Marco Polo sailing from Venice in 1271, (15th century).

The Terrors and Pleasures of Enterprise Design: Facing the Unknown

Part 1 in a series

Seventeen days before I was to start kindergarten, my family moved from Pittsburgh to a small town in Normandy, France. I still remember that first day of school. I knew no one, had no idea what anyone was saying, and didn’t even recognize some of the food served at lunch. In the schoolyard that day, I found myself being chased by a gaggle of kids who were chanting the same thing over and over again. After school, when I mimicked what the kids had chanted to my mom, she chuckled. Then she enlightened me: “They were saying ‘dis quelque chose en anglais’ — say something in English.”
 
Into the Chaos
 
The beginning of every enterprise project I’ve ever served has brought back something like that mixture of wonder and terror at landing in a foreign, incomprehensible, and complex world. Unlike consumer design, enterprise work often plunges you into a world packed with specialized expertise and distinctive culture. How does one even start to make sense of such confusion?
 
Like most five-year-olds in a fully immersive environment, I learned quickly. The language and the rudiments of the culture came to me in a matter of months. Perhaps more importantly, I discovered that I could learn about new things by embracing them before they made sense to me. Enterprise design projects demand a similar willingness to dive in despite an incomplete — and occasionally nonexistent — understanding of the world you’re entering. 
 
Take the world of digital advertising, in which I’m currently immersed at Facebook. On the surface, the work seems pretty straightforward: enable advertisers to easily create messages and show them to the right people at the right time for the right price. But this is accomplished in sophisticated — and initially baffling — ways. 
 
Everyday jargon includes CPC, CPM, CTR, CPA, GRP, attribution window, retargeting, brand recall, brand awareness, brand safety, reach, and frequency capping, just for starters. And the ecosystem of advertisers has many distinct strands, each with its own culture and priorities and approach: brand advertisers, direct response marketers, local advertisers, emerging market advertisers, mom and pop shops, and so on. 
 
The nuances of this constantly evolving world take years to know intimately, and its complexity keeps growing. Meanwhile, recent news about ill-intended actors gaming the system toward illegal and nefarious ends have raised the stakes. Getting a handle on these actors, conducting pre-emptive threat assessments for new products, and developing strategies and principles to stop this sort of activity — without overly hindering legitimate uses of Facebook’s ad platform — requires designers who can get up to speed fast in unfamiliar territory.
 
Voyagers and Gumshoes
 
To repeatedly face the unknown is not everyone’s idea of fun. But for me and many of my colleagues working on enterprise projects, it’s invigorating. 
 
Sometimes, it’s like taking an immersive class in a fascinating new subject. Though more often than not, there are no teachers and it’s more like being an explorer — picture Marco Polo on the Silk Road puzzling through tribal, merchant, and ultimately Chinese court customs. Or imagine an enterprise designer wending their way through a new corporate org, figuring out which teams or people matter to the project and what the incentive could be for each team to lend support to the project. 
 
Add to that the need to gain deep understanding of the people who will use the tool that’s under design. Empathy, acute observational skills, and the ability to recognize and articulate patterns of needs and behaviors for different segments is key here. Cue anthropologist Margaret Mead, living in a culture foreign to her and teasing out which cultural norms are meaningfully different from ours. Note that at Facebook, we’re lucky to have dedicated researchers for most projects, who in some cases do have anthropology degrees and who coordinate customer immersion projects … but we designers like to tag along to hear and see for ourselves and feel a connection to the people we serve. 
 
The picture isn’t complete without one more analogy: that of the classic hard-boiled detective who walks into a bar and asks provocative questions to stir things up, in the hopes of getting that first lead, that one first step in unraveling a mystery. We enterprise designers are often asked to solve big, hairy problems for which no one person or org holds pat answers. The only way to get answers and make progress is to be extremely curious, ask many questions of many people, and aggressively look for clues.
 
For the enterprise designer, all the initial disorientation can be deeply scary … but exciting, too. And getting to know a new culture is rewarding, because each new culture carries a new viewpoint about how the world works and how to operate in it. Sometimes, you get new ideas from these worlds that you can bring with you anywhere. Sometimes, when you reach a certain level of fluency, you get to contribute your own ideas to these worlds … and with some hard work, hopefully make them a little better.