Starting every new project from scratch leads to unnecessary costs and labor, poor quality, and slow times to market. But according to Limina’s recent research in “The 2020 Design-Integration Report: 6 Best Practices to Build Design-Integrated Businesses that Win,” approximately half (49%) of companies do not reuse design artifacts and instead start UX design projects from scratch each time. A key reason that many organizations reinvent the wheel with every design initiative is that they lack reusable artifacts and repeatable processes.
Companies that have successfully integrated UX design into their organizations are more successful. UX design impacts the bottom line. As companies compete vigorously to innovate and enhance the customer experience, UX design has become more important than ever. So why aren’t more organizations investing in the reuse of design artifacts as a strategy for increasing efficiency and quality? Changing the way people and organizations work requires that they have solid examples of success and clear models to follow. The UX design industry has been lacking such examples.
Charting the Road to Reusable Artifacts and Repeatable Processes
In this article, we’ll explore two of the six best practices that our recent study identified:
Creating and using reusable design artifacts and repeatable processes
Investing in improving internal artifacts, then processes, then systems
These best practices can help UX Design teams as they strive to move away from the practice of starting each design from scratch toward a more sustainable, scalable, continuous process of design integration.
An artifact is something that human beings make or shape—such as a tool or a work of art. Common examples of artifacts from across the software-development lifecycle (SDLC) include use cases, design tokens, workflow diagrams, wireframes, and content types. Artifacts are the legacy of previous work that you can reuse to streamline future projects. In general, the codification of design artifacts and artifact types gives rise to standardization, consistency, and governance and enhances the overall efficiency and quality of a design practice.
As Figure 1 shows, “The 2020 Design-Integration Report” also found that less than one-third of companies approach design standards with an actively referenced management system—a specialized knowledge base for cross-functional process and practice management.
To provide a single source of truth, increase efficiency, reduce costs, and produce more consistent, higher-quality outputs, companies must create, archive, and reuse their artifacts and processes. Once they have these artifacts—as well as metadata about their use, effectiveness, and performance—companies can more quickly achieve successful outcomes.
Building artifacts to maximize efficiency and quality requires understanding how high-performing teams in your organization work, then creating the artifacts that facilitate their work, and supporting them with optimal workspaces and policies. It’s essential to have a strong understanding of organizational business processes and workflows, as well as the information you need about user behaviors to design a solution that fits your organization.
Four Core Activities That Support Reuse and Repeatability
Supporting reuse and repeatability requires four core activities, as follows:
Define each step in your organization’s software-development lifecycle and its associated outputs.
Create reusable design artifacts.
Clarify and document your design process
Invest in design systems.
1. Define each step in your organization’s software-development lifecycle and its associated outputs.
Our data from “The 2020 Design-Integration Report” shows that the optimal order of investing in design quality and efficiency improvements for success starts with artifacts, then processes, then systems that support them. However, to understand the context for your artifacts, you must first identify and outline your overall SDLC process.
Another way of thinking about this activity is as service blueprinting—documenting the way your organization deploys projects, products, and services. Start by identifying your organization’s SDLC process, the necessary artifacts, and their touchpoints—that is, the roles on your product team who need them. A standard SDLC includes requirements gathering, design, implementation, testing, deployment, and maintenance. Identify all necessary touchpoints for communication, collaboration, documentation, and handoffs, along with the artifacts you produce to support them. Be sure to note which roles leverage each of the artifacts, in what ways, and when you should create them. Determine which steps in the process your team either performs repeatedly, at multiple stages of the process, or performs most frequently. These activities and their artifacts are typically the best candidates for creating reusable artifacts.
Reusable artifacts generally fall into two categories:
Internal work products—These support processes that facilitate either the collection, analysis, reporting, or documentation of project status or information.
External deliverables—These represent the end state of a process or activity that you need to share both within and outside the UX Design team. Examples of external deliverables include information-architecture diagrams, wireframes, mockups, and user-interface (UI) specifications.
Across our study, we found that participants gave the highest priority to their investments in creating reusable artifacts, defining their process, and developing systems to support them for the requirements and deployment stages of the SDLC. During the requirements stage, their focus was on requirements management and level-of-effort estimation, while during deployment, the focus was primarily on project management, tracking, and version control. Their lowest areas of investment were in tools and systems that improve efficiencies during the design and maintenance stages. Therefore, the business and technology sides of the house typically have greater maturity in developing necessary support systems—such as artifacts and processes—while UX Design teams have some catching up to do, as you can see in Figure 2.
2. Create reusable design artifacts.
There are two primary forms of reuse that you should support. First and foremost, focus on creating templates and frameworks that team members can use as a starting point when beginning a design activity. This is a common best practice for design agencies and consulting firms that continuously strive to ensure consistent client delivery. However, in-house UX Design teams have not widely adopted this practice. This is especially true of UX Design teams that rely on external vendors for research and design support.
Our UX design and technical consultancy has templates for many of the UX deliverables we create most frequently, including site maps, mood boards, workflow diagrams, question sets for usability tests that map to different types of projects, and research-analysis frameworks. In addition to creating the templates themselves, it is important to document clear instructions on how to use them, give a primary point of contact that employees can seek out if they have questions or need support, and provide gold-standard examples that show how others have used the template so team members can clearly understand the expected level of quality of the final product.
