Design Systems: Rules vs. Norms

Atomic Design “…introduces a methodology for thinking of our UIs as thoughtful hierarchies…” writes Brad Frost.

“The five stages of atomic design” by Brad Frost
“The five stages of atomic design” by Brad Frost

His system begins with atoms, the smallest documented units — think buttons, typographical styles, and the like. Combining atoms together creates a molecule. Multiple molecules and/or atoms in combination form an organism, and so on up the hierarchy. Any atom will likely have variations within the system. A button may offer a few sizes and color, for example, in order to satisfy a range of situations. This is fine as the limited set of options is manageable and come with rules of use.

The advantages of this system are clear: It improves usability and productivity by regulating use. There’s a problem though. When multiple atoms and molecules (each having a set of variations) are combined into an organism, the number of permutations can explode causing strain on the system’s ability to regulate use. When rules begin to fail us, what can we do? We can turn to principled norms. Let’s consider an example.

Two variations of a single card organism or two independent card organisms?
Two variations of a single card organism or two independent card organisms?

Here are two card organisms. They’re organisms because they’re made up of atoms and molecules. Both have a header molecule consisting of an icon, header text, and subhead text. They both have content, the one on the left showing a repeating photo/text molecule while the other showing a grid of icon and label molecules. Let’s now pose this question: should these two cards be cataloged as two separate organisms in the design system, or as one with enough variation to produce the two examples shown? I’d say the latter is the best option. Both are the same organism. They only vary in content — in this case, content made of different molecules and atoms.

Now, let’s consider each card’s spacing, with particular attention to the bottom of the cards. Both show a buffer (highlighted in green above) between the card’s content and the edge of the card. Note that the amount of buffer differs (and, indeed, the buffer differs both in real and perceptual terms).

Padding differences caused by the interaction between variations in content versus the same containing element. Top image shows actual measurement difference while the bottom shows my subjective, perceptual difference (which you can disagree with. The point is that actual versus perceptual are different).

If we examine the structure of how these cards are built by drawing boundaries around content elements, we see that both card organisms (shown in red) have equal amounts of margin and padding along the bottom of the card. The content elements however, don’t. On the left, we see the screenshot/text molecule has no padding and only a top margin to separate it from the molecule above. On the right, the icon/text molecule is padded all around with no margin. We conclude that the cards are identical and any difference you may perceive in the spacing of elements is caused by the variation in content.

Boundaries show how these cards are built.
Boundaries show how these cards are built.

This difference is the slippery slope. The card organisms—which are identical—show different visual spacing, an issue a design system is supposed to manage away by automatically introducing consistency as a prime value. The number of ways that atoms, molecules and organisms interact with one another causes an explosion of variation that cannot be fully managed by a simple set of rules.

The Issue in a Nutshell

The dilemma is this — a design system breaks down because the number of variations becomes so large, rules can’t hope to cover every conceivable situation. And you can’t continue to heap on more rules because the system will collapse under its own weight.

The way out is to keep a design system sane by placing more emphasis and effort on the lower level of Frost’s atomic hierarchy. Rules at the higher levels risk paralyzing product teams and bloating design systems to the point of losing their value.

Norms, Not Rules

Again, I don’t want to suggest that design systems are bad — they’re not. I only raise the spectre of too much specificity at higher levels. Instead of rules, I propose norms. Let the collective experience and leadership in the team set what’s acceptable and what’s not. Is that a slippery slope, too? Most definitely, but it acknowledges the fact, rather than masking it. Good designers don’t value from a prescriptive design system at the higher component levels. They need guidance and influence where rules no longer suffice.

One clear tradeoff that shouldn’t go unspoken is that fewer rules lead to more variance, which leads to greater maintenance cost. It won’t be as easy to make one change and have it cascade across the ecosystem. But I’m reminded of Tesler’s Law:

“Every application must have an inherent amount of irreducible complexity. The only question is who will have to deal with it.”

The ‘who’ in this quote is either the business or the user. I’d argue the correct answer in this case is the business — and more specifically, the design system curators (sorry to add work to your plates!).

With design systems being all the rage these days, I feel a word of caution is in order: let’s not slip into a world where we optimize for the design system and, by extension, the business, rather than app designers and, by extension, the business’ users. The way out is to keep a design system sane by placing more emphasis and effort on the lower level of Frost’s atomic hierarchy. Rules at the higher levels risk paralyzing product teams and limiting a design system’s value and promise.


Masthead image courtesy Kai Stachowiak

Why Snowflakes Are Counterintuitively Integral to Design Systems

The problem

Design systems (e.g. style guides, pattern libraries, etc.) are all the rage. They speed product design through consistency of patterns, components and behaviors which, in turn, drives out random, one-off elements (let’s call them ‘snowflakes’). It’s a noble goal, except that design systems also slow down product teams. The drive for consistency and the efficiencies that stem from it can crowd out the flexibility needed to craft the right element for the right situation at the right time. How do we embrace this conundrum? By not making it a conundrum. We can embrace snowflakes as a positive aspect within design organizations — without conflict of ideals, professional shame or complete dilution of a design system’s benefits.

As a product designer, I design the best solution I can for my customers. To the extent that a design system propels me toward that goal, it serves me and the business well. But when it doesn’t, when I’m too constricted, I don’t stop designing or cut corners. I move ahead by keeping critical elements that aren’t available in the system…I use and spec snowflakes. 

Snowflakes will enter design systems if they’re deemed worthy, but at a cost: they don’t instantaneously appear in the design system. Delays are caused by debate, setting standards, coding, testing, etc. Additionally, another delay exists between the time a new component is made available in the system and its uptake by product teams (I’ll only address the first in this article). Both delays, nonetheless, increase iteration cycle times for product designers. Delays are significant, especially if you’re on a regular release cadence like I am in the enterprise space. They may cause you to miss your release date or to hit it with inferior UI. 

Inayaili de León Persson wrote about Vanilla’s intake process, shown below. As an open source project, Vanilla solicits issues and proposals from the public. According to the article, contributions are reviewed every couple of weeks. Delays are built into their process. If delays exist, product is inevitably hampered.

The solution

Product designers should use snowflakes until the design system’s intake process delays are sorted out. The process illustrated above should be a parallel track of work, independent of a product team’s schedule. The two tracks of work will eventually sync, but the process need not create delays for product teams during the interim. The considerations below give structure to that process and explain the resulting outcomes.

