Remote Team

Data, Inclusion, Craft Principles at Automattic Design

Originally published on

We’ve spent the last half year at Automattic Design finding our design principles. That might sound easy to do when so much has been written out there about design. But we’re the world’s largest all-remote design team, so we felt there was a need to brew our own.

  1. Start from curiosity. Welcome and seek out difference.
  2. Intuition is grounded in interpretation through iteration.
  3. Search for and tell stories about people, not just data.
  4. Consistency builds trust. Speed builds trust. Simplicity builds trust.

The design team has gone through many iterations, and will likely go through many more. In essence, our design principles are all about people. And they’re essentially about our constant need to understand people who are unlike ourselves in order to design better products and services for the entire world. How do we go about serving these people best? We need to listen to them.

So we’re now understanding our customers through “organically-farmed” customer research practices that have been a pleasure to get to watch grow and set root within our design community. In addition, we’re all fans of Rochelle King and her mantra to be “data aware.” And Kat Holmes joined Automattic’s Board of Advisors last year — we’re super proud to have her tutelage on the inclusive design front.

I’ve enjoyed seeing the four principles of Automattic Design emerge because it’s how I’ve tried to serve my own customers: namely, the designers of Automattic. Let me use the principles in the context of explaining how they apply.

Start from curiosity. Welcome and seek out difference.

From day one of my arrival, I’ve espoused the importance of Kim Scott’s radical candor concept. I use it in the context about the feedback I give, but it’s often more about the feedback I look to receive. The designers of Automattic have grown to be super candid with me about their difference in opinions about directions I’ve taken. It’s so much easier to serve one’s constituents when you hear immediate and direct feedback with candor. Because I can take it in and immediately decide how to course correct, if necessary. And it’s often needed (wink) — I’m not at all perfect.

Intuition is grounded in interpretation through iteration.

I’ve often had an idea set in my mind when working with someone on my team, and then it’s been completely changed after actually working with them. It’s a process of learning to work with someone else — and it goes in both directions as they learn me. Being hypersensitive to how it goes well with someone, or how it doesn’t go well, isn’t a matter of trying just one time. You need to try over and over again until the connection forms. Iteration is truly everything — and intuition becomes an end result that is crafted, instead of just something you use on the front end and never bother to correct or reshape. That’s called guessing!

Search for and tell stories about people, not just data.

I find that the more senior that you get, the more you like to throw down numbers. Numbers sound awesome when you’re trying to make a point. And then it happens — you forget that the numbers connect with real people. It’s so easy to get caught in the ego of rationality. I’ve been lucky to have many mentors who’ve always cautioned me to not “go numerical” even when my most mathy-ness tries to take over my brain. It’s always paid dividends for me to focus on the people first; and the numerical data is a great special sauce to add to the overall mix.

Consistency builds trust. Speed builds trust. Simplicity builds trust.

In my book The Laws of Simplicity, my favorite law has always been the Law of Trust.

> Excerpted from Page 1 of my book, The Laws of Simplicity

Imagine an electronic device with only one unlabeled button on its surface. Pressing the button would complete your immediate task. Do you want to write a letter to Aunt Mabel? Go ahead and press the button. Click. A letter has been sent. You know with absolute certainty that it went out and expressed exactly what you needed. That’s simplicity. And we are not far from that reality.

Every day the computer becomes increasingly smarter. It already knows your name, address, and credit card number. Knowing where Aunt Mabel lives and having watched you write a letter to her before, the computer can send a fair approximation of a kindly email to her from you. Just click a button and the deed could be done—finito. Whether the message is coherent and keeps you on dear Aunt Mabel’s Christmas list is another story, but that is the price of not having to think. In simplicity we trust.

Why? Because trust is all that matters when people are involved. And when people use your digital products, you (= your products) need to be trustworthy.

Okay! My blogging break is over. Thanks for reading! —JM