Return to basics

The ideal mindset for building things

Besides working from home, what do digital product designers do differently now in this pandemic? I mean, those who weren’t working from home already. In theory: nothing. Still: some of us are in trouble.

Design in the age of COVID

In early April I was joking on Twitter whether we already have COVID-first design and COVID-agnostic design or not. I still hope there isn’t and I think we’re not in need of any new approaches or methods. Designers already have everything at hand for a while now. In case they were doing their job properly using all these wonderful methods, whatever they’ve built so far should withstand this crisis. Still many companies and service providers are now facing operational or scaling issues, certain touchpoints of various ecosystems are creaking or breaking under the pressure, businesses are struggling or even dying.

For the general public the user experience of a mobile application is of the lowest priority right now, it might seem. But once this minor inconvenience results in service level issues or the bad experience is present on the service level, it can quickly become a deal-breaker for that company. Think of your favorite neighborhood restaurant, bank, public infrastructure company, national healthcare or education system – if these providers fail in their first rushed steps into digital transformation, that you will notice. Just check the news if you need actual examples.

If a poor customer experience is causing any kind of issue for customers, people will lose their trust or interest, eventually they turn to other providers or look for other solutions and the company’s revenue starts plummeting quickly. (There’s more to bankruptcy than that, of course, but sometimes it’s as easy as that, especially when users are under a lot of stress.) If, all of a sudden, these issues are revealed, then someone didn’t do their job properly when building that service, designing that feature or prioritizing user or customer experience behind other tasks.

What is (not) different now?

Let’s say you did your job well all these years, but now everything’s changed: you’re working on a new project in reaction to the situation, or your company (or client) has to make radical changes to survive or to better serve their clients. No worries: you as a designer can just trust the process and follow the same steps of your preferred framework as usual: understand business and user needs, propose solutions, validate, iterate, test, build and launch. The same, well, maybe a bit quicker.

Perhaps the usual playbook is not applicable anymore under the new circumstances? Jumping on the first idea based on some crazy assumptions? No time for any kind of user research? That’s unfortunate! Very much so, because the reasons might be something you cannot fix easily. It’s a good idea to look into organizational issues or the design maturity of your organization to understand what decision-makers and other stakeholders don’t get about the design process and the importance of certain steps.

Is it something caused by recent changes or these problems were always there? There’s a chance that you will find long-standing issues, but the symptoms were not that obvious before. Maybe you were aware of these underlying problems to some extent, but there was always something more important to deal with. I have some tips for that under the Design maturity section below, as this is also something that we don’t have to invent just now.

Why the basics?

So, although in theory we knew everything, in reality there was simply no time to polish everything to perfection, neither user interfaces, nor internal processes, not anything. There never is, and that’s not new either. We had the tools and methods for quite some time, we also knew things could go awry anytime, but, for one reason or another, someone somewhere chose not to act, not to build the right thing, not to build that thing in the right way, not to deal with frustrations within the team, not to educate their clients, and so on …and now we’re in trouble. 

“Part of the problem is clearly foresight, a failure of imagination. But the other part of the problem is what we didn’t *do* in advance, and what we’re failing to do now. And that is a failure of action, and specifically our widespread inability to *build*.”Marc Andreessen

People and organizations tend to fall back on their best known behaviors when in crisis, even if those are rather ugly or toxic practices. That's why many of us are struggling right now. In this post I collected what I consider the basic contributors of an ideal mindset to fall back on – for designers and builders, and for myself, too.

(And if you’ve been doing perfectly fine in recent weeks then I’m interested in what you’ve been doing in recent years to be there now. Do let me know!)

Edge cases = stress cases

📖 Eric Meyer & Sara Wachter-Boettcher – Design For Real Life

This is the book I start every list with when being asked for recommendations for designers. And it’s not just for designers, but everyone building something. Edge cases = stress cases, goes the key message of this book, meaning that you risk a lot when you ignore an unlikely scenario or a minor fragment of your users. That is because if things go bad, even just a few people being very upset could seriously harm the reputation of your company or even bring down the entire system. If our current situation is not enough proof for that, in this short book you can find harrowing examples about how poor product design can make some users’ life not just difficult, but nightmarish. I promise you’ll think twice when you want to ignore edge cases in the future. Lucky for you, the book proposes a set of principles on how to avoid these pitfalls.

Design at scale

Design For Real Life is full of examples from an era when Facebook – and other widely used platforms too – had serious issues around edge cases that caused a lot of harm for people. They still have a lot, but they improved immensely. Otherwise in a situation like this they would just collapse under the enormous amount of rage they would get from furious users. Putting aside one’s opinion about Facebook itself, their design team can be a good starting point when thinking about design at scale.

