How to design in the open

This isn’t a definitive guide, but it’s definitely a starting point.

In order to understand how to design in the open, one must understand what the open is. For me, because I contribute to the design of open source software (WordPress), the open is the public. It’s anyone and everyone. It includes people that might have a deep vested interest to people who accidentally chanced upon some of my work. It’s there in the open for you to comment on, laugh at, challenge, or by which to become inspired. But for you, the open might be something more enclosed. You might work for a company that doesn’t share its work publicly, and that’s okay. But regardless, it should include everyone within your sphere of interaction; stakeholders, project leaders, co-workers, users, people who walk by your desk to the coffee machine, people at your local lunch spot, and anyone else involved in your project. The open is inclusive, so you need to start thinking that way.

For the sake of designing in the open, I’m providing general guidelines to help you no matter which environment you might find yourself.

Some simple steps

  1. Make sure you’re aware of the people involved in your project.

    Remember the bit above I mentioned about inclusiveness, well that’s really important. You need to know who’s involved to ensure that they all can see what you’re doing.

    I post my progress publicly, and this gets cross-posted in Slack to the appropriate channels. I also shoot out Direct Messages (DMs) to people like my team lead, team members, and other designers.

  2. Design in ways that can be accessed by anyone.

    I realize not everyone has the same software you’re using, and I equally understand the complexities behind collaboration within those same applications. So what are you actively doing to make sure your work is visible? Set up something that anyone with an internet connection can get to. Send out emails with links to your work. Post your mockups on hallway walls. Whatever… just make it available.

    I frequently code stuff on

  3. Design in accessible steps.

    I’m not talking about a11y standards here. I’m talking about making each step in your process accessible to everyone else. You should never go from one step to another without feedback from the open. This ensures those involved that you care what they have to say. And you better care, no matter how small the voice. Have you done some research? Share it. Did you diagram a flow chart? Share it. Have you sketched out some wireframes? Share them.

    I’ll often get a comment on a third iteration’s post to the effect that this person feels like they’ve seen this post already. I assure them they have. And then send that person a link to each post in this project’s progress. They normally respond with, “wow, you’ve done a lot of work”.

  4. Get feedback early, often, and repeat.

    Designing in the open means the open. Don’t be afraid of other’s comments and opinions. Your design isn’t sacred; it’s just one possible solution to a problem. Other’s might offer up alternative solutions, and this is good. Sometimes people’s minds don’t really kick in until they’ve seen something. You’re there to provide that something. If people aren’t engaging you in your efforts, corner them in the hallway… or the digital representation thereof.

    I’ve learned amazing things from those who cared enough to leave a comment on one of my posts.

  5. Give props to everyone who’s contributed to your progress.

    Sharing the success builds relationships. Relationships are the core of what we do. Chances are, you’re building relationships between people and your product/service, so what better way to understand that building block than by building actual relationships between you and other humans? There is no better way, remember relationships. You aren’t defined by the adjectives you use when describing what you do—you’re defined by the relationships you create in the world.

    I love to connect with others, and providing props encourages those relationships to continue.

Hopefully this generalized list encourages your interest in the great wide open. The amount of experience gained from being inclusive in your process is paramount compared to keeping your progress hidden.