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For every tool or system we interact with, someone behind the scenes is powering it. This week, Chris Losacco is joined by Postlight’s Head of Product Design, Natalie Kurz, to discuss why you should focus not only on customer experience but how internal teams use the software. They share tips on how to know when to redesign your internal interfaces and make the case that by helping internal teams, you can reduce turnover, reduce inefficiencies, and ultimately improve your customer experience. 


Chris LoSacco: There’s a great documentary on Netflix about Beanie Babies. Have you seen that?

Natalie Kurz: Ooh, I have not, but I’m gonna add that to the queue.

Chris: Oh, it’s worth watching. It’s real good.


Chris: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Postlight podcast. I am Chris LoSacco, the president of Postlight, and today I am joined by our head of product design, Natalie Kurz. Natalie, welcome back to the show.

Natalie: Thank you, thanks for having me back.

Chris: Of course, always good to have you on. I wanted to talk to you today about… you know, we talk a lot on the show about design and user experience and customer experience and the importance of putting good interfaces in front of people. But something we haven’t really touched on is what you called to me “the unseen users.”

Natalie: Mhm. 

Chris: Which I would l9ove to dive into. So this is the idea… I’ll… I’m gonna put it to you. How would you define the unseen users?

Natalie: Yeah, absolutely. I think… the way I think about it is, for every externally-facing tool or website or piece of software, there’s some internal system powering it. And there’s someone powering that. Like, there’s actual people behind that system.

Chris: Yes.

Natalie: And so often, if we can make their jobs easier and more efficient, it actually benefits the end user, perhaps even more than anything we can do on what the end user is seeing.

Chris: I love this, this is right up my alley, ‘cause I think you’re a thousand percent right. I’m just gonna play devil’s advocate for a second.

Natalie: Please.

Chris: These interfaces are not really used by a lot of people. They are internal-facing, right? Our customers are not seeing them. Why invest any time in them? I’m picturing people listening to this, they’re like “Listen. We have a small design team. We have limited bandwidth. There’s only so much we can get done every sprint or every month. I’m gonna put my time on the interfaces that are facing customers. Why would I spend any time on the internal stuff?”

Natalie: Yeah, I’ve got a couple great examples of that. eBay is the first one that comes to mind, right?

Chris: Ooh.

Natalie: eBay is powered by, essentially, external internal users, if you will. Because I’m an individual, but I… in order for eBay to exist, I have to go on and list something. And I consider that an internal tool. It’s the thing that makes the end user experience a reality, right? So you’ve got the seller and the buyer. The seller is our internal user. And if listing something is a burden, I’m not gonna do it.

Chris: Mm.

Natalie: And if I don’t do it, there is no platform, there’s nothing to buy. So by not focusing on that, by just focusing on what quote-unquote the “end user,” in this case the buyers, are seeing, you’re actually extremely limiting the ability of your company to thrive and grow and succeed because if that initial point of entry for somebody, as a seller, is terrible, you know, they’re gonna go to Etsy, they’re gonna go to some other platform. Or they’re just gonna decide they’re gonna have a garage sale and sell it out of their garage, right? (Laughs)

Chris: Totally. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Natalie: If they can’t find the right tool online. So that’s the very first thing that comes to mind, is… you have to have that, like it’s not even a choice in some instances, right?

Chris: Yeah.

Natalie: Like, it has to be there for you to succeed.

Chris: I wanna pause. ‘Cause I think you’re making a really… a really good point.

Natalie: (Laughs)

Chris: And this is not exactly the point that I thought you were gonna make, but it’s also a great one.

Natalie: Mhm.

Chris: Which is, less about internal employees using the interface, and more about this idea that if you have a dual-sided marketplace…

Natalie: It’s both.

Chris: It’s both, right? Any kind of area where you are asking people to be not just the demand for your product but also the supply for your product, you need to make sure that those supply-side interfaces are really, really good. I think this… it’s a fantastic point. The same thing, as you were talking about eBay, what jumped to my mind was AirBnB. 

Natalie: Exactly. 

Chris: It’s the same kind of thing, right? AirBnB invested a lot of energy in making sure that you could browse interfaces really good, right? If I wanna go find a place to stay in Italy, because I’m traveling to Italy, it’s really easy to go browse and find those things. But it’s also really easy if I wanna host.

