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Measuring, Defining and Improving Productivity: The Design Productivity Blueprint

March 2021


Article credits
Spotify Design Team

Whether you manage a team of designers, have set up a Design Ops team or are considering doing so, or you just have a stake in design output at your organisation, creating the space for designers to do their best work is a key concern. You want to ensure that designers spend their time on high-value design work, and less time on low-value tasks like hunting down icons or assets, repeating work, or completing lots of admin. We have created a tool to expose designer productivity, and identify ways to improve it.

Empowering teams and individuals to do their best work is an ongoing concern for Spotify’s Design Platform team. With that in mind, we worked in partnership with digital product consultancy Elsewhen to answer, how exactly can we measure — and ultimately evaluate and improve — designer productivity? And in the spirit of sharing with the wider community, we pondered, can we create a new tool for design teams and their leaders to help them develop their own team's definition of productivity, measure it and improve it?

Measuring productivity for a creative role is a treacherous undertaking. First, there is determining how to pull it off technically, then you need confidence that you’re measuring the right thing, and lastly, you don’t want to add undue pressure on designers, who enjoy autonomy. 

It’s reasonably clear what would be the wrong things to measure. For example, it would be a mistake to just count the number of screens, components or even solutions a designer creates, or the time it takes them to produce each one, so we need to identify the metrics that it does make sense to measure.

The Partner, The Challenge, and Managing Change

We recruited a co-conspirator to help us define and investigate productivity, and locate any opportunities that might emerge as a result. Being removed from the organisational day-to-day, and with deep experience in resolving similar challenges for other companies, Elsewhen were ideally placed to objectively engage with designer workflow issues.

Together we would then share and flesh out the opportunities that emerged, which could become programmes of work in their own right in the future. What follows is a breakdown of our process, which you can follow as well at your organisation, along with a toolkit we’ve published to the Figma Community to help you do so, and an explanation of how to get the most from it.

You can access the Figma toolkit here, but we recommend that you read through how we tackled designer productivity, before diving in.

Establishing your definition of design productivity

So you’re looking for ways to help your team do their best work, and to remove any barriers from them doing so. You need to be able to define your desired outputs and behaviours and establish them as a north star. You also need to bring the designers themselves into the process early on, as they will have opinions on where the problems and opportunities lie.

We pulled together a cross-disciplinary working group of designers, design system engineers and prototypers to establish a definition of productivity. We then validated this definition through interviews and our blueprint session. We aligned on a final definition that would guide us when considering changes to the way designers work. 

The definition of designer productivity we co-created with the team was:

Designer productivity is the ability to deliver measurable value unimpeded by restrictions or unnecessary complexity in the workflow.

When you’ve established your definition, it’s time to put it into action and decide on a set of productivity measures. You’ll do this together with your team in the Figma toolkit. Consider that a good measurement is one that can be tracked and remain relevant over time, across different parts of the workflow. With these key metrics in place, you can then determine which one to prioritise and tackle first.

Determining what you want to measure

We established three core metrics through which to measure designer productivity:

  1. Time spent completing routine tasks - here we mean that we’re interested in creating an environment in which designers can spend more time on collaboration and enjoy more creative time.

  2. The number of, and the time lost to bottlenecks - we knew there were bottlenecks that were slowing down designers. We also knew that once we identified them, we could order them and start tackling them one by one. 

  3. Design system adoption - this is key to ensure designers have a trusted source of truth, that they can confidently rely on. While not a classic measure for productivity, we used adoption as a proxy for measuring and developing our internal tools.

Your own metrics may vary from ours, and that’s ok. However, it is important that the metrics defined are simple to understand and clear to everyone, and will help your team make actionable, measurable changes.

Understanding your workflow

Now that you know what you’re tracking, you’ll need a blueprint of the current design process. At Spotify Design, teams are fully autonomous, which means that the design process will vary slightly from one team to another. We wanted to create a representation of the different workflows across the organisation, and we used this as both a jumping-off point and a reference point for any changes in the workflow. Part 2 of our toolkit - 'Capturing Designer Workflows’ provides an easy way to generate your team’s own blueprint.

