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March 31, 2021

Three Lessons from Designing an Edge Compute Platform

We recently worked with Section, a startup operating in the emerging category of edge computing. We helped them design a Traffic Monitor, a new feature of the Section Edge Compute Platform. 

Hold up, what’s edge computing?

As The Verge puts it, “The word edge in this context means literal geographic distribution. Edge computing is computing that’s done at or near the source of the data.” In other words, Section distributes backend code to servers around the world. This is similar to how a content delivery network serves images from a server close to your location. 

TL;DR: Edge computing brings the server as close to you as possible, so everything feels super fast.

And, what is the Traffic Monitor?

Traffic Monitor is a dashboard for your apps running on Section. The new feature helps Section’s users understand the concept of edge computing by visualizing network health, and makes it easy to understand what’s going on all over the world at a glance. You can use this data to monitor systems, investigate issues, and manage environments. 

We worked closely with Section’s engineering team to design data visualizations and a holistic design system for the platform.

Here’s a quick peek at some of our work, plus three big lessons this project taught us along the way.

Section Traffic Monitor - Error Focus
Traffic Monitor offers a birds' eye view of Section environments

1. Successful developer tools prioritize utility

One major challenge of this project was developing a visualization that helps people instantly understand exactly what their edge stack is doing. 

To effectively summarize, you need to understand, at a very deep level, how things work. Only then can you know what data to highlight and what to de-emphasize. 

We pushed for as much simplicity in the experience as possible. The Section engineers let us know when something had been over-generalized, or the utility had become unclear.

Abstracting the right stuff

The map visualization is a helpful abstraction. It gives the user a bird’s eye view of the whole network. 

The map provides structure that makes the “edge” more tangible. We introduced the idea of “Regions” to simplify the UI. Each region may represent hundreds of localized edge nodes. These regions also illustrate where the edge is within the delivery stack. 

Finally, the data flow brings a sense of dynamism that resonates with users. The colors have semantic meanings (e.g., red is bad) that are like vital signs for the network. In a single glance, Traffic Monitor gives Section users a birds’ eye view of their environment.

In a single glance, Traffic Monitor gives Section users a birds’ eye view of their environment.

Enabling data manipulation and collaboration

Because Traffic Monitor collects data in real-time and records historical data, the product is useful for monitoring, trouble-shooting, and making other decisions about Section environments. 

We designed an immersive experience where users can interact with and understand traffic data. Instead of showing everything at once, users can interact with the interface to learn more about what’s going on and make changes.

Customized views enable users to tailor Traffic Monitor to their particular situation. Users can also share these views with other people to help pinpoint problems and identify root causes. 

We designed Traffic Monitor, some configuration tools, and other areas of the Section platform. Engineers rely on Section to manage their edge stacks. The scenario planning feature is modeled loosely after preparing for battle in a video game. The performance, cost, and security indicators (on the right) change whenever the user makes a configuration change.

Section Wireframe
Wireframe of a configuration workflow within the Section Edge Compute Platform

2. Collaboration leads to better decisions

At MetaLab, we approach every project with a beginner’s mindset. Ramping up on edge computing wasn’t easy, but Section helped us understand the technology and its use cases as quickly and deeply as possible. 

For example, we learned that Traffic Monitor may be used in large-screen applications common in a Network Operations Center. This product would likely sit aside several other dashboards in a sort of “mission control.” 

Simplifying interactions

It’s easy to get focused on aesthetics, but the most important aspect was for the dashboard to feel familiar and helpful. So, we took inspiration from many places, including Netflix’s Flux, gaming platforms, and other developer tools. 

We knew early on that we would “show the world and the data traveling through it.” We tried a lot of options. Using a globe was an interesting approach, but the interactions proved far too complicated. The map (“flat earth”) option we eventually chose struck the right balance of accuracy and simplicity.

Section Traffic Monitor - Map Concepts
Edge computing data visualization concepts we considered for Traffic Monitor

Expanding the design language

We worked closely with the engineers from Section who would eventually build the finished product. Our team took cues from other areas of their platform and explored several approaches to data visualization.

We considered our options on a spectrum of “mild to wild.” The middle—which supports light and dark modes—worked best. It’s inspired by developer IDE tools and introduces a secondary palette of greens, blues, and purples which helped modernize the platform.

Section Traffic Monitor - Directions
Design concepts for for an edge computing experience

3. Communication paves the way for smooth implementation

Throughout the engagement, we had weekly check-ins to share work and discuss next steps. We continually found ourselves asking how and what we should abstract away versus what needed to be emphasized. We debated when to simplify and when to expand. 

Our team designed the product in Figma. We also communicated asynchronously using Slack, Loom, and Notion. This mixture of real-time and asynchronous communication created time for deep thinking, good questions, and sound decision making. 

By the end of the project, everyone understood the design intent. 

Asking the right questions

At the heart of our weekly conversations with Section, we asked: 

  • Is the design serving today’s problems?
  • Where will the design go next? 
  • How is the design feeding the future? 

Of course we wanted to deliver on the core needs Section came to us with, but we also were looking to go beyond that. We saw an opportunity for a design system that Section could reference to accelerate product development. 

Documenting the design system

Traffic Monitor is just one part of the Section platform. 

Our teams worked together to clarify ambiguous terms, establish priorities for each feature, and work through countless design decisions. We worked in sprints and chronicled our progress, decisions, and other details in slide decks. 

We delivered a design system built in Figma. It specifies foundational elements: color, typography, iconography, buttons, and form elements. The system also contains all reusable styles, components, and patterns used throughout the Section web portal. 

This system is extensible. It can be remixed, in accordance with usage guidelines, to build new features that rely on similar UI. 

Section Design System
The Section Design System was created in Figma

Wrapping up

It’s not every day you work on an interface for engineers managing a whole new computing paradigm. This project was hard to wrap our heads around, as you can imagine. 

We learned three big lessons while designing Traffic Monitor:

  1. Successful developer tools prioritize utility
  2. Collaboration leads to better decisions
  3. Communication paves the way for smooth implementation

At the end of the day, I’m most proud of the sense of holistic improvements the Section team has shared.

At Section, we’re on a mission to accelerate edge computing adoption through simplification. Traffic Monitor has provided this sort of “Aha!” moment for our customers to instantly understand how their edge stack is performing, while also serving as a tool to communicate the value that the platform is delivering for the entire organization. Beyond the Traffic Monitor, the UI kit provided by MetaLab continues to guide all of our UI decisions.
— Molly Wojcik, Director of Marketing

It’s great to move one specific needle, in this case… designing a new product. But, what gets me the most excited is when a feature we work on plays an important role in leveling up the rest of the product experience. 

That sounds like exactly what’s happening at Section, and I love hearing that. 

Celebrate little wins
Embrace the scroll
Coach them though big ideas
Embrace the scroll
...make sure anyone can use it
Give them one task at a time
Teach by example
Create a 'consumer-friendly' feel
Focus on the most common user needs, but...
Start with mobile
Principles we
can use today