Natalie: Right.

Chris: And to list my place, and to see my reviews and to manage my profile, just in the same way that eBay realized, back in the early days of the web, “I gotta make sure that it’s really simple for people to list items for auction.”

Natalie: Yeah.

Chris: AirBnB did the same thing. “I gotta make sure it’s really simple to, you know, enable the transactions to happen on both sides of the equation.”

Natalie: Absolutely, yeah. And with things like eBay, so I did eBay back in the day when Beanie Babies were all the rage, and, you know, I needed some extra… extra cash as a high school and college student.

Chris: (Laughs)

Natalie: But yeah, I remember it being a… you know, and this was way back before user experience was really even anything anyone thought of, right? 

Chris: Right.

Natalie: You just thought about things in terms of features. But man, it became so much easier to list a bunch of stuff when they had the “copy listing” feature added.

Chris: Totally.

Natalie: Right? So even just small things like that can make a huge change in your business model, in the way that you’re able to expand, by just thinking about “What is it that those users need?”

Chris: Yes.

Natalie: If I’m gonna list 100 items, copy listing is a great thing to have.

Chris: Right. Not just thinking about how do we make it really easy to bid, how do we make it really easy to, you know, see my watched listings, right?

Natalie: Mhm.

Chris: All the buy-side stuff. That is important…

Natalie: Right.

Chris: And that is the first thing that many people would go to. But the sell-side stuff, the supply stuff, is just as important. So I think it’s a great first point to make, especially when you’re thinking about some kind of marketplace platform, you have to make sure that you’re investing… I mean, frankly, sometimes even more energy goes into the supplier side.

Natalie: Right. Because if I wanna buy it, I’m gonna buy it. I’m gonna figure out a way to buy it. Right?

Chris: Right.

Natalie: If you’re talking about, like you said, that supply-demand kind of thing. And it goes even after the bidding process, when you get into the shipping process and the tracking, and what information is available? And all of that is so often kind of an afterthought.

Chris: Right. But both sides are really, really, really important. 

Natalie: Exactly. It’s that entire end-to-end experience. So it’s really… you know, we talk about end-to-end experiences, typically focused on when your end user comes in and when your end user comes out. Let’s widen that and think about when your backend, your internal user is in, and when your internal user is out of the system.

Chris: Love it.

Natalie: Right? And that becomes your end-to-end.

Chris: Right. So continue with point number two, the MTA. 

Natalie: Oh yeah. So this is, this is I think what you were thinking I was gonna talk about more, which is truly an internal team. So, with the MTA, and correct me if I get any details wrong because I was not part of that project, but, you know, that whole project was about enabling a very small handful of people to administer millions of messages to millions of people. So that entire project, the success completely depended on the ease of which we could help these people quickly send out messages, send them in real time, manage them, schedule them, right? All those things that would be important. If we didn’t do that, those messages wouldn’t be out there. They wouldn’t be easy. They wouldn’t be fast. Right?

Chris: Exactly.

Natalie: And so that’s where the whole project was actually very focused on… the outcome was external-facing, but the enablement was internal-facing.

Chris: So, I wanna briefly summarize what this project was, for those that are not familiar. So we built a communications platform in concert with the MTA. The MTA runs the transit system in New York City. The subways, the buses, the commuter railroads. And the challenge that they had was, how do we get rider messaging out into the world? And that means it’s displayed on screens on stations, it means it’s on their website, it means it gets published through third-party channels like Google Maps when you get transit directions, or email and SMS was another output for them. And you’re exactly right. It’s a small group of people, the MTA has a fantastic team that is really dedicated to getting rider messaging out. But the impact is huge.

Natalie: Exactly.

Chris: Because the transit system is used by millions of people every single day. And so, yes, there was a small user group, but the throughput that was going through the system was really, really high.

Natalie: Exactly.

Chris: So, the point you were making, which I think is a great one, is that if you think about the internal interface in terms of impact, it’s huge in terms of the scale.

Natalie: The magnitude, yeah.

Chris: The magnitude that you are addressing.

Natalie: Yeah.

Chris: When you are looking at a small user base, but huge number of impacted users, if you want to think of it that way.

Natalie: Mhm. It shifts the conversation.

Chris: Totally.

