Rainfall's Approach
Innovation & Creativity in Product Design

How We Ran a Small But Innovative Product Design Studio

In 2022 I wrote the following article about how we approached design at Rainfall, a Seattle Product Design studio and full service creative agency. While Rainfall is now closed, the following offers a glimpse at how I, Marc Anderson, continue to approach UX, creative thinking, and the alignment of multiple stakeholders and groups within product organizations.

Rainfall design team members sitting at a table smiling while reviewing work as a group

In 2016 I wrote about founding my design studio, Rainfall, and my approach to creativity and design. Now, six years and many clients and employees later, I thought it was time to post an update that reflects what I learned and how we operate now.

What makes Rainfall unique?

Why do clients want to work with Rainfall, and what makes us a unique UX and product design agency?

This is a question that we are constantly asking ourselves, and has recently worked its way into new business conversations with potential clients who are exploring multiple agencies. The answer to this question is what truly lands new business. Past work, awards, and assurances that we can deliver doesn’t build excitement.

Excitement is built from the anticipation surrounding how you will transform their business by showing them something they hadn’t already imagined.

Rainfall is an innovation-driven design agency

Rainfall has worked very hard to avoid a discernible “house style,” a decision that is fundamental to the integrity of not only our work, but the design profession as a whole. How could you possibly solve two client challenges with the same visual approach, or align them to trends that have nothing to do with their business or brand identity?

So, clients coming to us for a particular visual design style is out of the question.

Price is also out, because someone will always be cheaper, and Rainfall will always be less expensive than other agencies who very well might deliver an inferior solution.

Let’s also throw out our capabilities, because while we’d like to be “Seattle’s Only UX Design Agency™” (c’mon SEO!) That is obviously far from true.

Oh and individual talent. Everyone has worked everywhere for every company, including here at Rainfall.

So, what value does Rainfall lean into more than any other? Our comfort, confidence, and excitement for approaching (nearly) every project as outsiders.

Institutional Curiosity

We will ask the dumb questions, we will suggest outlandish solutions, and truly embrace the naiveté of not being stuck in the weeds of our clients’ business. We are good at what we do, and part of that is knowing when we are not good at what our clients do.

Here’s the secret — Uninformed questions force thoughtful answers.

“Do truckers own the tractor and the trailer, or just the tractor?”

“Will you rename your fishing boats after this merger?”

“So, customers have to put down more money than they’re borrowing?”

“How dark will the museum be if most of the artifacts are films?”

These questions build trust, and allow a natural progression to more uncomfortable inquiries.

“Why do you portray truckers as tough, weather-beaten men?”

“Are the conditions for your fishermen as chaotic as those on Deadliest Catch?”

“How often do your customers default on their loans after a margin call?”

“How are you addressing the current spotlight on sexual misconduct in Hollywood?”

We take this approach to create a relationship of shared accountability–for our team to learn as much as we can, and for our clients to explore the roots of institutional decision making. We’ll explore this further in the next section.

Now, you might ask “But aren’t all designers curious by nature?” This is a misnomer perpetuated by the greater visibility of top design talent. Believe us when we tell you that our experience has determined that the answer is a resounding “no.” It is a learned and practiced skill that requires motivation and accountability.

A Healthy skepticism toward accepted norms

Let’s start this section with a fun example. I am in the Drive To Survive class of Formula 1 fans and have a habit of falling down Reddit threads and in-depth articles about F1 car design and development.

Mercedes-AMG-F1 W11 Dual-Axis Steering (DAS)

In 2020, Mercedes’ Formula1 challenger, the W11, caused quite a bit of shock at pre-season testing when driver Lewis Hamilton appeared to pull the steering wheel toward himself as he arrived at the starting straight, then pushed it away again before entering the following corner.

It turns out that the team had engineered an unconventional mechanism for warming the car’s tires wherein the steering wheel could be moved in and out to adjust the toe angle of the front wheels. This innovation, originally referred to as “Trombone Steering” by the press, came as a surprise to other teams, which claimed that the device “adjusted the suspension system” of the car, and therefore broke the technical regulations. While the system was banned for the following season, it was deemed legal for the 2020 season due to distinctions over which parts of the car were considered suspension and which parts were considered steering.

