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Flawless Product Design with a Large Team

A user experience that is designed by a group should be as seamless and coherent as though it was designed by an individual. When experiences are created by a team of designers inconsistencies are often introduced, making the end product awkward and, in some cases, introducing usability errors. In my own experience, I have found that there are three ingredients to ensuring effective design by a team.

Designate a Design Lead

It is tempting to think that a flat organizational structure in the design team will breed creativity and collaboration, and it may, in deed, do so. However, I have never been on a design team that will police itself perfectly when everyone is left to their devices. The reality is that there are time pressures, demanding clients, and imperfect information, which ultimately inhibit the team’s ability to self-police its designs. It is rare for one designer to shift through everyone else’s designs and make sure that design patterns align and inconsistencies are fixed. Instead, designers often do their best with the time and information that they have. For this reason, it is important to designate a design lead, whose main function is to review everyone’s output and ensure consistency and accuracy.

It is expected that the design lead will dedicate the majority of her time to overseeing work. She will both keep an eye on process to make sure that the team members are not deviating too wildly from each other as well as on the deliverables. In looking at the design artifacts, the lead is tasked with ensuring that designers are following established design patterns. Not only that, the lead must make sure that all the pieces will fit perfectly together and that the design is extensible. It is difficult for each team member to have both a detailed view of their part as well as a global one. Finally, the lead must manage deviations from standards or gaps in the overall user experience. When the lead does her job effectively, she acts as a conductor, making sure that the entire orchestra is in tune.

Vet and Document Patters

Because each designer is focused on their part of the project, it is difficult to keep track of all the design patterns that are employed in the design as a whole. At the same time, adhering to patterns is necessary in ensuring consistency and thus reducing confusion and improving learnability. Not only that, as new designers are brought onto the team, having a central repository of patterns greatly diminishes on-boarding time. Patterns should be identified by the entire team to give everyone an opportunity vet and challenge them. When new patterns are identified, they should be cataloged. When designs deviate from patterns, the team should ensure that they are warranted and possibly if patterns should be updated. Documenting such patterns varied by group and is driven by available technology, skill sets, and organizational constraints. There is not ideal, and it is important to rember that any patterns document is better than none.

Frequent Team Reviews

In order to achieve harmonious user experience, the entire team must collaborate and have a voice in the design. The key is to have consistent, frequent meetings where all members present their work and garner feedback from their colleagues. These review meetings are important for a variety of reasons. First, no one will be able to provide you with feedback than your team members, who are working on the same product and are intimately familiar with it on a number of dimensions. Second, each designer is super familiar with their part and the patterns that they use. Thus, they will quickly be able to identify when a design is not adhering to standards or is inconsistent in other ways. Finally, each designer will be able to immediately see how another members’ will work or not work with their own. This also allows them to plan for extensibility. Although the design lead is responsible for reviewing everyone’s work, a design review that involves the entire team is second to none.

I stress “frequent” and “consistent” because that I have found that if such reviews are scheduled ad hoc they often do not get scheduled at all. It my mind, I find it better to have weekly, even bi-weekly review meetings.

A Finely-Tuned Machine

When a team is not working in unison on a user experience design, the end product becomes confusing, inconsistent, and awkward. That is why it is critical for the team to work together. At the heart of every successful collaboration is communication and transparency. In my experience, I have found that the above practices go the furthest toward reaching that ideal.

Avoiding Agile Disaster

Agile development can be a wonderful thing. Unlike a waterfall approach that can be mired with checkpoints, bottlenecks, and other friction, Agile can free organizations to move quickly. However, with that freedom come deleterious consequences. Chief among them is the loss of  product identity, which leads to an unrecognizable agglomeration of disjointed features—A blob of garbled parts.

A Blob of Garbled Parts

One of the first questions I ask usability study participants is, “What do you think this thing does?” All too often, the answer is simply “I have no idea.” In other cases participants grasp at random guesses. In the case of Agile development, the cause usually lies with a loss of strategic vision.

Agile works in small, fast sprints that focus on features. In this high-paced product development framework, a myopic mindset often takes hold causing the team to lose sight of the big picture. Rather than asking how each new feature will support the overall product strategy and how each feature will work together to form a whole, teams are just focused on the feature-du-jour. The result is a mishmash of disconnected features–an amorphous blob, not a product. When you ask people what they think it is, you are really giving them a Rorschach test.

This is a problem for an obvious reason. No one wants an undecipherable blob of garbled stuff.

How to Spot the Blob

Luckily, it’s pretty easy to identify if your product is an amalgamation of disjointed features.

  • Open yourself to critically examining where you are.
  • Find some people that have never seen or heard of your product, show it to them briefly and ask them what they think it is and what it does.
  • Allow your subjects to interacted with your product for a few minutes and ask them again.
  • If more than half the people you interviewed cannot tell what your product is or does, you have a blob of disconnected features.

