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Start With the System

Designing for digital transformation begins with a deep dive.

As a product designer at Postlight, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about digital transformations. Dramatic shifts can be painful for businesses used to doing things a certain way. Often the brand or product may be solid, but its processes are antiquated, inefficient, or can’t scale. This can lead to stagnant growth and lower customer retention.

If you’ve ever been a part of a digital transformation, you likely know this pain firsthand. Disrupting established systems, wrangling stakeholders, and articulating a clear vision for the future are just a few of the challenges product designers might face.

It is a common misconception that designers are only responsible for the end-user experience. Companies that champion this thinking often consign their designers to incremental visual enhancements, instead of empowering them to tackle the structural shortcomings that inhibit growth and customer satisfaction.

Steve Jobs is famously quoted as saying that design is not what it looks like, but how it works — wise words that ring especially true in the context of a digital transformation.

Why understand business processes?

Design plays an integral role in defining product strategy when it is empowered to do so. Advocating for a seat at the table means demonstrating a comprehensive understanding of not only the user, but the business as well. In addition, developing a thorough understanding of the business’ processes will help product designers:

  • Expose inefficiencies or redundancies in the current processes that can be improved.
  • Identify stakeholders that you’ll need to interface with and eventually secure buy-in from on your proposal.
  • Inform the experience that you want to provide to their users, their support staff, and their bottom line.

This is no simple task. Many businesses have complex operational processes for delivering value to their users. It typically takes several conversations with various stakeholders to understand the big picture and learn how their roles are woven in support of their greater mission.

A product manager can shoulder some of this load, but rather than rest on their laurels, designers should be prepared to put on their service design hat and take on a formative role in defining product strategy.

Once you’ve wrapped your brain around how the system works currently, you can start to identify the segments that are ripe for improvement, and begin the process of solving for them.

Picking the right tool for the job: swimlane diagrams

Effectively communicating proposals for systems design changes can be challenging amongst internal product teams, let alone with stakeholders. Whiteboarding sessions can quickly get messy, and meetings can come and go with little mutual understanding of “how it works.”

Over time, I have learned to lean on a tool that I have found invaluable in communicating service design proposals: the swimlane diagram.

swimlane diagram showing the process of approvals through a business
A swimlane diagram shows product process by way of relationships.

Swimlane diagrams, sometimes called service blueprints, “map out the relationship between various service components (people, processes, and props) and customer touchpoints,” according to NN Group. In this format, not only is the entire system communicated to the viewer, but it becomes much easier to parse the individual events or workflows that can be improved, streamlined, or even eliminated.

Getting started with swimlane diagrams may seem overwhelming, but it’s quite straightforward. Start by identifying the most relevant or valuable user journey — this will be the first lane of your swimlane diagram.

Now consider any additional personas involved in the success of this user journey. Is there a client support role? An administrator? Perhaps even another end-user? Identify the internal and external roles that support this process, and create adjacent lanes for each of them.

You’ll likely need the help of your stakeholders and colleagues in other departments to help you accurately map each persona’s role. Ask them to describe their involvement as it relates to the customer’s journey. What actions do they take, and when? Your goal is to map out the end-to-end process that delivers value to the customer.

Now, improve the system and build great products

With your completed swimlane diagram in-hand, look it over and identify potential bottlenecks or inefficiencies. Empowered by a comprehensive understanding of the system, designers can now ask important questions like, “How might we automate this step? Or consolidate these two steps?” Or, “Heck, how might we remove this step altogether?” The swimlane diagram is a tool for identifying opportunities and communicating them to your partners. 

Once the opportunities are identified, agreed upon, and prioritized, revise the swimlane diagram to reflect and communicate the improvements that your proposal will deliver. With this method at your disposal, you’ll be well on your way to delivering efficient, innovative, and even transformative digital products.

Matt Vaccaro is a Product Designer at Postlight. Want to talk about product development, user experience, or service design? Drop him a note at