Efficiency in Design Tools

Recently, my team and I gave a talk to a large audience about the value of design systems. In my presentation, I highlighted a successful company in optimizing for collaboration and efficiency without compromising quality: McDonald’s.

McDonalds Speedy System

McDonald’s of today is very different than McDonald’s of the 50s. McDonald’s was founded in 1955 by two brothers, Dick and Mac, in San Bernardino, CA. In fact, McDonald’s used to be a restaurant with a full menu, from steak to pasta and fried chicken, but one day the brothers realized that the bulk of their sales were coming from hamburgers. By understanding the Power Curve, a mathematical equation that states that 80% of your results will come from 20% of your efforts, they immediately decided to focus on selling burgers as the only option on the menu. As a result of their narrowed (and simple) approach, they realized the need to elevate the customer experience, after all, hamburgers were just hamburgers. They realized the importance of delivering hamburgers in less than 5 minutes. They needed to optimize for efficiency and collaboration. Unfortunately, the tools - fryer, grill, pan, etc - used to make hamburgers were mostly outdated and didn’t optimize for what they needed. With an ambition to be the best and create a differentiated experience for their customers, the founders realized that efficiency and quality could not be compromised. It was critical that efficiency did not degrade quality. At the time, most kitchen equipment manufacturers didn’t optimize for efficiency as part of a system; they were focused on manufacturing equipment with one dimension: getting only one job done such as making french fries or grilling hamburgers (output). They were not considering how a restaurant could make burgers in a systematic way. Dick and Mac were disappointed to learn that manufacturers were far behind their vision so they set out to design and build their own equipment. Since then, McDonald’s became a huge success, in fact, it literally changed how franchises work to this day.

When I started working on the web nearly 15 years ago, there weren’t many options for UI design tools. I remember attending SimpleBits’ meetup at the Boston Beer Works hosted by Ethan Marcotte and Dan Cederholm, and most, if not all, of the web designers there were designing with Photoshop. The options were very limited. The design tools we used back in the day were not optimized for the web, they were mostly for illustrations or photography, so, naturally, startups began to build design tools for the web with much simpler user interfaces, very speedy (to launch), lightweight files, and less cognitive load. More importantly, startups started to focus on value-added features within the tools as opposed to a high number of features. The result? Popularity and massive growth for these new entrants. The market, once dominated by one or two incumbents, was being disrupted. No one thought it would happen until it happened.

The hidden feature in design tools

Fast forward to today, there’s an abundance of design tools to choose from. If you’re a new designer entering the design industry, chances are you’re better off today than we were 15 years ago. More supply usually means better products for consumers, and more competition forces companies to be more creative (and thoughtful) when developing new products. Startups that were once bootstrapped are now venture-backed, partly because they’re focused on growth, but also because they realized the market is highly competitive. However, very few design tools are focusing on what makes teams successful: collaboration and efficiency.

For large design teams, collaboration is a hidden feature (outcome) that every design team is craving for. And I don’t mean collaboration as in “you’ll get an email when a file is updated”, or “Your color changed from red to green” notification. I mean collaboration as in “I’m confident that if I submit this design upstream, I’ll get feedback from my peers including engineers and PMs, and I’m able to understand how my design can fit the system.” Designers need the tools that allow them to be creative within a system with visibility to each other work, and that gives them the confidence of what the system is throughout the entire design process. The problem of designing at scale is real and often painful for large organizations, so the ability to systematize our design process using tools that are equipped for efficiency and collaboration will make a real difference.

It’s disappointing to see tweets or release notes from companies/startups highlighting features X, Y, Z , when instead they should be highlighting how design teams will work better together or how designers will work more efficiently with engineers and product owners. What if instead of starting with individual features, these companies/startups started understanding how designers are designing in a world where collaboration is key to success. What if the questions these companies were asking during the research were not geared towards the individual designers, instead, how designers work as a team often with engineers, product owners/managers, and other partners. What if at the inception of building these design tools, they were focusing on teams (workflow) and built every feature around how these teams work together. In today’s highly competitive business environment, the ability to move quickly as a team is arguably more important than the design tools themselves.

There’s a lot of design tools available today, and I’m super excited about it, but I would love to see more focus and emphasis on collaboration as a team as opposed to individual design features.

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