Thursday, November 11, 2010

Styleguides & Innovation: Is this town big enough?

When a company first gets started, brand, design and consistency are relatively simple to coordinate. A single designer or a small team can easily know what all the different experiences are and work quickly and effectively together to make sure they are high quality, consistent and on-brand.

When a company becomes a little more successful, grows rapidly and starts branching out a little from it's core value, the cohesiveness of the user experience naturally starts to fragment. This is usually a result of pure logistics, not the quality of the design team (if we assume that the company is smart enough to hire great designers). Reasons for a loss of quality in the user experience of a rapidly-accelerating company can be numerous and varied: Too much work for the original design team to be able to handle, new designers getting hired in while the original designers are too busy with other work to do high quality mentorship around brand & experiences, fragmented office locations, more people, more opinions, etc. etc.

THEN, the company becomes sufficiently large enough where they start to say "Wait a minute!" They recognize the obvious need to reign in all these disparate user experiences, create a strong sense of brand while creating consistent experiences across all of our product areas so that users won't have to re-learn interactions from product to product!

Enter the corporate styleguide.

In the middle phase of a company's growth, the designer will do whatever she can to clone herself or extend her magical powers to cover more of the ever-increasing scope of the business. In this phase, styleguides usually take on the flavor of creating "designer-approved" re-usable widgets & CSS to allow engineers and product managers to self-serve (thus not requiring the full attention of a designer). The great side effect of this approach was more consistency in experiences, even those that launched without full participation of a designer.

Eventually, as the company grows into the latter phase (a very large org), a shift takes place in not only the goals but also the intended audience of these documents. Documentation & enforcement of existing patterns becomes the purpose of the styleguide and small teams of designers are tasked with the creation, upkeep and enforcement of such standards on other designers (no longer a passive source of information waiting, but a gate to getting something shipped). The target audience has shifted from engineers & product people to designers themselves.

The idea is, that if designers know what the standard pattern for a section header, a search result or a list is supposed to look like, they can check the styleguide and conform appropriately. Consistency will emerge and strengthen the brand. In theory, this is a sound assumption. Consistency within a property gives it an air of professionalism, authority and craft that you won't get from a collected set of disparate experiences underneath the same masthead.

The problem arises when it takes more time, effort and energy to document the patterns than it does to create new ones, which generates (a very natural) resistance to changing or evolving them. This is a particularly challenging situation to be in for technology designers because of the pace of innovation usually found within engineering organizations will far outstrip what can be done here.

Now, no one has ever accused me of being a conservative designer, so you must understand my bias. But I am still a classically trained designer and I do appreciate the brand strength that you get "for free" with a heavy emphasis on consistency. For me, however, it starts to become a problem when innovation in design is dampened by a strong desire to conform to the documented standards.

Shouldn't design innovation inform the documented standards? Not the other way around?

How can a company maintain a strong sense of brand, create consistent experiences in order to boost user efficiency from product to product and still manage to iterate, explore and push design boundaries as quickly as engineers push technological boundaries?

I'd like to propose that some riskiness in design innovation, constant change & failing early and often can, in themselves, be core attributes of a very strong brand. And if any company can pull that off, it's the one that I currently work for.

How will we ever know what we could do, if we are simply trying to apply what we've already done?


Jon said...

Every time I've ever seen a style guide effort crank up, it starts with an audit – "how are we currently doing it?" Designers start taking screenshots and putting them in a little book somewhere. This always strikes me as a silly and futile endeavor.

It reminds me of a Steven Wright quote: "I have the world's largest seashell collection. You may have seen it, I keep it spread out on beaches all over the world." Why take a bunch of screenshots when how things are currently done is spread out all over the actual products?

There's your style guide – it's what you've shipped. No attempt at documentation will ever catch up to actually shipping things. Instead, if large companies want consistency, they need to adopt a common frontend UI framework.

The UI framework is chock full of HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. It is fully staffed with kick-ass designers and developers. It evolves and ships as fast as the products for which it serves as the face. If the framework doesn't support a new innovation for a product, the teams work together to build it right then, for everyone.

Then designers, PMs, or engineers do not need to navigate some style guide table of contents to see how dialog boxes are rendered – they just need to look at a currently shipping product.

Suheeb said...

Style guide was and never will be "the GUIDE" it will just help you to gear up. You restrict yourself on creativity and possibilities. Simple!