How to Fix Your Blob

This is the difficult part. Often, you have devoted so much time, effort and money into getting to where you are, that it is next to impossible to let go and clean up. Here is what to do:

  • Understand that if you do not consolidate your mess of features into a coherent product, it will only get worse and you will lose more time and money.
  • Without looking at what you have, state your product vision. (E.g. a community for people to share documents.)
  • Itemize all of your product’s features and ask whether they support your product vision. (Do you really need a video editing feature in your document sharing website?)
  • Cut all those features that do not support your product vision.
  • Look at the remaining features and ask how they fit together to form a unified product. (E.g. How does sharing by email relate to new user registration?)
  • If you identify features that do not work well with others, figure out a way to better integrate them.
  • Test the final product to make sure that you actually do have a product that people can understand and want.

How to Avoid the Blob

An ounce of prevention is worth a ton of cure in this case. It is substantially easier and cheaper to avoid losing the products identity than trying to recover it. Below are the steps to make sure that you build a product with a strong identity.

  • State your product vision if you haven’t already done so. (See above.)
  • With every new feature in the pipeline ask how it will (a.) support the product vision, and (b.) fit within the existing whole.
  • Develop a strategy for each feature to support the overall product strategy and to work seamlessly with the other features.
  • Ensure that the design and implementation of each features meets the above two criteria.

The Infinite Pivot and the Death Spiral

We all know them: start-ups that are caught in a cycle of infinite pivots. (I’m sure you’ve already seen the lampoon Vooza.) Sometimes it’s very obvious that a company is pivoting endlessly; other times it is much more subtle. Agile development is very prone to this chronic condition since it is so easy to change tack. What are the tailtell signs that your organization is stuck in an infinite pivot?

  • Your customers don’t know what your product is or what it does.
  • Every new customer support email prompts a new feature or revision.
  • You are often undoing previous work.

If any of the above sounds familiar, your organization might be stuck in an infinite pivot. Of course, pivoting is a vital step in any new company, but doing it too often will erode your product’s identity and leave you with a blob of disconnected parts as well as a fleeting customer base. When things get bad enough, your product can go into a death spiral.

The Infinite Pivot is really just a special case of the Blob of Garbled Parts, although it arises for slightly different reasons. The main culprit in this case is also a lack of product vision but also an over-sensitivity to customer and stakeholder opinion. What I mean by the latter is that the product heads make new product decisions every time they get a new piece of feedback from a customer or stakeholder. Take, for example, a shopping web site. A few customers write in wanting bigger product images, so the product team updates the web site with bigger images in one sprint. Then an investor insists on making the images smaller to fit more products on the screen, so the images are shrunk in the subsequent sprint. Sound familiar?

A strong product vision would curtail this scenario. Conflicting feature requests would be evaluated against the overall product vision. Do bigger or smaller product images support the product strategy? This is dictated by what kind of online store you are building, which is driven by business strategy.

How to Avoid the Infinite Pivot

As in the case of the Blob of Garbled Parts, the emphasis is on clearly stating a product vision and building a product around it. However, it is also important to develop an effective system for incorporating feedback.

  • Customer insights and stakeholder opinions should be viewed as a whole not piece by piece. For example, how many customers complain about the product images? Do more people want smaller images or bigger ones?
  • Each feature request should be scrutinized to see if it fits with the overall product vision as well as with existing parts.
  • If the feature request makes the first cut, one must guage its feasibility and its priority vis-a-vis other features in the pipeline.

Following these steps should help to ensure that you do not change tack too frequently and maintain a strong product identity.

Stay True to Your Product Vision

In my experience, the most common danger associated with developing products in an Agile framework is focusing on building individual features rather than a product. By clearly defining a product vision and ensuring that all development supports that vision, you can focus on building something that your customers will understand and, more importantly, want.

Fueling the Organic Growth Cycle for Web Products

Growing a vast customer base for an online product is a complex process that encompasses marketing, product development, and luck. However, it is possible to stack the odds in your favor and to make the best of your marketing dollars by creating a product experience that fosters the organic growth cycle.

The Organic Growth Cycle

For all products, new customers are generated through a combination of paid and word-of-mouth marketing. In some cases, the majority of a product’s new customers come from organic, word-of-mouth marketing. While traditional marketing such as online advertising requires a constant input of resources, word-of-mouth marketing can essentially become a self-sustaining system, requiring little or no support—a sort of marketing Turing machine. Such a well-tuned organic growth cycle can help to grow a large customer base for any web product.