There are plenty of articles if you want to dig into the specifics, but I’ll highlight three key takeaways from all that was learned about Mercedes DAS in the 2022 F1 season:

  1. Mercedes arrived at the DAS system specifically by challenging the terms of the rule book.
  2. In an interview, Mercedes chief engineer John Owen said that “The DAS system was really well, about what if you could do something like this, what do the rules say? And the rules effectively didn’t stop it. We thought that’s unusual and surprising.” This quote speaks to the core of Rainfall’s approach that I’ll detail below. Mercedes didn’t accept their previous interpretation of the rules and sought to explore new avenues that still allowed the car to steer, but in a new (axis) and more effective manner. Additionally, throughout the process, they tested and validated their solution by exploring how competing teams could use the rulebook to fight it. Finding nothing, they continued.
  3. In an interview in the months following DAS’s introduction John Owen describes Mercedes’ innovation culture as encouragement to “Try to get yourself out there and see different things at all times” because “The history of science is littered with people…who have come from outside the field of expertise because the people within that field have become a bit…stubborn and stuck in their own way of thinking.

Question the constraints and requirements

Did someone in F1 or at Mercedes dictate that all Formula 1 suspensions conform to accepted design principles? Did the rulebook state that steering wheels are only allowed to rotate?

These innovations (and generally all innovations) start with a mixture of understanding and skepticism toward a set of requirements and constraints. Of course, physics offers constraints that are likely insurmountable, but otherwise we try to trace constraints back to their source, preferably an individual who can justify its continued relevance.

As Charles Kettering stated, “A problem well-stated is a problem half solved.”

Put differently: A better understanding of the problem >>> more effective outcomes.We find that large organizations are rich with legacy methods and approaches that can’t be traced back to their original source (why do robotic factories keep their lights on?). There is no clear origin story, or an origin story is assumed as a means of justifying its protraction. “It was probably to…” or “I would imagine…” are phrases that signal “opportunity!” to our team.

Let Outsiders in

A standard of IP secrecy all but guarantees that DAS came from Mercedes internal team, but John Owen’s remarks point to the possibility that the spark for the unorthodox steering system could have and would have been welcomed from anyone on their team, regardless of department.

Sadly, many companies do not have Mercedes’ intentional culture of open internal communication that prepares employees to welcome outsider advice.

It’s challenging and scary to accept that your expertise or the deep knowledge of your team might prevent the most effective solution to a problem, or even impede the journey toward an unorthodox outcome.

Insecurity and a natural desire to be indispensable are human obstructions to cues that it is time to invite outsiders to the table.

We recommend a simple reframing of the stigma associated with asking for assistance:

“I’m frustrated and embarrassed that we couldn’t crack this idea” >>> “I’m happy that this team is engaged and excited about our project!”

Great clients understand that a skeptical and curious approach is a more direct pathway to innovation than industry experience because such behavior uncovers blindspots while forcing them to revisit historical decision making.

Curiosity + Skepticism + Welcoming of Outlandish Ideas = Winning Outcome

If this seems like a no-brainer to you, here is truth:

Smaller and overseas agencies will execute impeccable visual design for a low cost, but largely restate your existing content, or the details you dictate to them.

We Innovate everything at once

To articulate our “Innovate everything at once” approach, we must start with how Rainfall fits into client organizations relative to the size of their internal design teams.

Here is a quick synopsis:

When our client has no design team

For clients with no existing designers our role is fairly clear: We are hired on a project or retained basis to create their identity, website, strategy, or product and deliver it.

When our client as a small or growing design team

The same can be true clients who have anywhere from one to a handful of designers. In these cases Rainfall’s role is to increase capacity, accelerate the rate of production, and offer our unique value proposition while still being responsible for the delivery of the end product.

In the many historical cases where our clients are actively growing their design team, we offer comprehensive design ops consultation to create structured processes, standards, and value systems.

Design ops ensure that our clients hire the right talent and create systems and opportunities for those individuals to be effective from day 1.When our client has a large, cross-functional design team

Clients with large, existing design teams are obviously a bit more complex.

Historically, these clients all began their engagement with Rainfall the same way: We complete the Attentiveness and Acknowledgement phases of Design Made Human™ to bring the fresh perspective detailed above.

From there, our engagements go in one of three directions:

  1. We operate as if our client has no design team, assuming responsibility for the end product.
  2. We work in light association with their design team, checking in periodically with key members from a relevant team (product managers, designers, content designers, researchers, strategists, engineers) to ensure that we are aligned with their brand vernacular while still assuming responsibility for the end product.
  3. We work with company and design leadership to create the initial product or MVP. Once finished, we continue our teamwork to define the primary roadmap, and work alongside each team’s leadership to identify initiatives that pull from it, and feed into it.

This last direction is simple on our end, however, when working with clients who hold less experience hiring agencies it follows a period of uncertainty regarding how to position us to their existing and potentially territorial design staff.