In the world of a product at scale, 1% means tens of millions of people are having a poor experience with the product, and that’s a big problem”, as they explained a few years ago.

A recent piece by Margaret Stewart, VP of Product Design at Facebook provides some guidance on how to design with care during COVID-19 focusing on important ethical considerations that might help you as well when thinking about building anything during this crisis.

(If you dislike Facebook or think that it’s simply not ethical for designers to work there, then Mike Monteiro’s Ruined By Design is your book – he might convince you that, even at such companies, designers can be important gatekeepers making sure that at least some ethical standards are met.)

Every service fails at some point

📖 Lou Downe – Good Services: How to Design Services That Work

Although this book is about service design and tells its readers about how to build good services, it might be useful for non-designers as well. Why? As nowadays almost everything is a service, everyone has various types of experiences with services almost every day. I cannot think of any job or profession which does not contribute to some kind of service. And that service offers an experience to its users, either the service itself is designed intentionally or not. What’s more, as Lou states, every service will fail sooner or later. I guess each of us has stories about that from recent weeks.

“What differentiates your service is not whether or not it fails, but how it deals with failure when it happens” – Lou Downe

Their book provides guidance not just on handling failure, but many other aspects of services and its users with enough examples to make an impression on you. It will guide you through the 15 principles of designing good services, so if you browse through these principles and only dig deeper into a few chapters, you’ve already made a great service for yourself and you’ll be able to build better things. (Btw, the book looks awesome not just on the outside and you can now order posters and stickers with the same look!)


Lou’s book deals with services being usable by everyone and different other aspects of accessibility, but I wanted to dedicate a few sentences to this topic on its own. As not all disabilities are visible or permanent, accessibility is not only about visually impaired users or people in wheelchairs either. The Government Digital Services of the UK, where Lou served as Design Director until not long ago, is always a magnificent resource regarding good design practices. They are constantly publishing tons of guidelines, and they have good materials about accessibility as well. Start with the design principles or read more about making services accessible. It’s much harder for your service to fail its users if you think about accessibility from the start.


Sooner or later, especially in an agile context, you will realize that you have to optimize the workflows, methods and tools of your team. Design operations is a good framework to think about all these efforts. To have a more efficient collaboration, save a lot of time and deliver results faster you can dedicate a whole team for some or all of these operations-related tasks, or you can just start by streamlining the hiring process, writing internal guidelines on everything, or building a design system in spare hours.

For an introduction to the idea of design ops, read the DesignOps Handbook published by InVision or start with the Design Operations 101 by NN Group. Whatever the level of your involvement is, it will definitely benefit your team. (Now more than ever.)

Design maturity and change management

So you uncovered some organizational issues when trying to understand why your usual design processes are not working as before? You’re not alone with that: according to InVision’s report about design’s impact on business, 83% of companies are stuck somewhere at the first 3 steps of the 5-step design maturity ladder, meaning that all those design teams are struggling with similar internal issues as you. This excellent report called The New Design Frontier is a good tool not only to self-assess your organization’s design maturity, but also for finding the general direction your team needs to move into to step ahead from the current level. This change won’t happen overnight, but if you start with small, but impactful projects, you can get enough buy-in and trust to build upon. For some further guidance on how to initiate change in organizations I recommend various chapters of the wonderful This Is Service Design Doing book.

And a few quick thoughts…

Remote research in times of crisis

Design, for me, always includes research and whenever in this post I mentioned design, I also meant research. As Zsofia writes, no need to learn new things in research either, just warm up your remote research muscles and pay attention to a few things. The sibling of this article about customer experience in times of crisis contains the only advice I came across so far that I find useful when reacting to the pandemic as a designer: rethink your personas.

The Most Intolerant Wins: The Dictatorship of the Small Minority

For anyone who’s less interested in design, I could offer Taleb’s long and wordy books about black swans and antifragility, but instead of those now it should be enough to read his article (which is actually a chapter from another of his books) about why building things with small minorities in mind is a good idea. Then you can decide if you want to read any of his books or you just find him annoying. Alternatively, you can start with this tweet.

OK, that’s about it!

Did I miss anything?
What was the biggest change for you?
What did you do well if you’re fine right now?
Let me know!

The fun part

Movie: Official Secrets

There’s a page in Lou Downe’s above-mentioned book which reads “Good services are only as strong as their weakest link” and that is the exact same thing they say about secure systems. Official Secrets is the true story of a whistleblower trying to stop an actual war – how her story ends is truly incredible.

Music: Protomartyr – The Agent Intellect

Try this fun post-punk album for no particular reason.
Sending it to my friends at the I.I.

See you next time!