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

Remote Team

Many illustrators design and work remotely

Liz Meyer / Shauna Lynn / Grace Sandford / Alleanna Harris / Megan Piontkowski / Jade Johnson

A few links I clicked on from Dan’s list …

I was happy to see a call by Dan Mall for illustrators out there, and the discussion thread has a bunch of talented folks to impart a heightened sense of humanity to any digital project out there in remotelandia.

Illustration is a field where working remotely is quite common. And many writers do the same as well. So it means there’s an incredible amount of talent to tap into out there for remote design teams with respect to imagery and content — what are you waiting for? —JM

Remote Team

Fixing flat tires together is a bonding experience, but …

Next week is my customer support rotation week — it’s a required practice at Automattic since its very first days of operation. So yes, I’ll be the person on the other end of your live chat session or email support question working to help you solve your problems within one of our services at Automattic.

Automattic works super well as a distributed company culture, I believe, because of its annual customer support rotation policy. For a full week, every employee spends a week on the customer support lines.

One of our newer designers, Dezzie Garcia, wrote a fab post about her experience coming into Automattic:

All new hires at Automattic are required to spend three weeks as a Happiness Engineer, solving…basically anything one can create with a site. Plus anything that the phrase “systems thinking” adds to its scope.

Dezzie Garcia

The upside of the practice is that it gets us close to our customers. It’s great that we have a common experience across employees. But let me talk about the one downside of this practice that I’m currently working to correct internally. 

The downside for designers, however, is that it makes us fixate on the problems within the experience versus understanding the overall motive of the customer.

I liken it to fixing someone’s flat tire without asking them where they were originally intending to go as a destination. And why? Because it’s easy to forget that their goal isn’t to be using our service — their goal is to achieve some higher purpose rather than fix a microdetail for how a digital service works/behaves. 

And that’s especially important for designers because the instinct is to make the microdetail work perfectly. Or even making a larger detail work flawlessly.

Yet at the end of the day, it’s the perfect recipe for forgetting that the customer desired to make enough money to pay for rent that month. So making something boldface or having an image appear with a beautiful border isn’t going to be the make-or-break difference with the customer’s larger goals. OMG I forget this all the time because I love to tweak little things because it’s just so satisfying …

So the moral of the story is that distributed cultures that all do the same thing together is a key factor in creating cohesiveness. And it’s also important to add extra lessons around those customs to ensure that a design culture can takeaway the key learnable lessons — otherwise they can quickly get lost in the often disorienting ether of a remote work environment. Note that I haven’t figured this out yet, but that’s why I like to blog — to think aloud. —JM

Remote Team

Remote work in the 2018 #DesignInTech Report

42% of designers surveyed work most only on premise. The rest work blended (41%) or all-remote (16%).

2018 Design in Tech Report
Remote Team

25+ insights from remote design team members

This is a set of tips we’ve gathered at Automattic Design from less than a year ago. Enjoy! —JM

Getting Started for Remote Designers

Design Processes for Remote Designers

Customer and User Research for Remote Designers

Teamwork and Leadership for Remote Designers

Environment and IRL Hacks for Remote Designers

Addressing Isolation Challenges for Remote Designers

Toolkits and Systems for Remote Designers

Remote Team

Thoughts on leading a remote team

Update for 2020

Since sharing this post, I’ve joined Publicis Sapient as Chief Experience Officer in 2019 to bring a computational mindset to established companies so they can become more “AI Ready.” You can learn more about our approach to remote work and also about our rapid response teams at our evolving microsite.

I thought I’d take advantage of Gutenberg‘s imminent release to use it as often as I can for what it was designed for: writing. But I’ve been wondering what to write about …

On a recent visit to Silicon Valley, I noted how there are more than a few major technology companies that are wondering how to make a fully distributed (aka “remote”) design team work well. They were all asking me how it’s done at Automattic. The ? went off in my head.

I feel so fortunate to have stepped deep into the territory of all-distributed teams by joining the Automattic universe 22 months ago, and I have enjoyed every minute of it. But I haven’t had time to really write about the experience. So let me start!

First of all I’m using a cool “WP LinkedIn Auto Publish” plugin so I can connect to an audience I have over there automatically. I had wanted to connect in my Medium account but unfortunately they haven’t updated the plugin … but I guess I can just copy and paste stuff directly over there.

Secondly, I should start out by finding what folks would like to know about remote design teams. Let me start with a rough framework like: 1/ How does it work? 2/ How it doesn’t work? 3/ How do you make it work better? If I really get going I’ll open a TypeForm to gather more information.

How does it work?

Automattic is a 700-person all-remote company with one key secret to how we work well in an all-distributed fashion: it’s got to work. In other words, it all works well because it’s the only way that we operate. We have no headquarters to rely upon, so we figure out how to make-do without one.

A few years ago our CEO Matt Mullenweg shared this key thought:

“While it’s possible to work remotely, there’s a bonding and a familiarity that develops when you’re in person together that’s irreplaceable.”


And that’s the second secret to Automattic: we get together IRL (In Real Life) throughout the year. We gather in all kinds of places all around the world in small groups and across teams — and what makes it cost effective is that we don’t have a physical infrastructure to pay for or any other large capital outlay. Cool, huh?

As a small courtesy the 2019 #DesignInTech Report PDF link and the 2018 #DesignInTech Report PDF link will be sent to you soon after you sign up! —@johnmaeda

Lastly, the third secret to Automattic is the people. We’ve got great people who are passionate about making the Web a better place. The idea of safeguarding the Internet’s global, distributed nature is sacrosanct for us — so our values overlap perfectly with how we operate.

Thanks for visiting, and I’ll try to keep this up so I can get through all three pieces of my rough framework. So next up: How it doesn’t work? —JM