Driving clarity with design artifacts

Design artifacts - Roadsigns

I recently switched teams at work. My new team focuses on a very technical part of our product. It would have been easy for me to spin my wheels and say: “I’m not a programmer. I am working on something over my head with people much more technical and smarter than I am, and I have nothing to add.” But instead, I looked at our team and asked myself, “where can I make an impact?” After several meetings, I realized our team needed help driving decision-making clarity. There were complex systems built on brittle foundations, and it was challenging for the team to reach a consensus around decisions. Part of the reason was that the system was so abstract that people had a hard time understanding the experience and talking about the same problems.

I started making diagrams and design artifacts to expose broken experiences giving my team a visual representation of the problem. This gave us a foundation for a conversation. 

Designers can get sucked into pixels and focus on the end solution. But we have a great asset: The skill to visualize. Sure, this skill is used for the final solution, but it should be utilized to help guide decisions along the way.

When to create artifacts and diagrams?

Create an artifact  when you need to communicate with stakeholders

You will likely have to bring many cross-functional stakeholders into the feature development cycle when working in a large organization. These people can have valuable input, yet their time is at a premium, and unlike you, they aren’t in the weeds of the problem. Visual documentation can help build context and understanding quickly. Think of a design artifact as a great ‘TL;DR.’ 

When I think of great examples of quickly communicating ideas visually, I think of Road signs. A road sign provides clarity and understanding at a glance. They help drivers make quick decisions. Think of your visualizations for stakeholders as road signs to help them understand quickly. The quicker you build understanding and context, the faster you drive toward a decision.

Create an artifact when your team is confused and struggling to make a decision

Have you ever been in a meeting where people are talking in circles? Maybe folks are trying to talk about the same thing but having very different conversations. If people aren’t on the same page, it’s prime territory for you as a designer to note the confusion and create artifacts to drive clarity. When you give people something to look at, the conversation is taken from the abstract to something tangible. Don’t underestimate how powerful this can be. 

Create an artifact to give the ‘bad ideas’ a real shot

I recently watched a clip of Rick Rubin (a famous music producer) describing the process of working with musicians. He advised creators and collaborators: “never judge the description of an idea.” When I heard this, it resonated. I want to bring this to my design practice. 

“Never judge the description of an idea.”

Often a description can fall short. For this reason, it is powerful for designers to prototype and visualize ideas before making a decision based on a description. Furthermore, prototyping is cheap. If you are a designer and haven’t invested in building this skill, stop reading this article and find a prototyping tutorial.

What kind of artifacts can you create?

  • Diagram: “A diagram is a symbolic representation of information using visualization techniques. Diagrams have been used since prehistoric times on walls of caves, but became more prevalent during the Enlightenment.” Source
  • Prototype: “A prototype is an early sample, model, or release of a product built to test a concept or process.” Source
  • User flow: Diagrams documenting the user’s steps to navigate a product or feature.
  • User Journey: “A user journey (or user journey map) is a visual trip of the user across the solution. The user journey considers not only the steps that a user takes but also their feelings, pain points, and moments of delight.” Source
  • A drawing 
  • A map
  • A quick document
  • An infographic

In my opinion, the most underrated form of visualization that product designers can embrace is infographics

“An infographic? I am not a graphic designer.” Who cares. Infographics don’t need to be used for marketing materials; they don’t need to be signed off by your brand team. They are for an internal audience. Create them to tell stories, communicate research, highlight problems, and drive clarity.

I love them because they are great storytelling assets that guide people through an idea, concept, or findings in a swift and consumable way.

Here is some inspiration

Design for the process

Artifacts will never be the final solution; they aren’t the pixels your engineers will code and aren’t the final product. But they are assets to aid your team in creating the most impactful outcomes.

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