Doing Design at Scale

Lucinda Burtt
Dec 20, 2019 · 6 min read
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Illustration: Ximena Cuenca

This post is part of an ongoing series about design at scale. Read “Driving Quality and Consistency at Scale” by Ken Skistimas, “Modern Design Tools” by Daniel Eden and “Creating Stable Design Systems at Scale” by Sean Blanton.

When a former colleague and friend invited me to attend a dinner about product design last year in my hometown of Sydney, Australia, I had no idea how much agreeing to go would change nearly every aspect of my life, from where I lived to the design innovations I’d soon bring to life.

I’ve been working in design in a professional setting for over a decade and am always excited by the opportunity to network within the design community. When my friend told me the dinner would be hosted by Facebook, I was somewhat skeptical. But I was also intrigued, so I decided to go.

Among the many insightful conversations that evening, and the one I kept coming back to in the days following that dinner, was about design at scale: how it can be done, what the challenges are, what the necessary tools would be to do it right, what sorts of resources would be needed.

Many product designers pride ourselves on the skills we’ve built up in our go-to tools. It takes real sweat effort to build mastery.

Throughout my time in the industry, I’ve always encouraged design tools that help teams work more effectively and collaboratively. I’ve also always felt that it’s important for designers to stay flexible and mindful of bringing their whole teams along with them.

In the days after that dinner, this tantalizing notion was lodged in my mind: How do you do design at scale? When Facebook approached me a short time later about the opportunity to come aboard the Ads Interfaces team as a product design manager — joining a team working on a tool that would help realize a future of collaborative and high-fidelity design at the scale of Facebook—my heart started pounding in my chest. It was compelling enough for me to say over coffee one morning to my adventurous husband: “Uh, I think we need to move to Seattle.” The idea blossomed into action and we moved across continents in March 2019.

How far we’ve come

It’s hard to believe how far we’ve come in such a short period of time, and in the same way the design industry has exploded, so have our tools. I cut my teeth on Adobe all-rounder Photoshop and remember navigating the seismic shift to Sketch. Then I helped teams extend with Marvel, later InVision, and speed up development with Zeplin. Today there are countless tools at our fingertips to concept and refine, prototype and validate — and let’s not forget the classics: sticky notes, spiral-bound notebooks or an inky pen.

New ways of working

The past year has been a time of rapid change and growth. I’ve embraced misty mornings, fresh shucked oysters and weekends in the mountains. I’ve discovered local truths — a biscuit is a cookie, a scone is a biscuit, a buttery-triangle enigma is a scone! I’ve also learned about new ways of working and the huge opportunity to bring more roles — like content strategists, engineers and researchers — directly into the design process.

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Visual: Stocksy, Alita Ong

Designing at scale certainly is a challenge. Many product designers, myself included, pride ourselves on the skills we’ve built up in our go-to tools. It takes real sweat effort to build mastery. However, it’s important to remember that our true value as designers is deeper: knowledge of how to identify and communicate the problem to be solved, helping a team to align and understand, then craft coherent and consistent user experiences.

This is why I’m excited to push what’s possible in our design tooling knowing that the industry is shifting again: browser-based tools that allow for easy file sharing are toppling industry favorites, the “should designers code” debate is a fire that continues to blaze as we see more data-powered prototyping, and future-focused inclusive design teams are thinking beyond vector drawing tools to truly partner through the stages of craft, test, build.

Getting closer to design at scale

As I’ve been ramping up at Facebook, I’ve had the opportunity to speak with teams and begin developing a roadmap for where we might be headed. I believe we’re ready to take a step forward as an industry of makers. I believe there’s a better way to design that lets teams build together at scale without heavy handoffs, where craft and quality are part of the process, not an afterthought.

Scaling quality from design to production

The path forward for scaled design is complex, but one certainty is that consistent components introduce complexity slowly, both to designers and users. Simply put, the future of design tooling is component-based and where the industry is headed.

  • Designing with real code components. Vector-based design tools are great for free-form drawing. However, for teams working on digital products, everything you draw then needs to be recreated by an engineer in code. This can lead to implementation errors and impact development timelines. Instead, by designing with the same components that engineers use in production, teams can map designs closer to how real products are actually built.
  • Creating new components. By using the paradigm of component-based design, teams can propose new components that can be easily translated to code for production, scaling design systems and encouraging consistent and coherent product experiences.

An open way to design

Designers can often feel uncomfortable or threatened by showing their designs when they are still in a working state. At Facebook, being open and collaborative are values we rely on to do the work we do at the scale we do.

  • Build together. Integrated workflows can enable specialists to contribute their knowledge to the design. What if some of your incomplete ideas might really have been exceptional ones had you received the right insights from another team member? True team collaboration requires a deep trust in one another. It might feel uncomfortable at first, but the payoff is worth it.
  • Staying in alignment by working in sync. When multiple people need to work on a project at the same time, alignment is key. Browser-based tooling is becoming industry standard for this very reason. Sharing files no longer requires software installation, and features such as built-in commenting mean the whole team can add feedback and share.

High-fidelity translation from idea to implementation

Improving the quality of tools and systems impacts not only the pace at which we are able to release products, but also the quality of the designs when we do.

  • What the team can design, the team can build. Designing in a medium that looks and behaves like a functional product is a step change and provides the right parameters to engineering so that experiences can be built to spec without extra work or errors arising from mistranslation.
  • Learning, testing, iterating. If you’re in an ideation phase, it might make sense to use a drawing tool, whiteboard, or simply pen and paper. When an idea begins to take shape toward production, a quick working prototype helps gather stronger signal in usability testing and leverages the insight that researchers can bring to crafting interactions and experiences.

A path forward

I continue to be challenged and excited to help Facebook break paths to designing at scale. We’re creating a system in which designs can be easily translated to production-ready code collaboratively and effectively. Every day, we are answering the question that fascinated me back at that dinner in Sydney: How do you do design at scale?

Facebook Design: Business Tools

Stories from like-minded product designers, UX researchers…

Lucinda Burtt

Written by

Product Design Manager at Facebook

Facebook Design: Business Tools

Stories from like-minded product designers, user experience researchers, and content designers who are passionate about improving the world through the creation of well-crafted business tools.

Lucinda Burtt

Written by

Product Design Manager at Facebook

Facebook Design: Business Tools

Stories from like-minded product designers, user experience researchers, and content designers who are passionate about improving the world through the creation of well-crafted business tools.

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