Natalie: You know, a lot of the work that we do is on systems, right? And a lot of times they’re external-facing systems. But again, there’s that thing behind them that’s powering them. There’s a person processing the data that comes in. There’s the person who is entering information, right? So if you think about… content management systems is a great example, right? Thinking about even how are you designing the content management system or customizing it.

Chris: Yes.

Natalie: Whether you’re using WordPress or SalesForce… like, you know, customizing SalesForce and Sharepoint’s a billion-dollar business. Right?

Chris: (Laughs) That’s right.

Natalie: Like, what’s… that’s something that sometimes… all companies do is go in and customize those things. Let’s give that kind of care and dedication to maybe the smaller things. So if you think about, you know… we work a lot in publishing. There’s somebody putting those articles in.

Chris: Mhm.

Natalie: Right? There’s somebody putting that information in. And so, as designers, if we don’t understand how they work, right? If we just focused our research on external… how are people consuming news, and like, are they using their phones, and how do they want to see videos, we have to be talking to the internal folks who are actually putting that content in to discover what kind of metadata’s important? Do you need character limits? What image-size ratios… you know, having been on the other side of the fence, putting content in, I can’t tell you how frustrating it is to have to input six different image sizes…

Chris: Sure. (Laughs)

Natalie: Because, it’s just, the designer didn’t consider that.

Chris: Right.

Natalie: Right? Keeping the ratios the same.

Chris: Yes.

Natalie: You know, do you need a separate field for headlines versus putting it in the body? Right? Just tiny little details. What formatting do you need access to? All of these things can make a huge impact on how fast and efficiently someone can do their job of entering in that content. And then the follow-up of that is, talk to your engineers. And you have to make sure the engineers have all this information, and are able to customize the CMS or build the CMS in such a way that it enables those tasks to be completed.

Chris: So, there are two things you said that I want to make sure we highlight for people.

Natalie: Yeah.

Chris: The first one is, again, in the same vein as when we’re talking about the project with the MTA, the communications platform…

Natalie: Mhm.

Chris: Small group of users, massive impact. It’s the same kind of thing when you’re thinking about building a publishing platform, right?

Natalie: Exactly.

Chris: You have a small editorial team, but adding friction to their workflow is translated to the users, the readers, right? The consumers of the media site.

Natalie: Mhm.

Chris: Then have to pay the price, because things are not as well-formatted, they’re slower to get out, the content is maybe not as good as the authors would have wanted it to be. And so the readers suffer, right? The end-users actually do sort of pay the price, so to speak, for the internal systems not being properly designed. So it’s the same thing: small user group but big impact when you think about what happens on the other side. And then the point about the engineering team is so good. This is why we’re such big believers in staffing cross-functional teams.

Natalie: A hundred percent.

Chris: Because you have to think about not just designing in a blue-sky kind of way, but in a very, this is real software that we’re going to put in front of people, right? We’re gonna have actual things that users are typing into fields in our interface. And so, how do we make sure that we are designing it in such a way that it can be built and actually used in the way that we expect. And that disconnect… I mean, internal systems live and die by that disconnect, right? And how many times have we been part of a project where the designer designs one thing, and the engineer’s like, you know, “That’s too hard,” or “We’re not gonna do it that way”…

Natalie: Right.

Chris: And then it gets implemented in a way that is completely… maybe not completely, but it’s not usable! Right? 

Natalie: Right.

Chris: It is not how it was intended to be used. And then, you know, you pay the same price on the other end.

Natalie: To clarify something I said earlier, it’s not just about letting the engineers know, it’s about including them in that conversation from the get-go. Right?

Chris: One hundred percent.

Natalie: It’s bringing them into that very initial conversation of, “Okay, what information do you need access to to be able to enter in…” even just the order of your fields, right?

Chris: Yeah! All of it!

Natalie: So you can quickly tab through… like, all of it. And then have an engineer weigh in on going “Okay, that’s easy, that’s easy, ooh, that’s going to be tricky, maybe there’s something else we could do,” or “That’s just flat-out impossible with the system that we have.” Right? So…

Chris: Right. So let’s think about a different way.

Natalie: Exactly. So let’s solve it now, as opposed to designing something and then getting to the point where you’re scrambling to implement, you find out you can’t implement, and then you’re either implementing these crazy workarounds, or engineers are just kind of coming up with whatever they can the best they can given the time they have, right? And all of that effort is out the window.