Considerations and tips

Product designers need to know the design system well 
Product designers are responsible for knowing what’s available in the design system. If an existing component meets the needs of the proposed design, then no additional work is necessary and it can be put to use right away. The idea is not to encourage the proliferation of snowflakes. Rather, it’s to keep product teams nimble. Judgement and temperance, as always, are needed. Pull from the design system first and always.

When a snowflake materializes, be clear about its intent
If no system component suffices, then a conversation with system designers is in order. Product design should outline what the new component is, the use case(s) in which it arises, and why similar, existing components won’t work. In simpler terms, product designers should advocate for their customers against the design system’s pressure to be consistent. After this exchange, product design should move forward with the snowflake while the larger debate about its merits takes place with the appropriate parties.

Snowflakes should be included in the design system, regardless of outcome
Debate over whether or not a snowflake is made available for widespread use is appropriate. Debate over whether or not the snowflake should have an entry in the system isn’t. It should always be entered under one of three scenarios:

  1. The snowflake is deemed worthy of widespread use and gets incorporated into the system. The system team then communicates its availability to all interested parties (including its description, reference to the production use case, and anything else mandated by system guidelines).
  2. The snowflake is deemed an anti-pattern and is not allowed to be placed into widespread use. The component, its underlying use case, description, intentions, etc. is added by the system team along with the rationale for its rejection and recommended alternatives. Product designers must then redesign to come back into alignment with the system or start over.
  3. The snowflake is deemed worthy of use, but not widespread use (i.e. it remains a snowflake indefinitely). Again, use case, description, intentions, etc. should be included in the snowflake’s system entry.

Regardless of the option chosen, documenting the decision helps product designers know what is and isn’t in bounds and why.


The clear benefits for me as a product designer are two fold.

We all know the pace of product design is fast and, seemingly, getting faster. When product teams are able to speed ahead of the design system, they can push the envelope of what’s possible making them more responsive to the marketplace and the people who use their designs.

Snowflakes allow product teams to learn what works, what doesn’t and why. The knowledge gained can be fed into the system itself through more informed debates and decisions about future changes. Similarly, product teams are able to improve their product through testing or, if a snowflake happens to make it to production before system designers get to it, through actual usage analytics.

I see delays to rapid design innovation as a major design system workflow problem. Embracing snowflakes — not as a last resort, but as a primary feature — within design systems is one solution. What’s your stance?

The State of Bread in This Country

Here’s a typical bread display at any mass market grocer. And here’s a typical list of ingredients (this one from Dave’s Killer Bread’s 100% whole wheat loaf):

  • Organic whole wheat (organic whole wheat flour, organic cracked whole wheat)
  • Water
  • Organic dried cane syrup (sugar)
  • Organic expeller pressed canola oil
  • Organic wheat gluten
  • Organic molasses
  • Organic cultured whole wheat
  • Sea salt
  • Yeast
  • Organic vinegar

I’d say this is among the better ingredient lists I’ve come across. They go downhill from here. Bread is a simple food that takes more time and effort than ingredients. So why add sugar, oil, gluten, molasses, vinegar and more? I understand people desire bread that won’t go stale after a day or two, but at what cost to taste (not to mention all the extra crap that goes into your body)?

Yes, this all sounds elitist and unworkable in our busy daily lives. I too buy the same shitty store breads you do out of convenience, but I sure do anticipate and enjoy those days when I find freshly baked, simple bread.


One of Trump’s latest tweets…

His conclusion is hypocritical, of course. As a public figure who uses Twitter to communicate with the public, he is a de facto one-man media outlet—one chock full of the dishonesty he abhors in others.

Given that no single individual can easily gauge (nor even keep up with) what’s true and what’s not, it’ll be hard to trust the man. He has a track record so far of blowing whichever way the wind dictates or, probably more accurately, whichever way his self centered nature take him. And that is the crux of the problem with a Trump presidency for me: I think he’s in this for himself. And given that Trump could be diagnosed as a narcissist (he’d never agree to be assessed, of course, nor willing to accept any diagnosis he didn’t like), this isn’t a radical idea. He uses rhetoric to build passion and support only to wind up doing whatever he sees fit to do. Forget about his past statements, commitments and promises.

Will he be a disaster? Time will tell. Until then, I fear for his lack of attachment to anything consistent and to his grasp of reality as a whole. Good grief, I hope I’m wrong.

New Food

As the primary cook in the family, food is always on my mind. Every weekend, the inevitable question ‘what do you want to eat this week?’ is spoken and, not uncommonly, followed by grunts, sighs, or just plain silence when the usual meals grow old and no new ideas exist. Lately, this has been the case for us and I’ve consequently been on a search for The Next Great Meal. If anyone wishes to drop by Casa Rivera and join us for dinner (and wine, of course), here’s what’s for dinner!

Chicken In Oaxacan Yellow Mole With Green Beans And Chayote (Or Potatoes)

The chiles matter in this one! Make a special trip to a grocer with a good selection if needed. A single bag of dried guajillo chiles will be enough for several meals so any special shopping excursion will be worthwhile (like the chayote—although I’ve been using potatoes).

This recipe is from Rick Bayless, a master of Central American cuisine. His website if full of ideas to try so hit the link and browse.

Lomitos de Valladolid

This one is super simple to make though it does need to simmer for more than an hour so plan ahead. I always try to buy avocados the day I use them or the day before since I find they go from edible to black and gross in the span of like 14 minutes.

I found this recipe after seeing Pati Jinich’s PBS cooking show over the holiday break. I’m 100% sure I’ll be making more of her recipes as 2017 unfolds.

Avocado & Hearts of Palm Chop Chop Salad

The toasted pumpkins seeds make this a winner. And now that I live in California, good produce (tomatoes in this case) aren’t as hard to come by in January as they are in Denver. I don’t like vinegar and Laura doesn’t like raw red onions so, as always, modify as needed. Again, go with just-bought avocados.

Popo’s Pot Stickers

These pot stickers are a production so I don’t make them often and they feel new each time we eat them. On the plus side, we end up freezing a bunch of these for future meals. I figure you can get 2-3 meals out of the amount made. Also, we substitute rice based wraps since Laura can’t eat gluten. They’re still tasty. Don’t let the three star rating fool you.

On Deck

I’ll be making these in the coming days, but haven’t quite gotten to them.

Pork Tenderloin Enchiladas

These enchiladas use radishes which I’ve found to be quite tasty in Mexican food (these shrimp tacos will convince you of that statement).

Braised Short Ribs

The short ribs—a recipe from celebrity chef Tom Colicchio—is a production best made on a weekend, but I have high hopes based on another production of a recipe of his, pan roasted sea scallops with scallop jus, which I think is the bomb.

