the same time

Designers are often given the task of painting a picture of the near and far future of a product through words, sketches and concept presentations. These tools are still important for us, even though the road from sketch to live code has become more of a chase scene down the highway than a stroll by the waterfall. The designs we create don’t really deliver any value before they are rolled out to users.

Some companies use “horizons” to take about the near and far future. In our team, we talk about “surfing the next wave” (release) while at the same time keeping an eye on what we are headed towards on the horizon. We keep one eye on the landscape just ahead of us, while the other peers through the telescope to see what is coming. Our focus is on learning and solving relevant problems fast to release what actually delivers value, instead of being an assembly line for features.

Continuous Design is the shift from delivering features to delivering on a promise to customers

Unfortunately, many large companies still have an assembly-line setup when it comes to digitalization, and teams’ processes are defined by this. To go from being a “line organization” to a “learning organization” is challenging, as it is often hard to see or measure from the inside when a process is failing you. When tasks are being completed, everything looks fine – constant stream of output = A-OK. But keeping us busy isn’t the goal. The goal is to deliver on your promise to customers. Organisational psychology teaches that how we are measured directly affects our response, so it is important to measure a design by how it delivers on its intended effect.

Continuous Design means new deliverables for designers in product teams

Though highly-polished sketches and insight reports are deliverables that no longer fit in today’s development speed, it is still important to deliver the user’s perspective. Traits such as curiosity and empathy along with the abilities to synthesise user insight and translate all these things to tangible solutions is what makes our discipline unique, and continue to be essential.

So… what does a Continuous Designer do?

  • Take responsibility for measuring and learning: set up feedback loops in production and share learning with the team.
  • Help your team to establish and own a dialog with end users.
  • Translate corporate and high-level strategies to concrete actions for your product.
  • Facilitate processes for your team to align and make decisions.
  • And much more…
Essentially, Continuous Design is the way we deliver the design perspective to our team and the products we work on. Start with “good enough” and set up feedback loops to establish a dialog with your users to determine what to improve next. Keep an eye on the landscape in front of you while the other on the horizon. By working continuously with design, we can create quality digital products that deliver on a business’s promise to customers and at the same time keep up with the pace required of a digital product team today.

A big thanks to Sonja Sarah Porter, Martin Skarbø Sangolt, linda chr halvorsen og Fredrik Matheson for helpful comments and input for this post.

Maria is Practice Lead for Continuous Design at BEKK — a group created because the way we work is changing. We are looking at how we can be even better at designing quality digital solutions by continuously delivering value to our customers and their users — fast enough — over time.

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