Chris: All of that effort is out the window. That’s right. The opposite of this is also true, right? Because when you have… when you are on the receiving end of a internal-facing experience that’s obviously badly designed, you can almost feel it. Like, have you ever been registering for, like, a doctor’s appointment or something, and you can tell the person on the other end of the phone is like, struggling to fill out the fields or use the interface?

Natalie: Mhm.

Chris: And it takes four times as long as it should, and something doesn’t get entered right, and then you get a bill and your last name is misspelled…

Natalie: (Laughs)

Chris: This is all because of a bad interface! This is bad software that I… you know, I never saw as the end-user, so to speak…

Natalie: Mhm.

Chris: But I’m affected. Because the internal systems are a slog for the employees to work through. And I feel like there’s so many examples of that, where someone thought “Well, we don’t really have to invest in that because it’s not really going to be seen by our customers,” but the reality is, the customer pays the price.

Natalie: The customer experience is the thing that’s affected the most.

Chris: Exactly.

Natalie: You know, you mentioned making doctors’ appointments. I think the medical industry is a fantastic example of where this literally can be life and death. You know, how well your systems are built, how well they talk to each other… every time I go to the doctors’ office I kind of peek around at the screens, I’m curious what their interfaces look like, right? I’ve designed some of those in my career, and I’m curious what, you know, do they have to go to sixteen different screens? Are they closing out of applications to get into the other one ‘cause they have to enter your medication in this other thing? Right? Just… kind of just absorbing information and thinking through, “Wow, that must be really difficult to do all day.” And if that’s taking twice as long, that’s less time with your patients.

Chris: Yeah.

Natalie: And this also increases the opportunity for errors and other types of mistakes that, you know, have real impacts on people’s lives. So it’s not even just about convenience.

Chris: Yeah. That is such a good point. I mean, several good points. But the idea that if I’m spending time struggling with the interface, it’s taking time away from the other thing I could be doing, right?

Natalie: Right.

Chris: In the case of a doctor, it’s spending time with a patient, right? In the case of a technician, it’s spending time working on whatever they’re supposed to do.

Natalie: Mhm.

Chris: We had someone come to our house a few months ago to work on our furnace, and I feel like he spent as much time in his truck filling out paperwork as he did fixing our furnace. (Laughs) And it was like… there’s obviously, you know, he’s gotta… I mean, I’m generalizing, right?

Natalie: Right.

Chris: But there’s a work-supplied iPad with a screen that nobody thought to really properly design to make it really easy, and now they’re spending hours a day, when you sum that up across their whole workforce, and…

Natalie: Mhm.

Chris: It’s a lot of wasted time and wasted energy, right?

Natalie: It is. Absolutely.

Chris: That could be channeled into making your customers’ experiences better, right? They could have served maybe six people in a day as opposed to two. So, it’s just… the downstream effects of not caring about these internal interfaces are just massive.

Natalie: It is. Another example is a helpdesk, right?

Chris: That’s a great example.

Natalie: You call in to get, troubleshoot something or to get information. I worked on a project for Medicare/Medicaid that was all about integrating data so that when someone called in, you know, the person that you’re talking to has access to other important medical things that you may want to know.

Chris: Yes.

Natalie: So something like, I’m calling in because I have a question about my benefits, but the person I’m speaking with also sees, like, I’m due for my A1C bloodwork done. Right?

Chris: Sure, yeah, sure.

Natalie: And they can remind me to do that. So, having those integrated systems… so, that becomes a lot about data, that actually has nothing to do with design. That becomes a data problem. But that often is not part of the conversation. But if you think about how often you’ve maybe called in and tried to troubleshoot something, or get information about an account, and they’re like “We don’t have access to that. That’s somebody else’s department. They have access to that system.”

Chris: Yeah.

Natalie: You know, all of that comes back to the customer experience.

Chris: It’s all interrelated. And you know, when we’re talking about the healthcare sector there are definitely concerns around data privacy and such, but for some of these things, there are ways to make it smoother and easier than it needs to be, you know? Or than it is today. I’ll give you another example that recently came up. I was having a conversation with somebody who works at a company where they have a large contingent workforce, meaning the workforce turns over a lot.

Natalie: Mm. Okay.