Building Team Rapport

Promote better interpersonal relationships and understanding while at work

You’ve all been there and done that: the company “team bonding” extravaganza. The ones that might be held off site and include facilitated exercises, games and the like. You’ve had a front row seat to the awkwardness that can ensue — “forced fun” as I’ve heard it described in the past. Why is it that people who spend a good deal of their lives together, yet often only know one another superficially, are asked to build or express team spirit next Wednesday between 10am-2pm at Dave & Busters?

A common problem with these events is how contrived they can feel. They lay a veneer of ‘team-ness’ over real and often deep seated cultural issues and company problems. They sometimes only succeed in fueling the cynicism that already exists rather than getting people to work proactively for the benefit of all.

Recently, we experimented with an idea that turned out to be enlightening, empathic, informative and fun. The idea is straightforward: know your coworkers beyond their résumé and work personas. Get personal, but not too personal. If you can tap into people’s life experiences, big or small, you can glimpse how they shape attitudes, incentives, motivations and preferences. You get a better sense of what makes them tick and that’s useful when you’re working together day after day.

For us — a group of creative problem solvers — the proposition was simple:

Present your past creative work 

Using design as a storytelling canvas, coworkers highlighted the milestones they felt most shaped who they became in adulthood and which culminated in their employment at this company, with these people at this time.

Each presentation was half an hour in length and open to interpretation. We had two people present back to back on a bi-weekly basis over a lunch hour. The cadence gave people time to prepare, time to digest other presenters’ stories and still have plenty of time to tackle their day jobs.

Obvious questions about the boundaries between work life and personal life came up. How personal is too personal? After all, it’s not a normal to talk about personal subjects at work (maybe not allowed per your HR rules?). Shyness and introversion came into play too. Would people judge me? It can be nerve wracking to talk about yourself in front of others. One colleague told me “… I was a little uncomfortable … because I tend to be pretty hard on myself when it comes to things I’ve produced,” and “Having it based on your past ‘art’ work was pretty intimidating.” Others thought “This is going to be a lot of fun” and “It’s interesting to hear about people’s influencers and how they’ve helped create pivot points in people’s lives. It was a fun way to get to know someone!”

Results & Reactions

You’ll be fascinated, impressed and surprised by the people you sit next to day after day. And they, in turn, will be blown away by your stories. You’ll have insight into your colleagues that can foster empathy, respect and trust — all the things that team bonding is supposed to generate.

Colleagues come into focus as you connect the dots between their past and present. As one of our staff participants wrote, “I think it’s incredible to get a peek inside our co-workers lives. It’s very cool to see where they came from and how they ended up doing what we do. We work with a lot of talented people!”

Another participant told me that the sessions evened the playing field. “It wasn’t about titles or skill sets or years of work experience and instead about knowing the people around you by exposing a side that’s rarely on display in a work setting.”

Coworkers followed up with presenters to talk more in-depth about certain topics, events and past design samples included in their presentations. Connections were made. “I’ve actually been thinking about how to produce more ‘art’ since we’ve begun this whole exercise. I guess you could say it’s been another source of inspiration for me.”

You won’t go from dysfunctional to functional overnight, mind you. Good working relationships and a dynamic, well functioning culture take effort and intention. This is just one tactic we discovered to be effective.

An Example

Below is a presentation I made recently for my colleagues over a GoToMeeting. Others followed the same basic path, but reinterpreted and reformulated it to suite their needs and storylines. Note my hesitancy and vulnerability, but also (hopefully) insights into how my mind works that probably wouldn’t arise in ‘normal,’ everyday work interactions.

Tips for Success

  • Team building should not take place during off hours. People have a life and it should be respected. If anything written here is important to you, then it’s important to dedicate work time to it.
  • Don’t make it mandatory. It only works if people desire a deeper connection with the people they interact with so often. Leave what to share and how to each person. The interpretation is in itself a window into the person.
  • Go back in time as far as necessary or desired. It will take time to think through what is at first glance a simple question. Allow enough time for people to craft their story, find representative things to highlight and to prepare a presentation (the fidelity of which is theirs to decide). As one colleague voiced it, “I approached the presentation as how I got to where I am. Basically a life history picking out the things I thought had an affect on me becoming a creative.”
  • In the beginning, no one was quite sure what this was going to be or what the expectations would be for them if they chose to participate. I was the first one to go since I pitched the idea and I too wasn’t sure where I’d end up. Mine was likely the least autobiographical and, having seen where others took their presentations, I would have personalized it to a greater degree.
  • Allow for a short Q&A at the end of each presentation.
  • 30 minutes per person worked well as did scheduling 2 people every other week.

Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing

I’m reminded of a group development model from business school days that describes the stages any group goes through as they develop. Forming groups are new to one another and things are polite as relationships are built. Storming groups have built strong enough ties to express criticism and diverging opinions. Norming groups are able to get past conflict to rally around common goals. Lastly, performing groups are those that are self reliant, proactive and well functioning on all levels.

An exercise like the one described in this article can fit into any of the stages. It can be used as a means to connect people in early stages and as a means to build trust and self sufficiency in people during later stages. What your team gains is contingent on many factors, some of which are beyond this article’s topic. Nonetheless, our team found it beneficial and we hope yours can too.

What NASA Knows About Great UX Management

In the 1970s, NASA undertook an assessment of airline pilot performance. They needed to understand why pilot error had become the leading cause of airline accidents. What they learned helped make commercial air travel one of the safest modes of transport in the U.S. today. Their research shed light on the importance of workload, leadership and communication — integral aspects of running successful UX engagements. What can we learn from this seminal research?

Balancing Workloads

Research found the best performing airline captains kept tabs on their crew’s workload. Interestingly, pilot error wasn’t typically due to lack of skill or knowledge of proper procedures. Instead, the important factor was how their skill and knowledge was applied. The best performing crews had captains who managed how many tasks each crew mate was asked to perform. When workload became an issue for anyone, they delegated, relieved or rebalanced everyone’s duties such that each crewmember could better concentrate and focus for optimal performance.

Captains who didn’t manage their crew’s workloads consequently had worse performance. The study found that when anyone had too many duties, they became overtaxed which lead to performance problems and finally to errors.

While errors in a UX project don’t have immediate life and death implications as they might in commercial aviation, they can have negative consequences. When people are overtasked, they cut corners, consciously or not. They can overlook or be blind to problems, they can experience delays identifying and handling problems, they can fall back on assumptions when objective data is available, and they can develop tunnel vision causing an inability to assess the entire project as a whole.