The pitch to address this unease is actually quite simple:

“We aren’t going to offer what your design staff should excel at, which is the acute understanding of your audience (and subsets of that audience) and how to test and optimize particular journeys based on that understanding.”

What are we going to do?

“We’re going to explore opportunities that positively impact as many touch points and experiences across your product as possible in an effort to strengthen customer relationships by maximizing value.”

I could write a whole piece on customer engagement cycles and flywheels, but all that needs to be said here is that:

Customer relationships > Customer journeys

Tactically, our approach intentionally ignores product verticals, and instead involves identifying every audience archetype and imagining as many valuable experiences for them as we can.

I am eager to write examples, but can’t do justice to the extensive nature of the work. Instead, let’s get help from the behind the scenes extras of The Making of The Incredibles.

I highly recommend that you watch this whole piece, and If you do, Rainfall is Mark Andrews. He is responsible for the cohesion of the narrative, while still accountable to leadership (Brad Bird) and is keenly aware that his work impacts multiple teams (characters, sets, lighting, effects, music, etc.) He works visually, and fast, where no idea is precious, or can’t be re-explored in pursuit of a more effective or engaging approach.

Counter to Mark Andrews is an individual whom I think about a lot, and who is a good analogy for the deep expertise of individual product design teams.

Mach Tony Kobayashi was responsible for engineering the ice platform that Frozone conjures as he moves about the world. The 30 second clip above clearly demonstrates his inventive approach, and hints at his efforts to develop the idea until he felt it was perfect. I also love how awkwardly he accepts praise, and can totally relate.

Mark Andrews knows that Frozone’s power is that he can make ice, Mach Tony Kobayashi turns that idea into a real superpower.

Our Actionable Steps

The following steps are how we maintain a birds-eye view, while moving every engagement toward a tangible path forward for larger client teams.

Step 1 — Achieve Alignment

The primary step we employ to gain trust from in-house teams is to clearly communicate our role, the expectations laid out by the individuals who hired us, and how we expect our efforts to compliment existing initiatives.

We have failed to do this, and the outcome at worst is miserable and inefficient as both sides risk straying from the original intentions of the project in order to prove competence and value.

Step 2 — Stay Dumb

As I mentioned above, a core tenet of our value is the outside perspective we bring. We also recognize that maintaining that perspective over the lifetime of an engagement requires active work, including:

Step 3 — Think Broadly

“By affecting this feature, we can create opportunities for these other features!” Thinking cross-functionally is the primary benefit of working separately from individual product teams (being Mark Andrews), and “innovating everything.”

Working at this level intentionally considers every aspect of a platform in the context of the whole, the primary benefit being the ability to accelerate critical thinking exploration around individual functions separately from their formally defined roadmaps.

Step 4 — Show, Don’t Tell

Spitballing ideas with clients and our own teams is fun, and a natural step in the creative process, but nothing is tangible or potentially effective until it is realized in design. The greatest idea in the world might or should be thrown out if it can’t be executed in a way that positively impacts the customer experience.

Our solution is to get into prototyping as quickly as possible to test ideas. They don’t have to be high-fidelity, and they can absolutely focus on just a single path. Prototypes can externalize and stress test even the smallest morsel of an idea in a context and format similar to what an audience member might eventually interact with.

Step 5 — Consider Impact

While it is our job to think cross-functionally, that doesn’t free us from the eventuality of working with leadership to define individual product roadmaps. We have found that keeping a living Product Roadmap Document segmented by the client’s teams provides good visibility into the scope of our proposed solution, and subsequently the impact their ability to implement might have on the platform as a whole.

Step 6 — Embrace Inaccuracy

Despite our best intentions and desire to be thoughtful, there are plenty of occasions where assumptions are proven incorrect. Data is an amazing asset when designing platforms, and can turn great design into excellent design, often due to the help of those individual product teams. When these situations arise, they serve as a reminder to stay curious, reframe problems as “challenges,” and consider the impact on other requirements and assumptions.

So, who are we?

You can now see that we are more than just another agency that designs websites and digital products, and comparing our services with others is far more complex than trying to price match statements of work.

We’re not one size fits all, but embrace a consistent approach.

An approach centered on curiosity, and providing the most value to our clients.

An approach that considers people and the context of their interactions with brands.

An approach that leaves room for ideas to evolve.An approach that helps your organization grow without alienating your most valuable asset — your employees.

Everything I make is in service of human beings, and built with a desire to make their lives just a little bit easier and more enjoyable.