Problem & Context
When I joined SDL in March 2009 I found a highly fragmented product landscape with widely varying user interfaces and experiences. At a closer look this was no surprise. SDL was set up as a group and grew rapidly through merger and acquisitions. New companies joining the family were obviously all complementing and strengthening the overall product portfolio from a functional perspective. But they also brought in their very own UX architecture, user interfaces design, and related product culture. SDL’s larger ambition was to move from a group setup to a ONE SDL company. This required the harmonization and integration of the entire product portfolio too. That was the challenge.
At the time, I was assigned to one particular product (SDL Tridion) for which I was the all-around product and UX designer. Next to evolving the products’ UX on a feature by feature basis I was also tasked to design a new user interface design language. It was here where I saw an opportunity to expand and widen this project to entire SDL and establish a new standard across the board. We did not have a large design team in the company at that time, so I initiated a user experience community including all UX minded stakeholders I could find including developers, architects, product managers, tech writers, support and even pre-sales). Within this group we started discussing the approach of cross-product user interface alignment. It became clear very quickly that a substantial and fully consistent alignment of all product user interfaces was not feasible, given the different UI technologies in use and the drastically varying release cycles of all products. Consequently, we agreed to align all product user interfaces as much as possible but to a defined minimum degree. The guiding factor and expected outcome was that any product could be recognizable by customers and prospects as an SDL product just from its user interface.
With that in mind I expanded the focus of “my” UI design project and developed a “reference design” which included the characteristics and needs of all the other products too. This reference design included branding, a few screen templates, designs for UI controls, common colors, and icons.
We called it the “Carbon user interface”, using the material metaphor to refer to its outstanding properties and its application in highly demanding environments. We packaged all guidelines, design examples, as well as mandatory and optional elements for branding and visual appearance into what became known as the “Carbon UI guidelines” and shared them widely in the company.
Choosing a concrete name (Carbon) for the new look and feel and referring to a material metaphor to symbolize the expected characteristics of this new UI worked really well. It helped telling and sharing the story, frame the objectives and ambitions of the project, and triggered constructive discussions across the whole product organization. Of course, the content of the discussion changed and evolved over time (as you would hope for). But the reference to remained “Carbon” which gave it the visibility and relevance needed to make this happen in a globally distributed organization such as SDL. For the actual implementation, the split of the “Carbon UI guidelines” into mandatory elements (e.g. consistent page header, product branding, color scheme, UI icons) and optional guidelines (screen templates) worked well too and allowed for a quick adoption across the company. The result was a much better aligned product portfolio with a recognizable SDL identity through its user interfaces. This was the first step for SDL on the road towards deeper product integration and a truly harmonized user experience, even if it was just cosmetic at the time.