I’ve been witness to engagements where scope outstripped the ability of a project team to deliver the best work they could in the time allotted. In these cases, morale sank as individuals realized they couldn’t deliver the quality they expected (and which they knew they could provide). They left projects feeling the end result could have been better — sometimes in explicit terms when they knew gaps existed and sometimes with vagueness when they had a general feeling that problem definition, exploration or execution could have been pushed further.

Ensuring each contributor on a team has a manageable workload helps keep people engaged, performance and morale high, and stress at manageable levels. All of these characteristics contribute to fewer errors and, ultimately, less rework since time and effort are being used more effectively.

But how do we balance workloads effectively? As NASA’s research suggests, keeping tabs on workloads is one of the captain’s primary duties. If the captain assigns himself too many tasks, he essentially causes tunnel vision for himself, unable to judge his crew’s workload. The lesson is to have one teammate delegate enough tasks so they can effectively evaluate workloads and make decisions concerning them. Failure to do so jeopardizes overall performance and risks errors big and small.


NASA found that during simulations of emergencies it wasn’t clear who was in control — the captain or co-pilot — during times when one or the other looked up information, communicated over the radio or discussed courses of action. This is in stark contrast to how captains typically lead in the 70s — which is to say they were authoritarian. As an Atlantic article put it, researchers found “…a culture dominated by authoritarian captains, many of them crusty old reactionaries who brooked no interference from their subordinates. In those cockpits, co-pilots were lucky if occasionally they were allowed to fly.” Also, “It all depended on the captains. A few were natural team leaders — and their crews acquitted themselves well. Most, however, were Clipper Skippers [authoritarians], whose crews fell into disarray under pressure and made dangerous mistakes.”

We in the user experience world would likely agree that the best outcomes don’t come from a strict hierarchical and authoritative environment, but one where collaboration is encouraged. In an environment like this, colleagues lend critical eyes, stakeholders provide context, and customers pass judgement via their attention and wallets. These feedback loops are meant and encouraged to pinpoint problems and signal possible solutions.

Authoritarianism, by definition, is counter to this culture. It doesn’t encourage teamwork, critical analysis and experimentation nor does it tap the wisdom of crowds. In a business world that increasingly sees UX as the critical difference between success and failure, authoritarianism will likely produce worse results. The era of the lone visionary (if, in fact, it ever existed) always loses ground to an active, diverse group. Our world changes too quickly and the Internet has largely removed the ability for any one person to take advantage of information asymmetry for long.

While an authoritarian approach proves to be problematic, NASA did find a need for clear decision making. While collaboration brings benefits, all projects will require decisive calls (typically from someONE) when multiple and equally good options exist. Teams need leadership, products need leadership and companies need leadership. The trick is to avoid dictatorship in preference for leadership flowing from a collaborative environment where all input is sincerely taken into account.

At Slice of Lime, we ask clients to provide a project owner (PO) — someone on the client side who can answer questions, prioritize workloads and make decisions quickly. The role requires authority and accountability, authoritarian characteristics to be sure, but tempered by the environment in which it exists. Our team gives recommendations, provides a reality check and influences the direction the team and project take. We push our clients, they push us and our client’s customers push everyone. The PO’s job within this dynamic is to weigh the work output and the insights from customer research against their internal culture, priorities, timelines, and budget. As a team, we all have the same goals, but since everyone’s contribution has a particular focus we can run into forks in the road where multiple paths forward appear. These paths may be relatively equal in terms of their chance for success. The PO, in this situation, is empowered to make a decision on behalf of the entire team.

This approach works without it degrading into a ‘do it my way’ mandate because the team worked to provide the options within a collaborative environment. If research proves the chosen direction to be poor, the team can course correct without finger pointing or ‘I told you so’s.’ The idea is not to empower the product owner to be a dictator, but to empower them to choose rationally knowing the tradeoffs and risks as surfaced by the team. The group acknowledges and supports the PO’s ability to make hard choices when needed because they are the source of those choices and will be full participants in any course corrections that may materialize.

On our side, we too have a team lead who acts in a similar vein to the PO although primarily being decision maker for our team. This role also weighs factors at hand in order to plot a course for our team’s efforts that will meet the needs of our client while also ensuring we are doing the best work we can. Again, it’s about making rational choices knowing the tradeoffs and risks at hand. Communicating these judgements and any recommendations from the team falls on the team lead’s shoulders while others move ahead with the next set of priorities. Because trust has been established through good communication, our recommendations will likely heavily influence the PO’s decision. In effect, we help guide the project even though the client retains decision making powers and the overall vision for the project.


As you probably already know, good communication is the key to the smooth choreography of a project and project team. NASA discovered “…that teamwork matters far more than individual piloting skill. This ran counter to long tradition in aviation but corresponded closely with the findings of another NASA group, which made a careful study of recent accidents and concluded that in almost all cases poor communication in the cockpit was to blame.”

Advising people and teams to ‘communicate better’ is certainly easier said than done, not to mention a bit lazy on my part. It masks a lot of dynamics that pose roadblocks (an article all its own), but the advice nevertheless stands. In our company, we work very hard to prioritize communication. We’ve adopted Agile as our preferred workflow and one of its principles is “individuals and interactions over processes and tools.” We apply this mantra both internally and externally.

For example, once a month, our entire company gathers to talk through issues good, bad and somewhere in between in a safe environment where open and honest conversation can be had. Action items spill out of these conversations and we work to improve as a group. Externally, we do the same. We hold regular meetings with clients to ensure the project is running smoothly and any brewing problems are dealt with before they become impediments or interpersonal baggage. We do other things as well, but you get the point. If you consciously make communication a priority, then it’ll be a priority. It’s that simple.

Putting It All Together

Many of the examples I’ve given from Slice of Lime have taken time to implement. We didn’t arrive at our current process overnight and I wouldn’t expect it from other companies. Tackling these topics will, I believe, result in positive change for you and your organization. Your priorities and culture will influence the end result however. I don’t wish to say that our way is the right way. It’s the right way for us at this time. Tomorrow is another day and we’ll evolve to meet the challenges and opportunities we encounter.

You will find what works and doesn’t through trial and error, as we have. We still find ourselves on rickety rails from time to time, but they don’t completely derail us. Our communication feedback loops help ensure we spot and deal with problems as early as possible.

