Wrangling Complexity: Collaborating and Delivering Design on Enterprise Projects

Written by

Tristan Plank

A photo of a person pointing to the dashboard information panel for an enterprise software application.

Our Best Advice for Enterprise Design Projects


If you are a designer and have ever worked in the enterprise space, you probably know that enterprise design is a different animal altogether. Convoluted bureaucracies, highly-specialized user roles, and complex business requirements are some of the typical hallmarks of enterprise UX (user experience) projects.

Here at Blink, we spend much of our time using our UX skills to work on the front lines of these types of projects. Here are some things we have learned about navigating the challenges of enterprise products, including complexity, collaborating with stakeholders, meeting users’ expectations, and handing design off to development teams.

The Challenge

Let me set the stage a bit. For the past 14 months, we have been designing a new loan origination platform for a large lending company to replace their outdated, clunky legacy system. This is an enterprise project through-and-through: internal teams defining and creating custom tools and developing the user interfaces for other internal employees to use. Part of UX for enterprise applications involves product development that addresses common pain points for specialized users with specific domain knowledge.

Enter: complexity. The new platform would need to support customized views for several different job roles, and we were working with no fewer than 10 business owners to define requirements for various parts of the system. Our client was fully committed to rapidly building their new origination platform and was prepared to dedicate multiple development teams to the work.

With only two UX designers working on the project, we knew we would need to establish some key strategies at the beginning of the project to manage the complexity that was surely going to arise. Specifically, we wanted to kick off product design knowing we had identified the following:

  • How we would hold foundational research sessions to discuss complex business requirements with stakeholders and collect information
  • How the UX design team would present and collaborate on designs with multiple stakeholders and analysts, especially when we were three time zones.
  • The most efficient and useful method for delivering designs to multiple development teams.

Treat Requirements Like Conversations, Not Commandments

Knowing we would be designing an internal application for the lending industry, we expected to encounter lots of messy regulatory requirements and complex financial jargon. This is an issue we see in many enterprise tools, but we were still a bit astonished by the amount of discussion needed for even the smallest of business requirements.

A seemingly simple feature request could rapidly become a dozen-person email thread as various business owners chimed in with their own tribal knowledge about what the business software should look like (and as designers and developers sought clarification about the various acronyms being thrown around).

But it’s important to note that these conversations were a good thing — as enterprise UX designers, we needed these detailed discussions to happen so we could fully understand the scope and implications of what we were designing. With this understanding, we can more accurately create an optimal user experience.

As we got used to the complexity of these conversations and learned the internal jargon of the organization, we were able to be more pointed and efficient in our discussions thanks to our maturing “fluency” in the industry language.

Ditch Your Email for Detailed Requirements Discussions

Having detailed conversations about requirements is all well and good. However, reply-all only gets you so far before things get messy and difficult to track. Input from enterprise users is incredibly valuable, but making sense of all the insights and information from stakeholders and users needs an organizational system beyond email.



As a team, we all decided that moving these detailed, in-the-weeds discussions to a venue other than email would be much more productive, as it would allow us to cleanly separate our discussions and clearly track their progress, ownership, and resolutions. Product development would move much more smoothly with optimized user research.

After reviewing several tools out there such as Trello and JIRA, we decided to use Asana. Asana is a web and mobile design system that helps teams, including UX designers like us, organize and manage product development. This choice for an online UX collaboration design service was a matter of preference and availability for our project, but I can confidently state that Asana was a saving grace for a project of this size and complexity.
The speed with which we got the entire project team (several dozen people) up and running on Asana was astounding. Our design team was made up of several diverse roles, including an array of visual designers and developers working on everything from information architecture to product management. The ease of onboarding and the availability of design resources made all the difference in making this a powerful prototyping tool.

Getting our conversations out of email and into a tool built for these discussions helped us move forward strategically. We could prioritize tasks and assign ownership, as we placed due dates on requirements and discussions and weren’t shy about assigning questions or tasks to the right project team member. By minimizing issues of clarity, we could keep the project moving forward despite many, many inputs..

Asana

Everyone Likes Pictures

When a one-sentence requirement can mean five things to five different stakeholders and product designers, getting sketches or wireframes in front of everyone as soon as possible can rapidly clarify a conversation. In past projects, I have seen attempts at collaborative graphic design passed around in PDFs, as images in emails, or versioned in a shared folder. These methods can work for some smaller projects, but a large, complex enterprise application can have more involved aspects, like:

  • Multiple role-based views
  • Unique user interfaces (UI)
  • Several dozen screens or more

That means that designs may be updated daily as new stakeholders chime in. These methods of sharing design are also not conducive to discussion or collaboration unless you want to revert back to the reply-all problem I mentioned previously. To address these issues, you need to implement some type of design collaboration tool that can keep everyone connected.

For this project, a web prototyping service called InVision. If you are a UX designer, InVision is probably nothing new to you. This interactive, collaborative prototyping software offers wireframe tools, UI design elements, and other resources for product and frontend development. Having one place to go to for the latest and greatest design, combined with commenting, easily shareable links, and quickly viewable versioning made InVision critical in our design process for this messy project.

Our designers included their annotations and the occasional clickable element right within InVision, allowing any stakeholder to pop in to the wireframes and quickly understand the design being proposed. From UI kits to mobile app development and other aspects of the development processes, InVision helps us make things clearer and communicate more effectively.

We also made it a habit to drop InVision links right into Asana tasks when we sensed a conversation veering toward misunderstanding or ambiguity, quickly bringing everyone onto the same page when we could all look at the same thing. It’s a cliché, but a picture really is worth 1,000 words.

Invision

No More Redlines

Historically one of the most time-consuming parts of a design project is redlining the design files for delivery to development teams. If there were a large number of unique layouts and screens in a project, as there often are in enterprise products, this process could take weeks of an experienced designer’s time — valuable time that would be better spent on other things (like complex, messy discussions about requirements!).

Around the time our project got up and running, our design team at Blink had started tinkering with a relatively new tool called Zeplin (there are a few other similar options out there now as well, such as InVision’s Inspect feature and Avocode). This tool allows a designer to export their Sketch or Photoshop file and automatically add redlines, making them viewable in a browser-based web app.

It offered us two significant benefits:

  • Time savings: The general principle may sound simple, but the time savings is enormous. At last count, we had nearly 200 screens uploaded to Zeplin for this project. If a designer had spent the time redlining even half of those, I shudder to think about how far behind we may have lagged.
  • Consistency: The other nice aspect of using a tool like Zeplin is that these screens can become the new “source of truth” for everyone on the design team. So, as the design process moves from sketches to wireframes and finally to Zeplin, we can ensure all stakeholders are looking at the latest and greatest design that has been delivered. Zeplin also allowed us to support the delivery of design to six development teams concurrently, as we uploaded style guides and pages as soon as they were complete.

One word of caution about using these types of tools: In the old days, when UX designers would add redlines by hand, we could fib — pixel perfection wasn’t necessary at this stage of the UX process. With a tool like Zeplin, however, a developer can inspect the pixel dimensions and padding between just about everything you design, so either communicate some broad rules about dimensions to your developers and don’t worry about pixel perfection, or spend your time nudging everything just right.

A screenshot of the Zeplin interface for a Blink client

Embrace the Challenge (And Prepare Accordingly)

Complexity and messiness are inherent in just about any enterprise UX project. But if you can find ways to manage the process challenges so you can focus on design challenges, UX projects in enterprise applications can be extremely rewarding.

Identifying effective ways to discuss and track requirements, collaborate on designs, and deliver exactly what is needed are a few of the key steps you can take upfront that will reward you in speed and efficiency throughout your project.

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