A Design System Applied

Muse Dashboard

When faced with an enormous task such as designing a workflow management system for a video publication pipeline, having a well-formed design system in your back pocket is invaluable. The group we were servicing, during discovery, went through numerous iterations of their business flows as we worked with them to map out their needs. The design system allowed us to pivot often, at low cost, as they learned and re-learned how the future of their business could be shaped.

The Opportunity And Hypothesis

The digital group sought to produce a tool that would support workflow needs from ideation through to the post-launch performance of all content across all brands, print digital, and video. The value opportunity is multifold. For example, if we had a unified workflow management tool, we could then know the actual cost of a piece of content, have insight into opportunities to improve workflow and speed to market, visualize actual content volume across all brands, and much more.

For the inaugural case/client, it was decided Condé Nast Entertainment would be an excellent opportunity. CNE develops, produces and distributes video content across all 17 brands. The complexity of their current workflow process utilized a myriad of tools and involved an enormous amount of onboarding and specialized knowledge to operate.

"How might we through rigorous ethnographic research, design thinking, and co-design, generate a flexible system that can support the diverse user needs in video production yet also meaningfully support other types of content production?"

Given the current landscape of workflow tools, we, as a design and research team, believed it possible to generate a set of extensible universally configurable patterns that would meaningfully support the workflow needs of content production across video, digital, and print. 

The Challenge(s) Overcome

Work is culture. And culture changes slowly. It was almost immediately obvious that the current workflow systems at CNE had evolved over the years and the processes themselves were deeply embedded in the mental model of all interviewees. Our first challenge was to develop a way of working that empowered the interviewees such that they could "think outside the box" of their current mental model.

CNE was highly compartmentalized. Each department was run by the respective lead and over time that leads had developed workflows, tools, and systems that met with their internal culture. This included sets of labeling and nomenclature that were department-specific. As we were looking to unify the workflow, it was important to surface and normalize any unique items. This is harder than it sounds and during discovery, we were regularly surprised by new uncovered items, elements, and events that needed to be included.

As we began to develop a unified view of how CNE produces content, CNE themselves began to see opportunities for bettering their current process. This is always an excellent result but it made it difficult to build in an agile lean manner as we would regularly meet with them and they had revised their linear production process in the interim since our previous meeting. 

The Players

The CTO established CNE as the inaugural client for the system.

The CDO sponsored the effort and paved the way allowing us time with interviewees and meaningful support from the CNE side. 

Are true co-hero's of this story. The research team spent countless hours scheduling and facilitating numerous group and individual interviews and summarizing documentation. Research even invented a system such that CNE could visually map their ideal workflows.

The other true co-hero in this is the design team. There exists an interactive prototype representing nearly the entire proposed application. Pixel perfect, suitable for robust unmoderated testing. It's a thing of beauty.

Throughout this incredibly complex process, product maintained the focus and direction. This was no small feat. Constantly negotiating prioritizations as the never ending stream of new discoveries presented themselves.

The Process

an image of a research session
An image of the results of a research session

As this was a net new effort, defining scope and a definition of success was the primary task. To do this, there was much work to be done to understand even a base level of need.

We began with preliminary interviews to understand the structure of the organization so we could start building out a picture of the landscape. With this information summarized we had a very superficial map of how CNE ships video content. With this map, along with engineering and product, we then started planning a deeper level of interviews to gather information on how people were using their current array of tools in their day to day work.

As it turns out, shipping video content is a very complex affair. Nearly every "project" contained a multitude of touchpoints, dependencies, gated timeline events, and even restricted access at certain stages. Added to this, the current culture of deeply siloed departments, presented very serious challenges to the idea of a unified workflow system

Information gathering using the traditional method of service blueprinting simply was not working. We were ending up with maps that were so complex and so convoluted that they were unmanageable and certainly not actionable. We needed another way.


An image of the playing cards prototype used to successfully gather requirements.

So we invented a method. There is no formal name for the method we used. We simply ventured that workflow consists of basic elements.

- "action" such as a button click as input or an email as an output,
- "view" such as a data table or a dashboard
- "event" such as a timeline event which is a cause for an action
- "type" such as a project or summary

We then went on to generate a set of playing cards to be used in the interviews where the interviewees could use them to describe what something does, ignoring what it is called. It also helped lower the cognitive overhead of the interviewees in that it simplified what they needed to be describing. We found that this method unblocked our need for expansive coverage and successfully narrowed the language being used to describe the system needs.

Now with a believable set of needs covering the use cases of their main current systems, we set out to build a prototype using what we believed was a fixed set of reusable patterns. By the time we reached agreement on coverage and feature set, the pattern library expanded quite a bit but the design system made this factor less expensive than it would have been if we needed to generate UI elements along the way.

Ultimately, it was this prototype that became the basis for user acceptance, scope development and prioritization, and the design specifications document.

The Outcome

The bulk of Muse was developed by the Condé Nast Product Development team. It was then handed off to CNE for further development.

The research effort during the discovery and planning phase fundamentally redesigned the workflow practices for CNE.

Subsequently CNE has applied their learnings and will use those to further develop Muse.

Case Studies

Jay Meany - Design Leadership NYC 2020
jaymeany at gmail dot com