Designing in the open

In the past I worked for a large financial company where I was pulled into a small tech group with a directive to redesign the core software of all our loan agents. This was no small task. We were redesigning the database structure, the entire development stack, and the entire UI. The software needed to be responsive, allow for telephony multitasking, and use ajaxy interactions. I was brought into the group as the sole designer to handle all front-end development and the experience of the application. Despite the amount of money poured into the project, and the level of technical knowledge from the team, the application was a failure.

The loan agents for whom this software was being built, were never asked what currently worked or what they actually needed. The user was never consulted. This resulted in feature creep, along with misaligned and ill-communicated goals leading to continual wasted efforts. There were no data-informed decisions and leadership had no regard for the experience or the user. All work was kept private within the team and we were forbidden from reaching out to those who might have helped. Needless to say, I left the project a month or two in and found a new job.

I learned quickly that design needed to breath. It needed to inhale, pause, and then exhale into the world. And then it needed to repeat. Designing within a closed box left no room for growth or creativity—it was suffocating.

Design is a process, not a definitive outcome. Part of this process includes inhaling, or taking in everything possible about a project or problem. We need to research data, observe users, and investigate all the things. In the midst of this, we need to pause and reflect on our findings. And then we exhale. Exhaling is the process of ideation, prototyping, and testing. It’s gathering everything we’ve internalized and letting it out into the world. And designing in the open accomplishes this best.

I’ve learned a bit about designing in the open with my contributions to open source and the WordPress project. It’s an adventure. As we’re all aware, everyone has an opinion, and designing in the open is subject to them all. Not one effort goes by unscathed. It’s a special kind of designer that anxiously awaits the critical feedback of a community. An understanding designer will recognize those critical comments as a sure sign of passion. And if a project has passion and people, it’s setup to do great things. A designer in the open should also be willing to throw things away. If the community disagrees with a solution, there’s a good chance that solution is garbage. Nothing is sacred when designing in the open—it’s all fair game. But in this same vein, the designer should be able to discern feedback that provides alternative solutions based on tested and confirmed analysis. This requires knowing our users. Is the feedback from a user, or from a content provider? Their desires might oppose one another, and we need to recognize that. One last thing to note is that a designer in the open should be flexible, but strong. The Open is wild, and can be savage at times. We need to know when to take the hits, and when to punch back.

But the open is also amazing and unforgettable. It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before. With every learning curve comes an abundance of… well… things learned. That’s experience—unfettered, gritty experience. You won’t walk away unfulfilled. In fact, the knowledge gained in the open will keep you breathing well into the future. While you might get winded from the ups and downs, you will only grow stronger.

So take a deep breath, and put it out there.

Learn more about how to start designing in the open.