Chris: They have people joining and leaving on a regular basis. And they have an app that is, like a mobile app, that is meant to be used out in the field when people are working. And they had this huge problem, because they were bringing on so many new people, and then they had to spend all this time training them on the app…

Natalie: Yes.

Chris: …before they could be productive. And they were like, “This is not… it’s not a one-time cost, it’s an all the time cost, because we have a lot of turnover in our staff on the ground.” And so, what this particular company did is they invested in rethinking that particular interface, to make it zero-training. Meaning you could come on, right, you get a 30-minute primer, and then boom, you’re out in the field and you’re not trying to struggle with the mobile app anymore. You’re trying to do the work you’re supposed to do, right?

Natalie: Yeah.

Chris: And the mobile app just gets out of your way. And that’s compounding interest, right? That’s gonna pay dividends continuing into the future…

Natalie: Absolutely.

Chris: …because the more people come on and use it, the more savings they’re seeing over time. And it’s hard, sometimes, I think, for executives to, like… do that math, but once you’re on the other side it’s huge to the bottom line, because…

Natalie: Absolutely.

Chris: There’s this inefficiency in the system that you’re just able to wipe out by thinking about, you know, redoing these internal interfaces.

Natalie: Yeah. Training’s another fantastic example of where a good internal system will save you tons of money and time. And just create a whole lot better efficiency with the folks who are doing the work. In a sense, you almost want that experience to be invisible, right? You want them to kind of forget that that’s what they’re doing, right? They’re just there to do their job.

Chris: RIght. The less people have to quote-unquote “learn” the interface, right?

Natalie: Yeah.

Chris: Some interfaces, it’s worth learning, right? Because there’s a payoff, right? They’re complex, but there’s a payoff in sort of power, right? What you can do with the interface makes it worth the upfront investment. But for a lot of interfaces, simpler is better. Straightforward is better.

Natalie: Mhm.

Chris: And just get people productive as fast as you possibly can. I mean, I know this is something that we think about, and our design team loves, is how do we get people to get in and get productive and feel delighted using an interface as fast as possible?

Natalie: Right. Mhm.

Chris: This reminds me… I’m thinking about the person who’s trying to make a decision about this, right? And they’re like “We have this interface, it’s working okay.” So how does someone know when to rethink an internal interface, you know what I mean?

Natalie: Yeah.

Chris: How do you make that jump from “It’s okay and maybe it could be better, but I just don’t… I can’t exactly quantify the impact, should I go redesign my internal platform or not?”

Natalie: Yeah. I mean, I think the answer is the same that I would give someone if they were thinking about, “Should I redesign my ecommerce platforms?” Talk to your users. Talk to the employees, right? And find out, what are your biggest pain points on your day-to-day. Or watch them use… watch them for an hour doing their jobs. It’s unbelievable how much you can learn by just being a fly on the wall and literally just watching someone work, move through systems and see where they get frustrated. ‘Cause a lot of times, people are doing the job day in and day out, they forget where they get frustrated ‘cause they’ve just adjusted.

Chris: Right.

Natalie: Or they’ve created this workaround that makes no sense to anyone else but them, and somebody observing can see that. So talk to them. Find out where their downsides are, where they’re struggling. And it may be that where they’re struggling is easy to fix. ‘Cause that’s the thing, is you don’t have to think about them from a complete redesign, right? If you think about it on the flipside, on an ecommerce side, sometimes just moving the Buy Now button is all you needed to do. Right? It could be that simple, even for an internal product.

Chris: Yeah, that’s a great point. It sounds so simple, but so many people don’t do it, right?

Natalie: Mhm.

Chris: Just watch your users. Just go look at them and look at the interfaces, and you’ll start to see where the real problems are and where the potential efficiency gains could be.

Natalie: I feel like that, honestly, that kind of research is really the best bang for your buck. In all circumstances.

Chris: Yeah.

Natalie: Almost all circumstances, I’ll say. Because, you know, with an hour of your time you can learn so much, so much more than somebody could just tell you. Right? ‘Cause again, listening to someone talk about what they do and then actually watching them do it are completely different things, ‘cause you’re viewing it from completely different points of view. So, you know, that’s a whole conversation for another time, I suppose.

Chris: Yeah. How to do good research, yeah. 

