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Design Thinking for ML Systems at Scale

by Thomas Liao on March 28, 2022


At Scale AI, we’re always looking for ways to apply machine learning (ML) in our internal systems to deliver the best results for our customers. We’ve previously written about Scale’s ML-powered pre-labeling as well as our active tooling, like Autosegment, which helps our Taskers label faster and at higher quality.

In this piece, we discuss how we think about and incorporate some basic tenets of design thinking to develop ML systems that make a difference for our labeling pipeline. Design thinking is a mindset and set of practices which foster the collaboration required to solve problems in human-centered ways and was notably popularized by organizations such as IDEO. It’s useful for machine learning engineers who need to understand the full scope of how the system they are building will be used and are responsible for both business and operational outcomes. We’ll describe how design thinking techniques can be applied to scoping machine learning problems and introduce some concepts to help business stakeholders communicate more effectively with ML engineers.

Phases of Developing an ML SystemIdealized phases of developing an ML system. In practice, it’s not this linear.

In our experience, the different phases of developing an ML system are:

  1. Discovery - Locate a business or operational pain point
  2. Design - Map the different ways a new or existing model could fit into the extant pipeline
  3. Decision & Alignment - Align with operational and engineering stakeholders on scope and resourcing
  4. Development, Integration, Deployment - Deliver the system. Build data pipelines, train models, integrate into the pipeline, etc.
  5. Measurement & Experimentation - Identify the effect of the ML system as an intervention on the existing pipeline.
  6. Continuous improvement - Monitor and retrain to account for distribution shifts and new edge cases

This is a descriptive mental model, not a prescriptive blueprint. In reality, a project is always moving between different phases and can often be in multiple phases at the same time. For example, measurement and development form a tight iteration loop. But, it’s still useful to think about these phases in isolation.

Concepts from design thinking are mostly employed in the Discovery and Design phases when the problem statements are the most inchoate and ill-formed. In these phases, the need or specific outcome is communicated to an ML engineer and an initial strategy to address that need or deliver that outcome is designed. We focus on the Discovery and Design phases in this blog and cover the remaining phases briefly.

Phase 1: Discovery

An ML system gains life when a need is discovered. By need, we distinguish between a request for a specific feature, such as a linter (a tool we use to ensure data quality), and the underlying operational or business pain point or problem - such as a new labelling capability requiring ML support. It’s not uncommon for operational or business teams to stumble into the XY problem by pattern matching and requesting a clone of an existing feature, without realizing that their underlying problem is actually quite different. Or, they might ask for something which is incredibly difficult, unaware that a slightly modified version would save literally months of development time. So an ML engineer should always hunt down the true problem that needs to be solved.

Pain points and problems can be project-specific or exist horizontally across business teams or units. Historically, many of the problems that the ML team at Scale have tackled are project-specific and brought to us by our cross-functional stakeholders. For example, a project manager running into issues with a labeling project or a product manager looking to launch a new feature will surface these project-specific issues to our team. Tackling these isolated problems can result in marooned solutions which aren’t readily reusable.

Solving horizontal issues, in comparison, maximizes our leverage, since the ML systems we build will then scale with our business. However, cross-business issues that can be solved with ML are often harder to identify because of the sheer operational complexity. These issues require a more active discovery process and take more time and deeper alignment with partners. The problems with the highest stakes are not obvious to ML engineers, who don’t get day to day exposure to them, even as these frictions impose significant pain on the operations or business side. To get a sense for this, imagine explaining the pain of managing multiple python environments and package versions to an operational lead - it can be incredibly painful for you, yet esoteric, even cryptic, to them.

As another example, while working on an image semantic segmentation project, we learned that pre-labels generated by a model specific to that project were sometimes ignored by taskers, but the root causes were unclear. A close investigation identified a number of culprits, ranging from the inflexibility of pre-labels to having optimized for the wrong metric during development. Autosegment, developed by Sean Li, Saleh Hamadeh, and the two of us, aims to tackle these problems. Autosegment solves a challenge for all image segmentation projects and isn’t restricted to a particular project. Learning about this challenge and building the appropriate solution required input from numerous stakeholders - from the project leads, who wanted to accelerate taskers; the taskers themselves, who used our tools and knew what worked and what didn’t; to engineers, who were familiar with the implementation of image segmentation in our interface and understood the kinds of tradeoffs that different tools would be need to make.

Stakeholder concernsExample overlap of concerns between different stakeholders for a new ML-assisted tool.

Identifying the pain points of the end user always requires talking to the end user. Instead of theorizing what could be a problem for them, it’s always more effective to speak to users directly and observe them as they encounter the problem. When building systems to accelerate labeling operations, ML engineers need to build user empathy. A simple way to build user empathy is to spend time tasking and dogfooding our own platform. There is no substitute for first hand experience for understanding what makes tasking hard.

