NoSQL database provider Couchbase becomes design centric from within
The database industry isn’t exactly known for having a design-centric culture, but at Couchbase, a quiet revolution is sweeping across the whole company. Couchbase runs the world’s fastest NoSQL database for business-critical applications, built on top of open-source standards, and its varied customers include AT&T, Disney, eBay, Marriott, Wells Fargo, and many other household names. Thanks to some innovative thinking and serious team building, the UX team built a design system that’s slowly spreading from department to department — pushing the adoption of design thinking at every level.
In many ways, Couchbase has maintained a startup environment. Teams are given a lot of free rein to experiment and work on their own projects. This environment has been cultivated by lead user experience designer Robert Ashcom and creative manager Terry Lee. Together with their colleagues, they have made efforts to collaborate and explore how to apply user-centered design principles to common business problems at Couchbase.
“We initially formed a little secret cabal to channel our design energies in a positive direction,” Ashcom recalls. “It evolved and eventually got official approval. We proved that we weren’t dangerously subversive, just nicely subversive. Our project got a great reception from everybody, including all of our executives.” From here, they were able to level up their design-led initiative and build a full-scale design system, with the help of Adobe XD.
In their Adobe XD Meet the Makers talk, Lee and Ashcom take us behind the scenes to show us how they got buy-in from their colleagues and their customers and turned design into a serious competitive differentiator.
The challenges of building a design system from scratch
Like many companies, Couchbase had a writing style guide but not a UX guide of any sort. There was no playbook to look to for design decision making — every department was essentially doing their own thing, and there was little consistency.
“Whenever you have a company that’s growing, you accumulate a lot of stuff. It’s like an old attic room. There’s stuff everywhere. It’s very important to get some kind of focus,” Ashcom explains.
“When the growth is rapid and the company is hiring a lot, it also means new people come in with a ton of energy, and they want to reorganize the attic as soon as they start,” Lee adds. “But at some point you need to stop rearranging the attic and figure out a long-term strategy. You can’t just let the most recent person with the most energy impose their system on everybody else.” A centralized solution needed to be found.
The rapid expansion of the company also meant that people started replicating each other’s work. At this point, Ashcom and Lee began to take a hard look at workflows and how they could make them more efficient and consolidate operations. They decided on a range of basic UX goals for Couchbase and came up with a plan. The idea was to build a design system, as a side project at night, apply it to Couchbase’s documentation site, and get the whole company aligned with a consistent design that way. Unfortunately, COVID-19 created an obstacle.
“We needed the redesign of the documentation website to go well,” Ashcom explains. “It’s a very valuable, well-trafficked Couchbase property. Up to this point we were all working in little silos but didn’t have a problem collaborating because we were all in the same physical location. But then the pandemic hit, and we needed to create a virtual collaborative environment to share code.”
The Couchbase Cloud team had already been working on a user experience project and hired an agency that was working with Figma. “We then needed to decide whether to pull what this agency had been working on into our own Figma instance or scrap everything we didn’t need and just use what we liked to produce a design system,” Lee remembers.
“There were various things that factored into our decision to not do this. The designers working in our group already had Adobe licenses, we weren’t totally reliant on a web-based solution, and the developer hand-off was really important to us, too.”
Tackling unique user needs with Adobe XD
The team decided on Adobe XD, which enabled them to simplify complex workflows to hand off code easily, made even harder by pandemic restrictions, and began designing the immediate needs for the documentation UI. The new design was well received, attracted other departments to it, and as a result, various Couchbase properties such as the developer portal and marketing site, started migrating over.
But there was another challenge the team had to face — the lack of existing good design patterns for similar database products and the fact that many customers as well as company staff, many of them engineers, think in command line only. For this reason, the need for graphical user interfaces isn’t always understood. Ashcom worked closely with a user researcher who was familiar with the needs of people working on the command line and passed on constant feedback.
Above all, Couchbase customers are very concerned about the loss or corruption of data, and one goal of the UX/UI design is to establish a sense of security and calm in its users. “It’s very emotional,” Ashcom explains. “I take a very arrogant Henry Ford approach. I’m not building something faster with bells and whistles, I’m building a simplified UI that boosts the user’s confidence. It’s very light and focused on content. For example, we only use the color red when something really needs your attention. We also add a little flash for those who might be colorblind.”
Ashcom redesigned and re-coded the UI with Flexbox, icon fonts, and a modified Material Design approach. The customers, including most of those command-line only folks, loved the improvements. The design — with its evolving design language — has become a major differentiator for Couchbase’s products.
Getting buy-in for good user experience design
Getting stakeholders on your side can be an uphill battle, especially in industries where design doesn’t currently have a seat at the table. Ashcom and Lee’s approach demonstrates the importance of advocating for what good user experience really means and its value in increasing customer satisfaction and adoption.
“To execute great design, you can’t always wait for permission,” Rob advises. “Sometimes you just need to do something on your own time. Build a pilot or prototype and keep bringing up good UX design in conversations and presentations. People want to see stuff, they don’t want to hear you talk all day long. Design something, spend a little time on it, and make it look good. Impress people with your artifacts. All of that matters to prove that design aligns with business needs.”