Manage design projects

At Linear, we manage design tasks in the app and designers and engineers collaborate tightly when building features. The design process can seem incompatible with typical project management practices. It’s hard to predict what a design will look like at the outset of a project let alone to give estimates on when it will be ready. These are some ways that we approach design work for projects that help us strike a balance and work together effectively.

Verifying the problem

The first design task for any project is to understand and verify the problem. Sometimes the problem is clear and simple, such as to build out a screen. Sometimes the problem is unclear or poorly defined and needs some research before implementation. This is especially common when picking up feature requests from customers or teams that work outside of the product. Users will ask you to build a specific feature X to fix their problem Y. The sales team may push you to build feature X to meet a client request. However, their X is usually defined by their perception of the problem and limited by their understanding of how the product can be changed to resolve it. Design’s challenge is to investigate the surface-level issues to find the root cause and then solve for that. As a designer, the most important step is to verify the problem actually exists and is the right problem to solve.

At Linear, we do a lot of this design and research by playing with the product ourselves. The design team regularly reviews feature requests that come in from users through the Help + Feedback modal or in the public Slack community. We’ll discuss these as a team casually in Slack or on the Linear issue if it’s a feature we plan to implement. We also invest in writing out detailed project specs for each feature before building anything which forces us to think through the problem in depth.

The exploration stage

Once the problem is clarified, it’s time to explore different design options. We create an issue in Linear called “Explore designs” and keep that as a placeholder issue in the project.

At this stage, it’s important to explore the solution freely and without judging whether something is feasible, fits into your design system or is a good idea at all. Bad ideas are a natural step in the creative process, can help clarify your thinking, and even show you why something else is a better idea. Depending on a problem, exploration could take a few hours or a few days. It’ll include part research to learn best practices and find inspiration and part experimenting with options in Figma. A small feature might require a few takes with different UIs. A larger feature could end up going in multiple directions before you find the one that you like, usually after you’ve gotten feedback from others.

Watch Karri's Figma design demo: Linear 2020.12 release page

Using feedback to guide you

After some initial exploration, you should get feedback and reactions from other people starting with your teammates. Observe how they react. When they say something about the design, don’t just pay attention to what they say but ask them why they said it. You should get feedback while you are still exploring, so don’t worry about the details and polish. If people give you negative feedback, don’t take that as a sign the direction is necessarily bad but focus on learning why. It could be that you’re going in the right direction but the current version isn’t quite right or doesn’t fit into their understanding of the problem. Find the gaps in your design or the story and then fill them.

When getting feedback on the design, alternate between reviewing the overall design and gathering input on specific details. It’s often hard for people to give good feedback on both at once and easy to go off in unhelpful tangents if feedback requests aren’t focused. Set the expectation and let people know what type of feedback would be valuable for you to receive.

Choosing a direction

Eventually you’ll need to pick a direction for the design. Fleshing out the direction more could take a few hours or days and at the least you’ll want to have done a round of internal feedback in the design including the engineers who will be building the feature.

By this stage you should have a better understanding of what assets you’ll need to create and be able to come up with a list of concrete design tasks. The solution scaffold is there even if the details may change. You should make a list of the design pieces to focus on and get them done one by one. Marking something done feels good and can help you to focus on the next task at hand–even while you work on the overall design–so you avoid spinning your wheels too much.

The final solution and individual pieces should be informed by the engineers. They’ll be able to point out technical limitations and talk through alternatives with you. This is also good practice generally that gives engineering context and a deeper understanding of the problem they’re solving and makes collaborating easier.

Design and engineering handover

We get a lot of questions about how we manage handover at Linear between the design and engineering teams. We work collaboratively throughout the project design and implementation process and start working together when writing the project spec. We work in project teams and there’s always a designer on the team for any user-facing features. We keep design and engineering tasks in the same team on Linear but they’re created as issues managed separately. The designer files their own issues. The engineers file their own issues. For anything requiring collaboration, we’ll use sub-issues to split up the design and engineering tasks.

How we work at Linear: Karri's design process

I personally have struggled with this kind of task system before as a designer. Designing something often feels holistic and hard to break down into concrete tasks. Once you change one part of the design you may want to change something else. There are also a lot of unknowns in the beginning so it can feel hard to plan ahead.

Overall as a company, we use projects to organize work when building out features. After we write the project spec, the first design task is usually “explore design” where I just use some time (a day to a week) to explore different directions and options and figure out the parts of the design. Then share them with the team for feedback. I often paste the Figma screens or just screenshots in Linear comments and @mention people I want feedback from. Adrien likes to share Loom videos in addition to posting the Figma link and gives a quick overview of changes and what he wants feedback on.

Once I have a better sense of the design and direction, I create a more specific task like “Design X view.” Having a discrete task that I can work on and eventually close feels more motivating than having a huge task that takes weeks. Once the design is complete, I often create an implementation sub-issue which I assign to the team lead or engineer. They can then reference the design decisions and Figma link in the design task as they implement the feature.