Don't reinvent the wheel — break the wheel

Last week, I asked how you handle design documentation at your organization. A list member used the feedback form at the bottom of the email to write:

“Feels like I’m always reinventing the wheel. Definitely not documenting design. This letter got me thinking, “Hmm. How would that look? …”

I’m not entirely sure what “reinventing the wheel” means in this case, but I do know how easy it can be to slip into familiar patterns when you’re running a business. And documenting design can help break those old patterns.

Today, let’s look at what that would look like.

What is design documentation?

Design documentation is a record the changes you make in your marketing, sales process, or service processes so that you can later measure the impact of those decisions on business goals.

Any decision that aims to optimize a process or improve an experience to increase revenue or decrease costs is a design decision.

So, when I talk about documenting design decisions, I’m talking about keeping a record of your business decisions. 

That may seem ridiculously obvious, but I’ll be surprised if someone at your organization is making a record of all the initiatives you’re working on so you can later measure their impact.

This might still sound somewhat vague, but before we talk about how to document your decisions, let’s look at why might want to.  

Culture is a fancy word for habits

The other day I stopped by the deli to pick up some ice cream. I knew what I was after; I’d be out of there in 2 minutes.

I stepped out of the car, and just as I was about to lock it behind me, I thought about how there’s practically no crime in the village of Huntington — certainly compared to my old neighborhood in Brooklyn. I can see the car from the register, and I’m only going to be gone for a minute, and there’s nothing valuable in the car anyway.

I may as well have been locking my car after parking in front of a police station. There was no need to lock the car. 

And then I locked the car anyway.

I didn’t lock it because I thought someone would break into the car. I locked it because I want to stay in the habit of locking my car.

If I fall out of the habit of locking my car, I may one day regret it, so I lock it everywhere I go.

The same principle applies to design documentation.

Plenty of design decisions will not have a direct, measurable impact on your business goals — certainly not in the beginning. That doesn’t matter. You want to document decisions to get in the habit of documenting decisions.

You can’t identify patterns and opportunities without a record of what you’ve done, so get in the habit of creating that record today. Now, let’s look at how you might do that.

How to document design interventions

Google Analytics is a good place to document design changes because you’ll be able to see behavioral patterns right alongside your notes.

Let me show you what that looks like. Here’s a 30-second, silent videothat shows how to find and create annotations in Google Analytics:


In the clip, I made a note:

Published long form home page with single-product focus. Let's see if a more focused approach lifts sales and more in-depth copy attracts more prospects. 

You’re writing down what you did and why you did it. Simple.

Recording why you made the decision is important. It’s easy to assume we’ll remember exactly why we made certain decisions — but our future selves are different people. They may be more stressed, have less time, and be more prone to bias than our perfect, present-day selves. ;)

Making notes in Google Analytics lets you look back at a record of your past decisions that are integrated with a record of your customers’ past decisions. Your notes will live alongside views of where your customers went, how many went there, how long they stayed, whether they purchased, where they came from, and so forth.

Think of Google Analytics as a journal written by your customers.  By documenting your business decisions there, you’re co-authoring a biography about your organization.

Yes, in reviewing customer behavior in relation to your notes, you should be careful not to mistake correlation for causation. No, you may not have goals set up for your business in Google Analytics, so at first, you may be looking at metrics that don’t have a strong relationship to your business’s bottom line.

But save all that for another day. We’re talking about building good habits as a first step toward understanding which design efforts provide greater value for your organization.

Imperfect progress is still progress

Documenting decisions in Google Analytics has its limitations. Some decisions your organization make will have an impact on business goals but won’t be reflected in online customer behavior. (Offline efforts do influence how customers interact with your company online more often than many people realize — but that’s another letter.) Documenting *everything* in Google Analytics might lead to so much noise that your future self struggles to draw conclusions from the data. 

And then there’s the 160 character limit on annotations in Google Analytics. (Why, Google — Why?) 

But, limitations aside, creating notes in Google Analytics will let you develop a shared repository for you and your team to assess the potential impact of past efforts and begin making more evidence-based business decisions.

There are more in-depth forms of documentation that can help you be more deliberate about what projects you take on. Next time, I’ll share a document that I use to help organizations produce content that meets user needs and business goals.

Thanks for reading,


Kyle Bowen