You will also find that all three aspects discussed — leadership, workload and communication — work in tandem. A change to one affects the others. This is inevitable as all three blur into one another to some extent. Be cognizant of your organization’s particular links between these areas and be mindful of disruptions that may snowball from any one change. Again, an iterative and collaborative approach will help.

We find, for example, that our tight communication with clients builds trust. Trust enables workload issues like scope creep to stay in check. Our tight collaboration ensures that the client (and the PO in particular) is aware of the impact of new features, priority changes and insights from research. Since they ultimately have decision making power within the team dynamic over what to do and in what order, they are acutely aware of how scope change will affect the project. We inform them day to day on our progress and that, in turn, allows them to better manage workload within their cost and time constraints. And it’s all made possible by the importance we place on communication.

Has your organization found good tactics around these topics? If so, please leave your thoughts. I’d love to hear them.



William Langewiesche’s “The Human Factor” inspired this article. Highly recommended, especially if you’re an airplane junkie.

Photo by Steve Jurvetson, via Wikimedia Commons

Book Notes: Dark Matter and Trojan Horses

Notes (quotes, really) from Dan Hill’s Dark Matter and Trojan Horses. A Strategic Design Vocabulary. Some of these are a tad out of context. I’d read the book if I were you. It’s very good, short and has both high level strategy ideas and lower level tactical examples.

