Digital First Design: Engineering Without Whiteboards

My main interest in this paradigm isn't necessarily around pandemic working conditions, but what a hybrid working model is going to look like for the folks who continue remote work as some of their peers return to the office.

Digital First Design: Engineering Without Whiteboards

I'm a relatively new listener of Scott Hanselman's Hanselminutes podcast. As a part of my goals for 2021 I'm focusing on listening to technical storytellers. This week, he had Amanda Silver (CVP of Product for Developer Tools) on the pod and they talked about living through 2020 as a remote developer.

There was a moment where Amanda was describing some of the creative ways that her team defines problem areas and starts to come up with solutions for them. She mentioned that before going remote, her team would walk her through sticky notes which were great; but also made the ideas harder to share and retain.

As she transitions to describing the remote working environment, this line really jumped out at me:

"But now, because it starts with this digital format by necessity because everyone is remote first, we actually now have all of these things archived. We can come back to them, we can go back and actually see, you know, what was the genesis of the thought and, and pursue a lot of these things that we really weren't being able to pursue previously."

This perfectly describes a massive transformation my team and my organization has made over the last year. The idea of creating documents and diagrams obviously wasn't new to us; but now it happens earlier and much more often.

Designing with Whiteboards & Sticky Notes

I've been at Microsoft for a little over a year and a half. While that might not seem like a lot of time, my organization has been growing and changing so quickly that it feels like it's been years.

In January 2020 my organization rapidly built a prototype product that was set to demo to our EVP in April. The first major design meeting I recall was me standing in front of a white board with a group of network engineers trying to gather requirements for the solution we were to build, what would later be named "My Network".

The truth is that I don't have many of the diagrams that showed our early thinking because they were captured on white boards that we erased. I'm sure we all have some cell phone photos scattered around, but nothing coherent.

The only ideas that made it out of those rooms were the ones that we could remember. I'm sure there are a handful of great ideas that were erased when someone cleared the board.

Digital First Design

We built the My Network project in the first 4 months of 2020, which meant that we were already in this fully-remote world when it came time to demo.

The demo went great, and it led to us starting a brand new platform which we've been working on for the last 6 months. This brand new code repository has never seen a commit from someone working in a Microsoft building.

We did not have access to any physical white boards, and none of us really liked the digital white boards available. Our entire design process happened between Word, Visio, and PowerPoint; and I often find myself looking back at our early artifacts and reflect on how far we've come since then.

My main interest in this paradigm isn't necessarily around pandemic working conditions, but what a hybrid working model is going to look like for the folks who continue remote work as some of their peers return to the office.

What is Digital First Design?

Digital First Design is simply the principle of doing your earliest design work by creating artifacts that can be easily viewed and modified by your team. The idea is to not wait until a solution exists to document it digitally, but to start the design process with digital artifacts.

This might not be different than the designs your team is producing today, but the idea is to be intentional about creating artifacts sooner.

Historically, I would only sit down and create a Visio diagram after there was significant discussion around something I'd drawn on a whiteboard or notepad. Now, I walk into meetings with my nascent ideas on a diagram that we can modify as a team in real-time.

Friendly to both office & remote workers

One of the hardest parts about physical white boards is the fact that it's limiting for folks joining remotely. When most of your meeting attendees in the same space, and a few joining remotely you put additional burden on them to try visualize what's happening on the white board.

In Jeff Handley's post Fostering Remote Work he mentioned a common practice I think will be very important as we move to a hybrid model of working: "Assume there will be at least one remote attendee and include a [video call] link for all meetings".

You want to create artifacts that you can share out so that everyone can view and manipulate them. Shared and collaborative documents is one tool that I believe drives the democratization of teams. If we can both see and interact with a diagram, there's a better chance for equal representation of our ideas.

Builds digital communication muscle

Describing abstract solutions to complicated problems is always hard. It's one thing to be able to voice your ideas, and another entirely for someone to understand them.

I've found that the more time I spend in Visio creating diagrams I would've otherwise drawn on a whiteboard, the better I get at understanding how people will receive my ideas. I'm getting better at understanding how important colors, shapes, arrow directions, etc. are towards getting folks to understand my ideas and be able to manipulate them in real-time.

This scales to other members of the team as they're responsible for documenting their ideas. Especially for the junior members of your team, have them practice this skill with their ideas. It's a powerful way to get feedback and demonstrate their ability to incorporate it.  

Increased Visibility & Async Feedback Loops

A few months ago we had a Principal Software Engineer join our team to help us architect our solution. In the whiteboarding world, getting them onboarded would've meant more time at the whiteboard re-creating our thoughts.

Since we had already naturally switched to this Digital First Design paradigm, we were able to walk them through some of our earliest thoughts. This allowed them to see our thoughts as they changed over time, and study them independently and get back to us.

If your team has a lot of partners or customers that are invested in the details of your solutions, sharing out these early artifacts are a great way to collect feedback without setting up another meeting. My team has gotten a lot of mileage out of PowerPoint and Word's comment features. You can gather and integrate feedback all without setting up yet another meeting.


I'd really like to thank Amanda and Scott for having the conversation that sparked this post. If this is something your team already excels at, I'd love to hear what else you've found works for you. Especially as we start to migrate towards the hybrid working model.