Why Design Circles Are So Frickin’ Productive

Once upon a time, designing and developing software at FreshBooks took ages. Then development switched to agile scrum, which works on a weekly sprint. Development got much faster but our typical design process was still more akin to a monthly crawl than a weekly sprint. We knew we could do better.

So how do you design a software experience in a week? Hire 100 designers? Raise a billion dollars? Work all night?

Nope. We use our own version of a Design Sprint based on LeanUX (find out more about how we got our mojo back here.) A Design sprint at FreshBooks contains four rituals over five weekdays, designed to get us an answer to a hypothesis by the end of the week:

  • Monday: Charrette to ideate a hypothesis to a design problem
  • Tuesday: Gather in Design Circle to evaluate our hypothesis
  • Wednesday: Build prototypes, to test our hypothesis with real users
  • Thursday: Test our prototypes with users to validate our hypothesis
  • Friday: Gather again in Design Circle to debrief on test results

In this article, we’ll look at Design Circles, the problems they solve and how to run them effectively. At their heart, Design Circles are simple: they’re a 1–2 hour, twice-weekly gathering** where all the designers and product owners in a Tribe share their latest design work and User Testing results. (At FreshBooks, a “Tribe” is a group of teams working together toward a common goal. We borrowed the term from Spotify. They also have something like Circles, which they call “Chapters.”)

Dear reader, please know that we’re not perfect and we’re always working on getting better. In our initial rush to get faster, we uncovered a lot of problems — some of which we’re still designing solutions for. When we made our initial mindset shift, our first instinct was to throw designers onto agile teams and force them to try and keep up with development, using our existing processes. Here are the problems we encountered, along with how we addressed them using Design Circles:

Debilitating Isolation

At FreshBooks, we only have so many designers to go around — in fact, we only have one per team. So there’s a risk that designers on two separate teams could be working on the same part of a product experience — and producing conflicting designs. Design Circles solve this problem by bringing designers from a Tribe together twice weekly to review one another’s work. Just being aware of each other’s work avoids crossed wires that might derail a design or create waste.

Misalignment Malaise

The longer a design spends in isolation, the more likely it is to drift from an agreed point of origin. We run group Charrettes on Mondays to collectively ideate and sketch several approaches to solving a problem; but we check back as soon as possible (i.e. on Tuesdays in Design Circle) to review designs at higher fidelity. We do this before a design becomes precious or has a chance to stray too far from what was discussed the day before. This also helps us catch any unanticipated issues that might have cropped up.

The longer a design spends in isolation, the more likely it is to drift from an agreed point of origin.

Chronic Approval Pain

A traditional approval process is slow and frustrating. Stakeholders are often chronically unavailable, or differ in opinion, causing teams to feel paralyzed — there’s no room for that in a one week sprint! Design Circles solve this by bringing everyone necessary for an approval decision together twice a week, at a predictable time. We use customer feedback from User Testing to frame discussions and leverage the group’s collective expertise to make decisions. If a stakeholder can’t make it to circle they defer to the group.

Disparate Learning

Though many software companies now conduct regular User Testing they often offload research to specialized teams who hand off results. In some cases designers do their own research but have no venue to share their results. The problem with this approach is that key insights that could benefit the whole group end up locked in the heads of researchers — or, at best, in dusty reports. In our Friday Design Circle, we review User Testing results and feedback together as a group, as soon as its gathered, so everyone benefits from new insights the moment its generated.

How To Run a Design Circle

Now that you know the problems a Design Circle can help an agile design team solve, here are some quick tips you can use to run them effectively:

Moderate Like a Boss (a Good One)

Every Design Circle needs a good moderator. The moderator’s job is to keep everyone on time and the discussion centred on a design hypothesis (the thing we want to learn this week). If you find the group running in Circles on a particular concern, or ideating new solutions aimlessly, it’s the moderator’s job to decide whether it’s relevant to this week’s hypothesis or something that should be included as a separate design story for Charrette next week.

Focus on Approach

A Designer should bring several design approaches (typically generated during Charrette) to circle to promote discussion around the pros and cons of an approach, instead of incremental improvements that might be irrelevant to a hypothesis. Design Circles should not be confused with critique — they are useful for aligning on approach but not for micromanaging decisions.

Design Circles should not be confused with critique — they are useful for aligning on approach, but not for micromanaging decisions.

Time-Box the Blabbermouths

Typically, our Circles run just over an hour. Designers have about twenty minutes each to present their work/results and frame a discussion. If someone goes over time, the next designer has less time to present their work. Limiting people to a set amount of time forces them to be succinct when they present and keeps the discussion focused on the week’s hypothesis.

Generate an Outcome

Design Circle is useless without decisions. Make sure you close every design discussion with a set of next steps or final direction that helps move a design forward to completion. At FreshBooks, this final call is typically made by the Tribe’s Product Director or Design Director, but you can elect whomever makes most sense for your organization.
Make sure you close every design discussion with a set of next steps or final direction that helps move a design forward to completion.

At FreshBooks we’ve found Design Circles are an invaluable tool that has saved us literally thousands of hours, helping us deliver more design work in less time, with less waste. That helps our developers ship software every week. Design Circles bring us together, align our decision making, streamline approvals and enable group learning. Most importantly Design Circles help us design better software for our amazing customers.

Are you running a similar process? Something better? We’d love to hear from you.

** We’re avoiding the word meeting in this article because a Circle is so frickin’ productive, we can’t bear to have it associated with the former.

This post is written by Jeremy Bailey is the Creative Director at FreshBooks. Originally posted on Medium


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