Natalie: Yeah, exactly. But, you know, in this case that can be a really simple, minimal amount of time invested, kind of answer to that question, of “Should I spend time on my internal tools?” And you might find out, no, it’s fine. People, it could be better but it’s fine. Let’s spend our money elsewhere. Right? But I would bet more often than not, there are some things that you could do, you know, with a little bit of investment to really increase efficiency. And even just satisfaction of the job, right? It might help with turnover, right?

Chris: Yeah.

Natalie: If I don’t have to deal with this clunky system every single day, I’m just gonna like my job more and I’m gonna want to stay.

Chris: Oh, that’s real. Yes. I know personally people who have left jobs because they don’t wanna fight with the system anymore.

Natalie: Yeah. And talk about a sunken cost, right? Bringing someone… you know, the cost of hiring, training, loss of productivity there, that’s huge.

Chris: I don’t know if you feel this way, I feel like the half-life of software interfaces is short. Meaning, if you’ve got a platform that has been around, you know, for ten years, even for five years, that’s like the time that you need to start to look at things. I think you made a great point before. It doesn’t need to be a complete redesign. You don’t necessarily need to start with a blank sheet of paper. Sometimes you do. Sometimes you’re like…

Natalie: Mhm.

Chris: “…We really need to rethink this from first principles, because we need to, we need to get at the root.”

Natalie: Right.

Chris: And to get at the root, you really have to start from a blue-sky kind of picture.

Natalie: Yeah.

Chris: But that’s not always necessary, right? Sometimes you’ve got an interface, maybe it’s been around for 7-8 years, it’s showing its age, but it’s mostly working.

Natalie: Mhm.

Chris: And you can go in and do a, like a targeted strike to improve certain views or certain pages, and make things, you know, 30, 40% better without having to rethink the whole platform. There are some interfaces… again, we’ve been in this situation, right? Where they are 15, 20, 25 years old, and you’re like, this is a revolution, not an evolution. We need to start…

Natalie: Yeah.

Chris: …and think big here. Because there were some decisions made that are just, you know, the world of software moves fast, and they’re just out of date, and we can do a lot better nowadays.

Natalie: Yeah. And I mean, that… in those circumstances it comes down to the fundamental technology in the engineering. Right? You know, mobile phones weren’t a thing. Mobile views weren’t a thing. Responsive wasn’t a thing.

Chris: Bingo.

Natalie: So you have to completely re-architect and rethink that stuff, and five years from now who knows what that kind of revolution’s going to be, where all the things we’re building now all of a sudden don’t make sense because there’s some new technology. You know? Now we have to make sure that everything is… you know, fits on a watch screen. Or whatever, right? Whatever the next innovation is.

Chris: Yeah. I thought you were gonna say ChatGPT. But yes.

Natalie: That’s, you know, a whole other thing as well.

Chris: Right.

Natalie: But technology moves so quickly that, yeah. Sometimes it’s not just the design. Oftentimes it’s not just the design. You have to look at how things are technically made, and that’s why engineering something really really well is important. Because it gives you flexibility in the future, you don’t get completely locked into one way of doing things, right?

Chris: Yes. Exactly.

Natalie: So again, it all works together. This is where that cross-functional team comes in. If your engineers understand your users, they can help build a platform that’s flexible for the future of what that platform needs to do.

Chris: That’s right. Good platforms are architected and built to evolve, right?

Natalie: Exactly.

Chris: Hundred percent agree. This also reminds me of the idea, and I think this is really, you know, it’s tipped from niche to kind of mainstream now, which is design systems. And thinking about…

Natalie: Yes.

Chris: …having a component library for your platform and a set of reusable tools that you can apply as you are rethinking interfaces, or if you’re starting a new interface from scratch. Many of our clients now have a design… like, an in-house design system that they use for their platform.

Natalie: Mhm. Yeah.

Chris: And it’s a huge, huge, huge productivity gain, and it makes the whole experience better, right?

Natalie: Absolutely.

Chris: Because there’s a consistency that gets applied. So I wonder, you know, this is a little bit of a leading question, ‘cause I want to ask you about something that we built, that our team built, for public consumption, but first, do you agree that design systems can help here?

Natalie: Hundred percent. And there are… there are surprisingly a lot of designers who are anti-design system, because they feel like it sucks the creativity out of our jobs.

Chris: Oh, interesting.