COVID has significantly changed team dynamics and collaboration models from working in office environments to working from home. With many people working more independently, there is increased risk to maintaining work continuity and quality. This is especially the case if team members must take time off to recover from illness or firms downsize due to shrinking demand for their services. Within this challenging new reality, having well-documented tools and processes that support teams can be invaluable. Benefits include increased delivery speed, improved quality, and greater ease in onboarding new team members and cross-training individuals in new skill sets. You can also use reusable artifacts as tools for helping educate other parts of the organization and setting their expectations for the type and quality of the work the UX Design team does.
Another important type of reuse that can help improve overall efficiency results from extending the reuse of documentation of existing knowledge to additional audiences within the organization—beyond those who would typically consume it. For example, user-research insights could be useful to researchers and designers, as well as to the product marketing and development teams.
At Limina, we have an artifact called a content outline that we originally created as an internal tool for interaction designers. It supports rapid wireframing. We extended its use by sharing it with our solution architects and technical-team leads, allowing their processes to run in parallel with our design track. The content outline supports interaction designers as they quickly define pages, components layouts, UI elements, and data elements. These quick definition statements naturally set up the structure of UI specifications, and designers can extend and update them as their designs crystallize. Plus, our solution architects and technical-team leads can define relevant object models, queries, components, and views to support back-end functionality that drives the user interface and interactions. This artifact’s extensibility and utility have improved our ability to run better integrated and informed design and development activities in parallel because they help bring our content, design, and technical disciplines to a common understanding as we collaborate and deliver as a team.
3. Clarify and document your design process.
You don’t have to six-sigma your business processes from top to bottom, but you do need to look critically at what you do and how you do it to discover opportunities to improve quality and efficiency. Capture who should perform specific activities, as well as why, how, and when—as in the service blueprint shown in Figure 3. Be sure to use language that is meaningful to the people in all the roles who are participating in the process and using the tools. It might feel like you’re adding extra work and time to the creative process, but it’s time worth spending.
The technology landscape is constantly changing for both the systems we design and the technology we use to support our work. Working against this ever-changing backdrop, it is helpful to have best practices, rules, and guidelines that ensure consistent, efficient, high-quality output.
When you’re deciding where to focus, it is important to consider that most organizations have a lot of tacit knowledge about how to get things done that is locked inside the heads of individuals. Typically, only a limited group of people know to ask that individual for specific information. For example, Only Dan knows how to do that or Cynthia is really the only person who knows about that. Unfortunately, when that individual is unavailable, that information is not available. Turning tacit knowledge into codified documentation that is accessible to everyone whenever they need it helps the whole team perform better.
Creating documentation is a never-ending process. Start by centralizing the exchange of informal communications as much as possible, using a single tool such as Slack or Microsoft Teams. Having a shared workspace can help you identify important tacit knowledge, as well as who has it, so you can convert it into more formalized tools and processes. This is just one aspect of establishing a more formalized knowledge-management process.
4. Invest in design systems.
As organizations establish repeatable processes and develop reusable artifacts that support maturity in human-centered design, they must invest in systems that drive business-process management, operational efficiency, and business intelligence. By investing in design operations and systems integration, business managers can lead the organization in becoming a culture of execution and design intelligence.
The creation of a centralized knowledge base and insights repository is a key initial investment. Component libraries let you store reusable UX design artifacts and reduce friction in their future reuse. More importantly, by making these artifacts more centrally accessible, organizations can better drive and manage their use. Measuring the business value of design in absolute terms is difficult, but having access to a centralized, linked insights repository lets you more readily estimate and plan the scope of impact for your organization's outputs.
For example, consider what would happen if a key competitor were to release a feature that directly threatened your core product or service offering. Without a centralized design-management system, your team would need to evaluate the scope of impact across a broad set of tools that you use to define and manage your systems, designs, products, and services. In contrast, if you centralized your insights repository, product backlog, component library, process workflow inventory, and entity relationship diagrams (ERDs), adding contextually relevant links, you’d more readily be able to estimate and plan the scope of impact to your organization’s core products and services. With this degree of visibility into the related components, data models, and use cases that you would need to modify to achieve feature parity or enhancement, your team could more efficiently prioritize and execute when reacting to external market dynamics.
The Path to Becoming a Design-Integrated Business
To pave the way for design integration, you must identify opportunities for establishing reusable artifacts and repeatable processes among team members. Creating standards, artifacts, and processes provides a measure of brand consistency and uniformity, while also freeing up time and resources for innovation.
Once UX Design teams begin to adopt reusable artifacts and repeatable processes and improve their understanding of one another, they’re better able to agree on and measure key performance indicators (KPIs). They can reduce development time, unleash greater innovation, and demonstrate the business value of design. Limina’s research findings demonstrate that relationships between people are what drive organizational success. The more you can do to support and improve the ways people find and share information and collaborate with each other, the greater your success.
Giving your UX Design team tools and processes that support efficiency and quality helps you to maximize the business value of design and promotes equality and alignment across your organization’s business, technology, and design functions. Equality and alignment are a hallmark of a design-integrated business.
There is neither one clear path nor a designated series of steps for transitioning to being a design-integrated business, and the introduction of change is always disruptive. However, taking small, meaningfully disruptive steps can put your organization on the track to strategic transformation.
At Limina, a UX design and development consultancy, Maria works with Fortune 500 companies and government agencies to enhance human potential by simplifying complex computer interactions and designing usable applications and Web sites. She helps companies discover what people really want—before they create a new product or service they think customers want.