Using the tool, we suggest that you interview your designers and any engineers, product managers or others who work closely with those designers. For each individual interviewed, ask them to choose a generalised workflow such as ‘create a new product feature’ and complete a workflow map. To help individuals to accurately map and understand workflows, they are broken down into:

  • A description of the different tasks 

  • An explanation of the time spent on a task

  • The different teams and/or people involved, and the nature of their involvement

  • The tools used

  • Perceived pain points at the different stages

With this, you’ll emerge with a picture of a general flow, better understand the variations between the teams, the key pain points, and some of the opportunities for improvement. Having several versions of this blueprint allows you to:

  • Understand the extent of autonomy across teams and design folks

  • Construct a generalised evidence-based version of the blueprint

  • Identify productivity blockers in light of your Productivity Definition

  • Create a living artefact and a point of reference for ongoing improvements to the designer experience at your organisation

Grouping insights for action

Your findings will be different, but in the interest of sharing, our insights fit into the following wider themes:

  • Involving Engineers 

A clear theme emerged around collaboration between designers and engineers. Closer collaboration between designers and engineers resulted in smoother and more enjoyable projects.

  • Managing how resources are leveraged 

Spotify Design offers a broad range of design resources, but as a result some services were in danger of being overwhelmed, while others were less well known by new designers and underutilised as a result.

  • Design Systems

Spotify Design has built and maintains an impressive design system. Of course, a design system is only as good as its continued adoption and documentation as it grows. Working on engagement, particularly from engineers, and improving documentation is key to a design system’s continued success.

  • Speccing

Spotify Design recently made the move to Figma, and designers really prefer it. As it’s a relatively new tool however, we need to iron out the creases in engineer handoff and speccing. The challenge is to balance autonomy within the design process with the need to create consistent, digestible specs that anyone parachuting into a Figma file can understand.

  • Motion and prototyping

There were particular issues around how designers were approaching motion that was really slowing them down and wasn’t ideal for engineers either. Designers encountered challenges translating the dynamics of motion prototypes into production code. 

The tool itself, and how it works

Hopefully, the tool itself should be self-explanatory once you’ve read this article. There are also pointers in the Figma toolkit to help you navigate it as you follow the process, and we recommend familiarising yourself with it before running any workshops. That said, to get you started, here’s an overview of the structure of the tool.

The tool is made up of four main parts, and a final section to help you share your findings:

  1. Workshops — Define Designer Productivity as a group for your organisation and uncover how to measure it

  2. Interviews — Understand your individual designer workflows and map them out

  3. Synthesise — Build a service design blueprint to describe a common designer workflow, and identify your problems and opportunities

  4. Productivity Canvas — Share your productivity findings with the wider team, to include them in the process of making improvements

The tool places emphasis on bottlenecks rather than just reducing time spent on the process. This way you stand a better chance of making meaningful improvements, by uncovering the most critical productivity pains and opportunities in your designer workflow. The tool was created as part of a wider research effort into increasing productivity and removing impediments in the designer workflow, and when you’ve run through the process and populated your Canvas, your work shouldn’t end there. You should now think about:

  • Describing each opportunity in more detail: think about each problem, pulling together the evidence for it, with a hypothesis and an experiment for how you could solve it.

  • Agreeing on your methodology for prioritising the opportunities, and then deciding which you want to tackle first as a team.

Armed with your list of prioritised opportunities—each with its own supporting evidence, hypothesis and proposed experiment—you’ll be well placed to envision what a future state of designer productivity could look like for your organisation, and how you can best move the needle to get there.


Spotify Design Team

We're a cross-disciplinary team of people who love to create great experiences and make meaningful connections between listeners and creators.

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Elsewhen is a digital product consultancy empowering leaders to harness a cutting edge approach to design and tech to deliver positive impact for their organisations.

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