  • What gives designers the right to approach such complex areas, usually the domain of political scientists and civil servants? Aren’t these essentially beyond the capacity and capability — if not remit — of design? Culture is not something that can be designed, after all; is it even ethical to consider that it could be? However, a different conception of design — one not overly focused on problem-solving, or pretending to embark towards a resolution with a clear idea of the answer — could provide one way of addressing this concern, following an idea of prototyping and heuristics in a space of “unknown-unknowns” (after Donald Rumsfeld). There may be something in the role of designer as outsider, too — the naive position of not being a political scientist enables a different perspective, which could have some value.
  • design must make clear that its remit is expanded from simply problem-solving to context-setting. The limited impact of focusing solely on the “lipstick on the pig end” of the “value chain” — the product, the service, the artefact — must be expanded on by addressing all aspects of this chain, and perhaps most importantly the strategic context of the chain itself. In other words, the question.
  • elements of strategic design practice as conducted by Sitra’s SDU are outlined and discussed on the Helsinki Design Lab (HDL) website at In addition, SDU has published a book, In Studio: Recipes for Systemic Change (2011), which focuses in particular on the HDL Studio model, which is designed to rapidly prototype vision in complex, interdependent problem areas by better understanding the architecture of the problem.
  • design has failed to make the case for its core value, which is addressing genuinely meaningful, genuinely knotty problems by convincingly articulating and delivering alternative ways of being. Rethinking the pig altogether, rather than worrying about the shade of lipstick it’s wearing.
  • although it can solve problems, design should be about much more than this. Indeed, the problem-solving ability is perhaps the least important aspect, coming as it does at the end of a potentially more valuable exploratory process or approach.
  • Swiss designer Karl Gerstner wrote “To describe the problem is part of the solution.”
  • In terms of practice, design’s core value is in rapidly synthesising disparate bodies of knowledge in order to articulate, prototype and develop alternative trajectories.
  • Strategic design is also, then, an attempt to reorient design to the more meaningful problems outlined in the introduction. A force should have a direction and a magnitude
  • In strategic design, synthesis suggests resolving into a course of action, whereas analysis suggests a presentation of data. Analysis tells you how things are, at least in theory, whereas synthesis suggests how things could be.
  • Our systems of governance still lend more weight to analysis than more qualitative synthesis.
  • Synthesis is quite different to the apparently objective approach of the analyst or engineer, or that of management consultant; again, not least as it requires judgement in order to decide what to do, as synthesis produces
  • While other consultant practices have other attributes, this ability to produce, to do, as a way of generating insight, of enacting and reorienting strategic intent, is a key differentiator to design in
  • Again, the building project acts as a MacGuffin, in that it drives the plot with enough momentum to ensure that fire codes are actually changed; it provided enough of a gravitational pull of importance that it gave the relevant actors the motivation to reach into the policy apparatus and alter the codes. So timber is a building material, but also a strategic outcome. In itself, at Jätkäsaari, it is literally a design detail, a construction choice, but with these external outcomes in mind, this detail is connected to strategic impact well beyond the physical reality of the particular building. When viewed in these wider strategic contexts, the entire building itself is a mere detail, a distraction almost, which simply carries the other projects, gives them a reason to exist, lends an excuse to develop them — and the ordeals of a construction project provide the necessary rigour to develop them well. It feels frivolous to say that a building costing millions of euros is but a mere detail, but in a sense it is.
  • This idea of fast and slow layers can then be used to frame the discussion of risk within a system, with some layers slower and careful, and others more agile, more exploratory. Seeing the layers as linked — from policy to delivery, from system to product or service — albeit slipping fluidly against each other — also suggests a platform approach that intrinsically enables learning, and thus closes the policy gap described earlier. User-centredness, another core value in contemporary design, can be layered across this system too, with exterior layers of the platform more participative than slower, more strategic “internal” layers. The faster layers can pivot with greater flexibility, over time altering the slower layers conceptually beneath, their intended plasticity dictating how much and how quickly their “shape memory” can be rewritten. Again, this is zooming from matter to meta and back again. All this would usefully reorient “problems” with risk, uncertainty and complexity through iterative development and wider systems thinking. It requires a comfort with complexity and “out-of-control systems” that is not exactly a natural fit with public-sector culture at this point.
  • the MacGuffin provides motivation that drives strategic outcomes; the Trojan Horse contains the seeds of multiple strategic outcomes; the Platform elements enable those strategic outcomes to be diffused elsewhere, with prototyping of different layers ensuring its ongoing development. This vocabulary is not new — it’s been borrowed and appropriated from elsewhere. But being able to ask the question “What’s the MacGuffin?” or “How will this work as a Platform?” or “Where are the pivot points?”, for example, introduces into projects and practice a strategic element, a magnetic pull on the concepts of strategic replicability and systems thinking.
  • Strategic design attempts to draw a wider net around an area of activity or a problem, encompassing the questions and the solutions and all points in between; design involves moving freely within this space, testing its boundaries in order to deliver definition of, and insight into, the question as much as the solution, the context as much as the artefact, service or product
  • Call the context “the meta” and call the artefact “the matter”. Strategic design work swings from the meta to the matter and back again, oscillating between these two states in order to recalibrate each in response to the other.
  • zooming back and forth from matter to meta, and using each scale to refine the other, is core to strategic design.
  • The MacGuffin helps drive this process through its gravitational pull, through its requirement for rigour. It gets the ideas out of PowerPoint and into the “meta” of context, into redesigning the organisational, policy or regulatory environment in order to get things done. Legislation and policy is the “code” that enables replication elsewhere.
  • Each strategic design project might ask: what is the MacGuffin here? What is the plot device that will drive the picture? What is the artefact that will motivate the various actors to create a richly rewarding experience for the audience, and enable strategic outcomes by also addressing the context?
  • The MacGuffin is a simple artefact that provides motivation; the Trojan Horse is an artefact that carries “hidden” strategic elements.
  • the particular product or content by itself is not enough; the wider context as a platform is what makes it sing, what makes it a success
  • Thinking about what elements of a platform can be prototyped can be informed by understanding layers — of a policy, of a governance structure, of a prototype artefact — and the differing pace of change at each.
  • The challenge may be more in terms of leadership and political capital than in practice. A platform approach intrinsically entails this slightly out-of-control aspect, although the activity is within a platform is fundamentally shaped by the foundations and affordances it is designed with, and an understanding of which layers can be fast and which must be slow.
  • With a product, service or artefact, the user is rarely aware of the organisational context that produced it, yet the outcome is directly affected by it. Dark matter is the substrate that produces. A particular BMW car is an outcome of the company’s corporate culture, the legislative frameworks it works within, the business models it creates, the wider cultural habits it senses and shapes, the trade relationships, logistics and supply networks that resource it, the particular design philosophies that underpin its performance and possibilities, the path dependencies in the history of northern Europe, and so on. This is all dark matter; the car is the matter it produces. Thus, the relationship between dark matter and more easily detectable matter is a useful metaphor for the relationship between organisations and culture and the systems they produce.
  • The dark matter of strategic designers is organisational culture, policy environments, market mechanisms, legislation, finance models and other incentives, governance structures, tradition and habits, local culture and national identity, the habitats, situations and events that decisions are produced within. This may well be the core mass of the architecture of society, and if we want to shift the way society functions, a facility with dark matter must be part of the strategic designer’s toolkit.9
  • matter can unlock meta.
  • “seeing patterns, making connections, and understanding relationships” are in fact the essence of design. Yet few designers would see that their design challenge is to understand, and often reorient, those relationships.
  • This again explains why design so often fails to live up to its promise. Designers, like clients, are themselves attracted to the shiny end of projects, rather than delving into the dark matter and settling in for the lengthy engagement with an organisation. Yet organisation, context, bureaucracy, regulation and policy are absolutely crucial to the success of a project. If reoriented in such a way as to enable the intended outcomes, the intervention becomes a norm, the installation becomes a genuine product or service. Without that reorientation, we have failure, either of limited, restricted outcomes, or occasionally as catastrophe.
  • design’s core value is in synthesising disparate views and articulating alternative ways of being.
  • The hegemonic characteristics of such systems mean that we tend to ignore, or conveniently forget, that they have been designed; they have been imagined, articulated, stewarded into position.
  • certain core systems are achieving a level of complexity that is increasingly beyond our comprehension. On the one hand, this is due to the characteristics of self-organising systems such as the global economy, which David Korowicz argues is beyond our ability to understand, design and manage:
  • Fabricant hammers the final nails into the coffin of design thinking:   “It is time to move on. Business never really got the message. What businesses continue to care about is innovation. While designers may think that innovation requires Design Thinking, that was an idea that never really stuck in the executive suite.”
  • Victor Papanek’s diagram juxtaposes the share that the design typically has of a problem space, at around 5%, with what he calls “the real problem” consisting of the remaining 95
  • Apple’s approach of “concurrent or parallel production”:   “All the groups — design, manufacturing, engineering, sales — meet continuously throughout the product development cycle, brainstorming, trading ideas and solutions, strategizing over the most pressing issues and generally keeping the conversation open to a diverse group of participants. The process is noisy and involves far more open-ended and continuous meetings than traditional production cycles — and far more dialogue between people versed in different disciplines, with all the translation difficulties that creates. But the results speak for themselves.” (Steven Johnson, 2010)
  • This is not to say that an external perspective isn’t an important part of any strategic process — it is. It’s just that the usual artefacts of consultancy — the research, the workshops, the reports — do not change the actors inside the organisation. After the consultant leaves, the organisation is left with the same people being asked to deliver the recommendations in a report that was written by people without a long-term interest in the organisation. This is something that the design-thinking crowd will rarely admit. Design thinking is usually predicated on an outside influence (design thinking) being absorbed into an organisation via the mechanism of a consultancy agreement (almost by necessity, short-term and restricted in brief). It will talk more about mindset change in existing staff than actively engaging with re-positioning and inserting strategic design capacity into the organisation. This last apparent oversight may be because building capacity within an organisation reduces that organisation’s reliance on external consultancy. Design thinking consultants would be talking themselves out of a job if they recommended the best answer: to possess a strategic design capacity within the organisation.
  • Traditionally, the management consultant delves into dark matter. Traditionally, the design consultant delivers observable matter.
  • to genuinely perceive the various systems at play within decision-making — the architecture of the problem — design must be embedded within, and positioned strategically ie with a remit to reconceive and reframe strategic intent. Equally, design must be placed just so in order to truly engage with stewardship, with ensuring that the strategic intent — the design — is carried through into delivery, into execution.
  • Strategic design, then, is the application of professionally practiced design expertise to strategy, policy, governance and culture. An outcome of its work may be heightened awareness of some easily shareable attributes of design practice but the professional expertise of the designer is a core ingredient in the mix.
  • The clients exist, and as they are clients, their position remains unchallenged, despite their positioning, remit, stance, framing, governance, and political relationships being a potentially fundamental component of the architecture of the problem. This is where design thinking falls short of anything remotely radical. It’s where it is actually stuck in process improvement within a predetermined problem space, unable to manouevre into more interesting and useful areas.
  • Design performs best at the start of things, even before the need for a “start of things” has been clarified, but unfortunately, as Noah Raford pointed out, “the everyday realpolitik of most organisations will actively work against this from occurring”.
  • Strategic design must be embedded within the heart of the organisation, in order to be able to perceive how the entire organisation operates (this is a system) and move freely across the intersection of its elements, and to have the agency to suggest and enact a reorientation of the organisation.
  • studios can usefully bring together multiple stakeholders. Yet with complex interdependent problems requiring holistic thinking and action, this can lead to no one body taking responsibility, and so potential solutions fall through the cracks between organisations or within one organisation’s architecture.
  • workshops or studios themselves tend to a particular kind of focus, based on conversation and collaboration — yet they rarely provide the depth of analysis to tightly define an issue such that it can be developed into action. This often requires subsequent work, by which time the potential client has left the building and achieved escape velocity, easily sidestepping momentum generated in the workshop. The workshop model, which is often the foot-in-the-door for consultancies in this field, is intrinsically flawed.
  • This embedded nature of strategic design is a key differentiator from the consultant’s model of design thinking, which is often unable to produce the same effects often simply due to the consultancy model; the consultant has no “skin in the game” either, in the long run. This is not to say that a consultant model cannot produce work of value; just that it cannot produce much work of value in this context. It is left once again struggling to grasp the lipstick, rather than anything more meaningful
  • ability to suggest a solution other than a building is, unfortunately, still radical for an architect. Most designers, most consultants, simply cannot act like this.
  • Looking at architecture’s perennial inability to find more flexible and productive business models is another story. But one simple way to take the business model problem off the table is to be embedded within an organisation. There is a strong tradition here, as well as numerous examples of this in practice.
  • design is not a stage that happens before engineering and manufacturing
  • Strategic design is predicated on exactly this positioning: inside not outside, long-term not short, the pig not the lipstick.
  • Only from within can genuine contextual change occur. This is perhaps the deepest flaw in the “design thinking” consultancy model, and not something you hear the likes of McKinsey, KPMG, and PriceWaterhouseCoopers talking about much either.
  • Part of the issue for “the outsiders” is that strategic design solutions may not be “traceable” enough to validate the sales pitch of external consultancy.
  • Design is no longer concerned only with things. Increasingly, design is concerned with systems — and now systems of systems or ecologies. In a sense, these systems are alive. They grow and co-evolve. Designers and product managers cannot always control them. Instead, they must create conditions in which they can emerge and flourish. All this requires new thinking and new knowledge. It requires design practice to learn.” (Dubberly, 2011)
  • means that traceability — clarifying one’s impact upon the system in detail — is complex, if not virtually impossible, given the systems in question.
  • The strategic designer moves between both, deploying observable matter to ensure that dark matter is addressed, and addressing dark matter to better deploy observable matter.
  • As opposed to engineering, with its focus on problem solving, strategic design is oriented towards questioning the question, reframing if necessary.