Natalie: And, you know, they’re like “Oh, everything’s just gonna look the same, and so it’s boring and it’s not fun to design anything anymore. I can’t think outside the box ‘cause everything’s been done for me.”

Chris: Interesting.

Natalie: I think you see that less and less these days, but certainly when design systems first came around, that was a pretty prevalent attitude, I feel like. And I think it’s something that feels very antithetical to what we do. Because the way I look at it is, like, don’t reinvent the wheel. Solve the solved problems, right? There’s best practices for forum design. You don’t need to rethink that. Spend your time on the unique things that your users need, or that this system needs to do. Right? That’s where the creativity comes in, is solve those unique complex problems that are uniquely for this system, as opposed to trying to rethink how a shopping cart works.

Chris: You’re nailing it.

Natalie: Having a design system gets you to that point so much faster.

Chris: Yes.

Natalie: For me, that’s not… that’s not taking away creativity, that’s giving you the opportunity to be creative where it matters. 

Chris: Oh my God. I want that on a t-shirt.

Natalie: (Laughs) 

Chris: That is… such a great way to encapsulate, you know, the benefit you get, right? The acceleration you get from using a design system, which is, there’s a bunch of solved problems that I can just draw from, and the reason why designers shouldn’t be intimidated, or shouldn’t feel boxed in, because you’re right that it’s actually just a baseline that you can then build on, and then put your creative energies toward the unique problems. I think you said it beautifully. So, hopefully that is what… you know, as more and more people get comfortable with design systems, hopefully that’s what is taken away, right? Use it as an accelerator to get you to the baseline faster, and then really think about how you can build on top of it. And guess what? If the design system boxes you in in a way that doesn’t work for your particular use case, you can (a) change it, or (b), break the box. 

Natalie: Mhm.

Chris: You know, come up with something that fits within the design system but maybe pushes its edges a little bit. Because we’ve seen that happen to.

Natalie: So I worked on a project that was involved with the United States Web Design system.

Chris: Okay.

Natalie: Right? So this is the federal web design system that all federal websites are supposed to be using. And one of the… you know, we talked to, I think 35, 45 different agencies, right, to understand what their needs were in this space. And what they all said was, “We want to be creative, we want ours to stand out, we want to be different, we’re different.”

Chris: Mm. We’re different. We’re unique. Yeah.

Natalie: Right? We have to differentiate, right? And so it was up to us to kind of help them understand how you could use this basic framework and still customize it in a way, and still utilize it in a way, that was fresh and unique for what their needs were, but still adhere to all the principles. ‘Cause one of the great things about, one of the most important things about a design system is you have key components built in. Things like responsiveness, things like accessibility. Right? All of that becomes core and, like, unseparable from the design system, right? It’s part of it.

Chris: Built in.

Natalie: And so you can’t screw that up, right?

Chris: Right.

Natalie: And when you’re trying to build things fast and well, that becomes critical.

Chris: Yep.

Natalie: But it doesn’t mean that you lose that creativity. Even on a visual side, right? You can re-skin a design system a thousand different ways and have it visually look different, but function the same.

Chris: Yes.

Natalie: And that’s the key. The goal is, is that when someone goes to a website, whether it’s part of the federal government or part of a corporation that has, you know, fifteen different entities, it feels familiar. Right? Think about, like, Microsoft. Right? Word and Excel. You learn to use one, it’s very easy to learn to use the other. They’re completely different, right? But because they’re based off the design system and common thinking, it increases adoption, it makes it easier to use when you’re thinking about internal systems, or even consumer-facing systems like that one.

Chris: That’s right. So, tell us about what the Postlight design team released into the world recently.

Natalie: Yeah, absolutely. So, as I mention, I’d worked on United States web design systems, and I’ve worked on some others in the past as well, and one of the things that struck me looking through Figma, so Figma has a community…

Chris: Real quick, can you define Figma? Just for folks listening who aren’t familiar with it.

Natalie: Yes. So Figma is kind of one of the leading tools that designers use right now to build wire frames, to do design. You can make it interactive, you can build interactive prototypes. So if you’re familiar with things like Sketch or Adobe XD, it’s kind of a new iteration of that.

Chris: Great.