Phase II: Design

After Discovery, the project enters a design phase where an initial approach is sketched out - what kind of model to build, what sort of data is needed, the timelines, and so on.

Designing effective ML systems at Scale requires two things: a clear need, which we’ve discussed above, and knowing the many different ways a model can fit into the labelling pipeline.

This last point is worth further elaboration. The same machine learning model can be used for a variety of operational purposes. For example, a model that predicts bounding boxes for cars can be used to:

  1. Estimate the number of boxes in a task (task difficulty estimation)
  2. Prepopulate the scene with bounding boxes (pre-labelling)
  3. Suggest fixes to bounding boxes made in real-time by a tasker (active tooling)
  4. Identify missing boxes or unexpected boxes in a completed scene (linting) For each of these, the inference API could have the exact same request and return formats. However, each of the four approaches above require different operational adjustments, not all of which may be feasible. Task difficulty estimation makes assumptions about what makes a task difficult or easy for humans and implicitly maps these to legible subpopulations of taskers. Active tooling can require nontrivial operational investment in teaching taskers how to use the new tool and engineering lift to build new frontend components. Building a useful ML system means designing how an ML model will interface with the rest of the operational and engineering systems, in conjunction with actually training the ML model.

One model, many usesThe same model may be applied in different ways to an existing pipeline, requiring different accommodations by engineering or operational teams.

We’ve noticed two particular traps for ML engineers which can lead them on wild goose chases during the design phase. The first is misalignment between the machine learning problem and the business problem. The second is confusing the customer and the end user of a system.

ML engineers are trained to use models to solve machine learning tasks, like box detection or text classification. For a box detection dataset, you’d use a box detection model. For a text classification dataset, a text classification model. When the business problem looks like an image classification problem, you might reach for an image classification model, only to discover that what you really need to solve is tabular regression.

Faced with using ML to assist, say, labelling semantic segmentation training data, a common reflex is to train a semantic segmentation model to do the labelling. But if you already had a capable model, you wouldn’t need to collect training data for it! The mistake here is to apply the familiar task paradigm - semantic segmentation - to solve the business problem - accelerating semantic segmentation.

Many operational questions take the form “Is something X or not X?” To an ML engineer, this sounds like a classification problem, and it’s easy to reach for a classification model which directly answers the question. Putting aside whether modeling X directly is feasible, it’s often the case that we already have an operational or engineering system which could answer this question more effectively with some additional information. In this situation, it may be faster to figure out how to extract the augmenting information rather than replicate the existing system altogether; a strong reason to apply a modeling scheme that looks very different from the modeling question.

Leveraging existing systemsModeling the business problem to solve doesn’t always mean reaching for the most obvious machine learning task paradigm.

The second trap is mistaking the end user of a system with the people who request or manage the system. When we build a tool like Autosegment, even though the end user of the active tooling is the Tasker, the internal customer is actually the Delivery Operations team. What we build has to meet the customer’s expectations, so even if Taskers enjoy using our tool, we need to make sure to move the needle for the Delivery Operations team. But the expectations and needs of the end user may differ or conflict from the internal customer (e.g. latency tradeoff with cost).

In order to avoid falling into these two traps, ML engineers have to be deliberate in how they transport the business problem into a machine learning context; and always keep in mind the different stakeholders.

Phases III - VI: Decision and Alignment Through Continuous Improvement

After the initial Discovery and Design phases, the project needs a go / no-go decision by both the ML team as well as cross-functional teams. In this phase, all teams must decide whether to allocate the necessary resources to the project. If the ML team decides to dedicate resources but the cross-functional team cannot commit the time or spare the bandwidth, the effort will ultimately fall short. Some factors teams must consider when making this decision include: prioritization, level of effort needed, and available bandwidth.

Once all teams commit to the project, we can develop the ML-specific components of the ML system. This is when we build data pipelines, train models, and ship an endpoint. Once the model is developed, the project nearly always needs engineering and operational integration. For example, if we are developing a new pre-labeling model, the model requires integration with our labeling pipelines to attach the pre-label to the task.

Now the project is actually deployed. Deployment should also follow best practices: meaning the feature should only be enabled for a small percent of tasks or users at the beginning, making it easier to revert if there are any issues. The system should then be constantly measured. Especially in the first few weeks, close attention should be paid to ensure no issues arise.

We then use the metrics and qualitative feedback gathered in the measurement step to continuously improve the model. Models often need to be retrained to account for new edge cases. As we maintain the production model, we often encounter data distribution shifts or taxonomic changes which must be addressed.


We hope this post provided some insight on how we design our ML systems and how you and your teams can effectively partner with horizontal teams to deploy models that serve your business needs. Throughout the phases of ML development, we strive to ensure alignment with our cross-functional stakeholders. While gaining and maintaining alignment takes time and deliberate effort, it allows us to unlock capabilities on our platform that wouldn’t otherwise be possible.

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