    As opposed to policy-making expertise, with its focus on the creation of models, strategic design is predisposed to sketching and iterative prototyping as a learning mechanism, while engaging in stewardship to ensure that user-centredness and design intent is realised in delivery.

    As opposed to particular content expertise, focused within a bounded discipline, strategic design’s discipline is in integrative systems thinking rather than a form of path dependency, and is able to move freely across disciplines rather than within them, revelling in the complexity of a more holistic understanding of the system.

    As opposed to management consultancy, strategic design’s embedded positioning enables the long-term view, a richer production process, and provides the authority to enact organisational or contextual change, while also using its production skills to create tangible prototypes and outcomes as a strategic act, generating learning and momentum through doing.

    As opposed to creating the intervention or one-off, strategic design’s interests are in the replicable and systemic, and thus require engaging with the dark matter of organisations, policy, culture and other forms of context.

    As opposed to traditional design practice, strategic design attempts to move beyond products, services and spaces into relationships, contexts, and strategies, yet without losing sight of the symbiotic relationship between meta and matter, and genuinely engaging with the public and civic as much as with the commercial.

    As we have seen, in terms of design practice, strategic design at systemic scale is about this zoom from matter to meta, or rather, the importance of designing both the matter (the objects, spaces, services) at the same time as the meta (the context, the organisation, the culture). Strategy is enacted through a focus on the quality of execution, rather than an abstract model.

    Replicability of solutions, derived from delivering projects, enables systemic changes that are allied to the public good.

    Strategic design tries to ally pragmatism with imagination, deliver research through prototyping, enable learning from execution, pursue communication through tangible projects, and balance strategic intent and political capital with iterative action, systems thinking and user-centredness.

    This is all underscored by an optimistic belief in progressive change, that the current conditions are changeable for the better, that the present can be transformed into multiple positive futures. Path dependency can be a useful force, such that strategies can be built on culture, history and the other inherent qualities of a context, yet it does not weigh solutions down unnecessarily.

    Finally, strategic design is embedded within organisations, and particularly within public bodies that are reoriented towards leadership and directed innovation once again. This also means that innovative capacity has a direction, an end as well as a means.


Photo: By Forest Wander from Cross Lanes, USA (Center Milky Way Galaxy Mountains) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

UX Agencies Sell (and Clients Buy) Informed Decision Making

What is User Experience (UX)?

UX is a process, an approach, a way of thinking and an outcome. Outcome, in particular, is the key aspect to UX’s value. Are you solving a real problem? Are you tackling something meaningful to people? Are you bettering the organization, the system, the… whatever? I hope so. Otherwise, you’re selling an inferior product (be it a physical thing, a service, an idea, etc.).

Let’s also be clear that outcomes are not journey maps or competitive analyses or any number of other artifacts that will be generated during the course of a project. As much as possible, we want to get out of the deliverables business within agency/client relationships because artifacts aren’t valuable outcomes. They’re indeed important stepping stones in the value creation process (especially internally for the project team), but they are not the final outcome where customers will benefit from real, tangible value in the form of solutions to their problems.

How Can UX Be Sold?

If you’re a UX practitioner (agency or otherwise), you will inevitably need to pitch clients and craft proposals to win work. In doing so, you want to avoid selling the constituent parts of UX — the deliverables you may or may not create and the methodological details employed to complete the job. These things introduce complexity into the discussion and clients may associate complexity with greater cost, longer timelines, hard to manage processes and bigger headaches all around.

As an analogy, Benedict Evans made the case in a presentation that software isn’t eating the world so much as tech is outgrowing the tech industry. By this he means that new companies are being created that use technology but are not technology companies per se. Similarly, a user experience agency uses UX methodologies, produces needed deliverables, and employs professionals with highly refined skills, but those are not the things it sells outright. Buyers need solutions to problems, organizational silos bridged, existing products and services analyzed, customer insight, recommendations and more. All of these UX details amount to stepping stones that get your client to whichever outcome they need (and which may change as the project evolves).

In essence, UXers sell informed decision making and clients buy the value those decisions bring them. Talking about anything else only serves to confuse and complicate. Go into details if requested. Otherwise, tread lightly.

What, Exactly, is Informed Decision Making?