Natalie: And it has this community that, where you can publish templates and other types of things for folks to just copy and download and use, right? It’s free, and it’s just a great way… there’s lots of plugins and other types of things that help expand upon this platform. Which is really fantastic. So… as I was looking through, we were talking about design systems and I was looking through… and there are design systems within Figma, and there’s tons of design systems, public ones out in the world, things like Carbon, Material UI. Those exist, they’re out there, you can get them on the web for free. Right? Download all of the components and start using them. So it wasn’t as much about that. What we wanted to do is, we wanted to take something that was somewhat design-agnostic, which sounds a little strange, but let me explain that. So…

Chris: Okay. Design-agnostic design system.

Natalie: Exactly. Where you can apply whatever types of colors… like, we weren’t there to define your fonts and your colors and things like that.

Chris: Gotcha.

Natalie: What that system is there to do is to help establish principles and essentially usage guidelines, ‘cause that’s… the design system is just the tool. It’s just the wood.

Chris: Right.

Natalie: If I don’t have instructions about how to put the wood together into something that makes sense, in a way that someone can use, then it doesn’t matter what material I have.

Chris: I’m picturing, like, you buy a dresser from IKEA, and you open the box…

Natalie: Right. 

Both: And there’s no instructions. 

Chris: (Laughs)

Natalie: Exactly. Exactly! And so, what we wanted to do with this in the Figma community was provide instructions. So we have very basic types of components, along with usage guidelines. So, an example of, like, when to use a checkbox versus a radio button versus a drop-down. Right? There’s guidance in there around all of these kinds of best practices.

Chris: And it’s written in prose, right? 

Natalie: It’s written in prose. Yeah, it’s written in content. So it actually, Figma has the components, you could just… if you want to ignore the… if you’re an experienced designer, you don’t need all that, you could ignore all that and you could just pull the components and start using them in Figma. But, especially for folks who are more, you know, earlier in their career, or maybe haven’t done this kind of design work before, right? Systems design work. There’s a lot there that can be missed, and so we wanted a way, and it’s… you know, we have a beta out there right now, it’s very, very new, and the plan is to keep expanding it, right, as we get feedback or as we learn things. But just to have something out there in the community written from kind of a thought-leadership perspective, and bringing those things together. ‘Cause there’s lots of places you go on the web to learn best practices about design, right? But we wanted to mesh that together with actually the things you use to design.

Chris: It’s right there next to the components, yeah.

Natalie: It’s right there. Exactly. It’s… exactly.

Chris: That’s great. And it’s free, and…

Natalie: It’s free! Yeah!

Chris: And you don’t have to have a relationship with us to use it.

Natalie: Nope, you can just look up Postlight. It’s… I think it’s the only thing we’ve published thus far. There, I’m sure there will be more things to come. But it’s right there. it’s basically a component library to help you build your own design system for the projects that you’re working on, along with some written principles and guidance around things like accessibility, interaction design, how to use things, where to use things, how to make things work together in a way that’s really going to work for your users.

Chris: And a few designers from your team, Natalie, wrote a post introducing the component library on our website.

Natalie: Yes.

Chris: And so we’ll link that in the show notes for people who are listening and who are interested and want to hear more about this, and maybe click through and see it on Figma’s community.

Natalie: Absolutely.

Chris: What I hope is that people are listening and they’re thinking, (a) if I don’t have a design system, I want to dip my toe in the water and maybe Postlight’s examples are a good way to do that, and then (b) we’re gonna figure out how to apply our design systems to our internal tools, because at the end of the day, great experiences are defined when people love to use them. Right? We want people who love to use the interfaces that they are working with on a daily basis.

Natalie: Mhm.

Chris: And if you’re thinking about your internal system as you listen to this, and you’re like “Man, I hate fighting with that thing every day,” reach out to us. We want to talk to you, we want to help you make it better. Or even if you just want to vent about it and get some advice, we love that stuff too.

Natalie: Absolutely.

Chris: So please reach out, me, Natalie, Gina and the team, we would love to have a chat about how you are struggling with what you are trying to improve.

Natalie: Absolutely.

Chris: Thank you for coming on.

Natalie: Of course.

Chris: This was a great conversation. The unseen users, we’re fighting for the interfaces everywhere.

Natalie: Always.

Chris: Alright, thanks Natalie, we’ll talk to you soon.

Natalie: Thanks so much.

Chris: Alright, bye.