Knowledge: Where It Lives and How to Find It

When I joined Capital One in the summer of 2016, there were hundreds of designers in our ONE Design organization — and I didn’t know any of them. A week before getting my new employee badge (complete with a disastrous photo), I drove north through 600 miles of pine groves, lakes, and forests up I-85, excited about the opportunity to build my career in the DC metro area.

Despite being nervous as the only person from my graduate program (and one of the only Floridians I knew) to choose this path, I had high hopes. I looked forward to learning more about the finance industry, as a fresh change from my experiences in the world of engineering and R&D. Corporate environments didn’t scare me — ‘Bring on the bureaucracy!’ I thought to myself. Still, I wasn’t fully prepared for the depth and breadth of Capital One’s design organization, and how that would impact my job — namely, how could I effectively communicate and share knowledge with hundreds of other designers, not only in my office in Northern Virginia, but with our design hubs ranging from San Francisco to London?

As the weeks passed, I started to feel more comfortable with my new team, designing and evaluating customer experiences for our credit card products. However, a couple months into my role, I hit a block. I became the only designer supporting a new project meant to empower customers with limited access to credit, and it was fundamentally different than the other products my team offered. I didn’t have anyone to go to for help about existing design patterns, best practices, or the intricacies of designing for this specific product (or so I thought, at the time). In a meeting with my manager, I asked somewhat frantically, “Does anyone else at Capital One work on products like these? Outside ofour team?” “Yes,” he responded, “…but I don’t know who they are.”

At this point, I felt more like an investigative journalist than a designer. I focused on tracking down every spare strategy document, fragment of a pattern from our internal design kits, or any other related materials and tools I could find — poring over them, hoping they would hold the key to making successful designs for this new product. However, after a series of disappointing intranet searches and a LOT of remaining gaps in my knowledge, I realized something.

These are places where (despite my best efforts to find it) knowledge does NOT live in this company:

  • Our internal project collaboration wiki
  • Invision Prototypes
  • Capital One’s beloved intranet
  • Email chains
  • Secret Chamber in HQ
  • Anonymous PowerPoint Decks from 2009

This is where knowledge lives:

  • People

In my academic design projects, I would look to existing literature first — papers, competitive analysis of other digital tools, etc. — to inform my understanding of a problem. In this job, finding the right resources was less like going to a library and more like reckoning with a living, breathing and fast-moving ball of 400 people who knew a LOT individually about design at Capital One. But I had to find the right individuals, meet them, and talk to them to be able to do my job.

This was scary, but once I started to break into all the ONE Design Slack channels and (repeatedly) ask “Who is working on this? Who worked on this? Is someone going to work on this in the future? Can I talk to you?” the quality of my work and its alignment with our existing design guidelines and insights improved overnight. I felt more confident in my work, knowing that I had found and consulted with the right people and teams to move my work in the right direction for our customers. And of course, I have gotten to know and appreciate a lot of designers in our teams across the country and overseas (shout-out to the Texas-based designers who helped me with this particular project!) who I otherwise wouldn’t have met in the corner of the ninth floor in my office, nestled in a DC suburb.

What did I learn from this experience? When in doubt, connect.

Every one of us working in a design team — whether it’s a 400-person international behemoth or a small agency — holds so much more knowledge, insight, and design wisdom than what we can document (no matter how awesome our tools are). Embracing this reality helped empower me to reach out to complete strangers at this company, build relationships, and change our work for the better.