Some clients will think a completed, ‘tangible’ product like an app or redesigned feature set is being bought. They are, after all, the easy things to spot and are likely the things they brought up during the sales process. An argument that these things are valuable outcomes can be made, absolutely. They’re the things the client’s customers will use and derive benefit from. And the client will also claim value in whatever form the final project takes — they can point they’re bosses to it and say “we bought that.”

From the UX agency’s perspective (and the companies that share the same vision), informed decision making is the value on sale. The thing is the inevitable product that materializes in a process predicated upon the belief that we don’t (and can’t) know ahead of time exactly what needs to be created. Agencies ask questions, unravel problems, advocate for people, and make sense out of chaos. They consider context, bring stakeholders together, adapt as change occurs, and continuously learn. Agencies facilitate the ability for clients to make good choices for themselves, their customers and their stakeholders. The research, analysis, synthesis, exploration and iteration is what drives a team from point A to point B. A thousand decisions will be made during the course of a project and adding those up is the true value a UX agency offers to clients— making the right decisions at the right time for the right person.

UX Design and Congress are More Similar Than You Think

I listened to this interview with retiring US Representative Rush Holt and it struck me how well his viewpoint could be applied to client services.

Holt makes the case that his time in Congress was one where he would apply his ethics publicly (and he admits that he came up short from time to time). Similarly, client services is also an arena where you apply your ethics. Ethics can, of course, encompass how you treat people, your business practices, etc. but they should also encompass your principles and convictions. The process you use, your client interactions and your company’s culture reflect what you stand for while they guide teams and set expectations for your clients.

Ethics tend to be black and white issues, but applying them is often not. Knowing whether you’re willing to adapt your principles and convictions (and to what extent) is a key internal discussion. This isn’t easy work. Are you willing to lose a client in support of your ideals, are you willing to bend your ideals, or are your ideals in need of an overhaul? It’s one thing to say you work under an agile methodology, for example, but how strictly? In the land of UX, customer feedback is key, but if the client hesitates or declines, do you take on the assignment in hopes of convincing them of its value over time or do you simply say no, we don’t work like that and decline the big paycheck?

Do you know your organization’s non-negotiables? Who has authority to manage difficult situations and negotiate trade-offs? Is it an empowered person or a result of a process? What implications does it have on timelines, budget, morale, etc.? These aren’t easy questions to answer, but knowing your boundaries sets expectations for all involved and formalizes when and how to deviate from the norm.

“…a more perfect union…”

Holt talks about how the founding fathers aspired to a more perfect union — i.e. they knew they didn’t have all the answers and therefore created a system that could evolve to meet the needs of a dynamic country. Because of this inate ability to change, he rejects the idea that government is incapable of progress, of making things better for its citizens.

Most agencies would agree with those sentiments. After all, progress defines client services, right? Why are agencies hired if not to make improvements? As an agency person, I often see organizations hire outside teams even though they already have internal resources capable of accomplishing the work. What the agency has that internal teams don’t is often a “fresh perspective” or an “objective viewpoint.” That can be taken as code that internal teams are not capable of progress on their own. Maybe that’s true, but I don’t think so. Instead, I believe organizations sometimes need an outside force to create the momentum for a more perfect union that can then be sustained internally. The hard work is in getting off the ground, simply getting something, anything, accomplished. It may not be the right thing or the best thing, but it’s what’s needed to get on the path to greatness.

“…ideology has trumped evidence.”

Holt, who was a physicist before New Jersey’s Congressman, lays out two important scientific principles:

  • Evidence- Every position or answer posed should be substantiated with facts.
  • Verification- Ideas need to be open to scrutiny in order to know whether it’s correct or not.

“Scientists want the evidence first and consensus later. Politicians tend to look for consensus first, and look for the evidence to match. That has set up a bad precedent in the current Congress,” Holt says.

In client services, as in politics, ideology thwarts data driven decisions. Opinions and anecdotal evidence can turn out to be true, no doubt. But to rely on them as a consistent source for good decisions is risky at best. Holt uses the example of cigarette smoking to make this point: you can find an old person who smoked their whole life and conclude that smoking doesn’t kill. But that’s one person. Statistically, there’s no doubt that smoking shortens lives. Single points of data do not give you a full picture.

Our agency takes a hypothesis driven approach. We take the initial thoughts and discussions that take place early in a project as a starting point — something to work from. We then conduct research in order to support or deny those hypotheses. We may also just as easily find that parts of the hypotheses are correct, but other parts are not. Whatever the case, though, we’re able to define problems, see opportunities and begin to piece together a strategy that allows us to progressively move forward on solid ground. Additionally, once a solution is envisioned, we can test it too. Does it actually solve the problems at hand? Are the opportunities we discovered real? Is the strategy well formed? All these questions can be tested and improved upon with further thought and research.

One myth about science, which Holt addresses, is that science is not “cut and dried and definite.” The idea is not to throw your hands up and pronounce that research may be flawed therefore we shouldn’t take it into consideration. Rather, the research at hand should be acted upon because it’s the best information available at the time. As new research or better theories about what the research means comes to light, then you can change course appropriately. But to not act at all is a recipe for poor performance or, worse, outright failure.

“…people are not allowed to change their mind.”

An interesting topic during the interview, and the last one I’ll comment on, is the discussion of how politicians are almost to the point of being unable to change their minds for fear of being labeled flip floppers, weak leaders, or worse. Holt is convinced that being open to change as new information is gained is the hallmark of good governance. As previously brought up, the lack of 100% certitude that comes with a scientific approach should not be grounds for falling back on ideology. Some things simply have more evidence in support of them than other things.

Client services is predicated on finding common ground betweeen the client and agency in this regard. If either side sticks to ideology when research can be put to bear, the project is placed at risk, especially if a data driven methodology is among your core principles (i.e. part of your ethics). Agreement on how decisions will be made (and on what grounds) is central to getting things done. It not only will remove one point of frustration, but will also set the client up for success as the agency inevitably ends their engagement and the client must take stewardship of the project on their own.

In summary

  • Your company’s cultural ethics — both official and unofficial — affects your client relationships. Be intentional in what they are and how they’re applied.
  • Stalled projects need a jumpstart even if the catalyst isn’t perfect. Simply moving forward allows the team to become ever more perfect through iteration.
  • Research can combat the downsides of ideological intraction. Confidence in research, the process of acquiring it and how it’s used is paramount.
  • A willingness to be wrong or to make mistakes is not a character flaw if it’s used to learn and grow. You must start somewhere or else you won’t start at all.