Make design history

How to be a better designer by documenting your work quickly and effectively

When you’re in the midst of a new design project, it can feel like everything is on fire. There isn’t enough time in the day to get the bare minimum done, let alone write stuff down. You spend all your time meeting with stakeholders and churning out designs. Occasionally, there is confusion. Maybe someone new joins the team, or someone wasn’t in the right meeting. But you hash it out in a ridiculous number of meetings. You feel frustrated, but you make it happen.

Then, when everyone is finally on the same page, you help build the functional version of the product. People ask you the same questions over and over again. You continuously answer them. The project goes live, barely on time, and everything feels wonderful for the minute before you are pummeled with bugs.

After launch, you find yourself in a position where you need to reference the work you did on that project. Perhaps it’s to provide mockups for a bug fixes, or it’s to iterate on the project more. But hardly anything was written down — not even in emails –and your hours worth of chat messages are impossible to search through. After several hours, you’re back exactly where you began your search.

Design documentation can make or break your design process. It can provide context, direction, and quick access to decision-making rationale that saves you time now and in the future. So why’s it often the last thing to get done?

Many people think documentation is too time-intensive to focus on during a project. Working at a digital product company can mean little downtime between projects, and creating documentation at the end of a project can take hours or days. Documentation can also be time-intensive if you create it as the project progresses but aren’t using a flexible format. Luckily, I’ve learned a few principles that make design documentation easier and faster. These principles could be used for other types of documentation as well — but I’ve only used them for design work, so your mileage may vary.

Principle 1: Make it early

At the beginning of your project, create a design document using a word processing application. This document should outline the problem you aim to solve, business and user goals, and a list of people involved with the project. Ideally, it will also link to other helpful information such as a summary of competitors’ solutions and relevant research insights.

Contrary to what you might believe based on their name, design documents aren’t just useful for designers. They also help align the entire project team by giving them a space to document basic assumptions. Very often, people think all members of their team are on the same page because they’ve sat in a room and talked about a plan. However, people often forget to step back and properly center solutions around the problem they intend to solve. Documenting and sharing information in a format that lets people comment and discuss asynchronously can create room for people to ask and answer open questions, no matter how simple or complex those questions may be.

Principle 2: Make it accessible

Documentation can live almost anywhere: Google Drive, InVision, LucidChart, Figma, Basecamp, Dropbox, and GitHub are just a few services that enable you to share design documentation with others. However, people generally gravitate toward a few select tools. When creating documentation, make sure it lives on services your core audience access regularly. You can also compromise; if the majority of your team uses Basecamp but you prefer InVision, creating a Basecamp post that links to InVision updates is a simple way to keep everyone in the loop.

As an example, designers at Etsy create design documents in Google Drive. This makes it easy to share documentation with product managers, engineers, and other designers. We also create user flow diagrams, prototypes, and mockups that get organized in boards on InVision, a suite of tools created for designers. The combination of written and visual updates enable us to ideate, get feedback, and make decisions swiftly.

Most documentation stops being modified at some point in time. This can happen after a project is launched, when someone leaves a team, or when a feature is no longer being supported. Documentation should be as easy to locate five years from now as it is today. At Etsy, designers will occasionally look back at years-old documentation to understand the history behind certain decisions. You may not always be there to explain your thought process, so make sure your work can speak for you.

Principle 3: Make it easy

Making design documentation sustainable is key to long-term success. If your documentation requires hours of updates every time a new decision is made, you will find it tedious. For example, at a previous company I was asked to create functionality documentation. At the time, there was no way to easily share design updates without using email. Sketch did not exist yet, which meant I couldn’t create symbols. Any time my team agreed to make changes, I had to update a multiple-state clickable prototype — as well as pages of documentation. This required me to copy and paste the same modules across multiple areas.

Luckily, we now live in different a time with better design tools. Design work can generally be documented in less than an hour. Sketch has symbols, easy-to-use bulk export tools, as well as many plugins that make documentation seamless by syncing artboards to online services. Additionally, tools like InVision make sharing visual documentation much easier than static files in emails. This means designers can send a single link instead of emailing static files every time a change is made.

You now understand why design documentation is awesome and how it can be incorporated into your work. Documentation saves time, reduces friction, and promotes clarity during project development. It also serves as an historical record that can be referenced when you aren’t available to explain your ideas.

Looking to make documentation even easier? Start by clearly defining your design process. Every team has a process, even if it may be unwritten. If you aren’t sure what yours is yet, outline actions the team usually takes while building projects at your company. This can include types of meetings you regularly have (like kickoffs and reviews) as well as how people in different roles are expected to work together. If you’re new to the company, interview others to capture unspoken expectations.

In addition to setting expectations, consider how files are organized as well as ways to simplify the process of creating designs and documentation. Etsy has documentation templates and a design system with unified design patterns, and although these things require a fair amount of effort to create, they reduce friction overall — and that naturally makes documentation simpler and easier.

Are you a big fan of documentation, or do you hate it? What has worked well for you? What failed? Let us know in the comments!