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Interview with Netvibes’ CEO, Freddy Mini

I had the opportunity to speak with Netvibes’ CEO, Freddy Mini, as a follow-up to our original article on the company’s RSS reader. In our interview, we mainly discussed the strategy and vision for the product—who are the customer segments, how Netvibes meets their needs, where the product has been and where it is going. We also discuss the product development and design process at Netvibes. We get a fascinating look into how Mr. Mini plans to stay ahead of the competition, which includes iGoogle among others, by turning Netvibes from an aggregator to an automated publishing platform while continuing to add to its already vast assortment of content.

In a sentence or two, how would you describe Netvibes (the elevator pitch)?
I have [an elevator pitch] because last week I had to present at a thirty-second pitch, and then I entered the twitter pitch contest. Netvibes is the best online publishing platform that empowers everybody to take control of their digital life, should it be an individual or a business.

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Toward an Integrated Approach to Product Strategy and Design – Part 3 of 3

In part 1 and part 2 of this series, I explored synergies that exist between product development and user experience design as well as how the two fields fail to leverage those synergies in the product development process. In this part, I explain what product development and user experience teams can do to collaborate effectively.

What Can Product Developers and User Experience Designers Do Better

The instances where product developers and user experience designers collaborate poorly can be easily ameliorated. Overall, this means incorporating a more dynamic and integrated product development process where both teams work together on key phases and in shorter and more frequent cycles rather than long, inflexible phases. The particular steps that need to be taken to accomplish a more integrated process are outlined below.

  • Both teams should utilize an iterative and dynamic product design process instead of rigid, linear approach.
  • Both user experience designers and product developers should be involved in identifying opportunities, competitive analysis, market and user research, feature design, design refinement, implementation.
  • Product developers should not seek to define how each feature should work, but should rather define the broader project goals and product requirements.
  • User experience designers should stick to constraints defined by product developers, should consider the viability of their design in the context of implementation and marketability, and should consult with product developers on viability of features.
  • Both the user experience and product development teams should garner more frequent feedback from each other.
  • Treat the specifications documents and user experience design collateral as living documents.
Iterative and Dynamic Process

The most important optimizations to the product design process is incorporating shorter and more frequent product development cycles as well as involving each team in key phases. Although one team may take the lead in a particular phase, both teams should be involved in tasks that can benefit from both sets of expertise.

An Iterative and Dynamic Product Development Process (This abstraction does not include implementation.)

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Toward an Integrated Approach to Product Strategy and Design – Part 2 of 3

In part 1 of this series, I explored synergies between product development and user experience design. In this part, I write about how product development and user experience design teams fail to collaborate effectively.

How Product Development and User Experience Design Fail to Work Well Together

As described above, there are many intersections in the product development and user experience design methodologies, and where those methodologies meet, they approach the same problems and similar tasks from different perspectives and with unique competencies. This means that solutions derived collectively should be more robust and accurate. However, the two groups fail to effectively work together during key stages of the product design cycle, and many inefficiencies are introduced into the process. The following are phases where synergies should but fail to occur.

Finding Technology-Based and Market-Based Opportunities

One of the areas where great strides can be made is in identifying opportunities for new products and product improvements. Both product developers and user experience designers are adept at spotting opportunities, but they do so differently and often do not find the same ones. Sadly, combining both sets of identified opportunities is often overlooked, and new products lack the full set of potential improvements.

Product developers are particularly attuned to the industry and the general market place. They study market and industry research and have an outstanding grasp of the broad trends and opportunities present in the market. Product developers also stay abreast of prevailing technological trends, and their knowledge extends to the macro level to product testing, implementation management, and market research. Most importantly, product developers have the skills necessary to analyze market opportunities to determine which hold the greatest business potential. In addition, their expertise extends beyond the big picture to the granular level; product developers are knowledgeable with specific user types and needs as well as with the technologies particular to their product portfolio.

User experience designers are not only well aware of the general market place, but they also have an exceptionally strong understanding of opportunities at the micro level. A great part of their job is identifying customers, interviewing them, and listening to their needs and desires. User experience designers tend to have a healthy obsession with optimizing individual products or classes of products. They voraciously consume related knowledge in the form of user testing, research, and industry best practices. Beyond delving into comprehending users and their needs, user experience designers tend to strictly follow the latest technological trends and innovation, seeking opportunities to fruitfully incorporate the latest technology in their product designs. Further still, because competitive analysis is an integral part of their process, user experience designers have a very broad knowledge of competing products, the technologies they use, as well as opportunities for surpassing them.

Combining the two methodologies should lead to a holistic approach that leverages both the macro-level understanding of product developers and the micro-level knowledge of user experience designers. But even though there is great potential from the two fields collaborating to identify opportunities, they rarely do. The knowledge sharing between the two groups and cooperative brainstorming are often lacking.

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Toward an Integrated Approach to Product Strategy and Design – Part 1 of 3

Product development and user experience design are two fields that should, but rarely, collaborate effectively to design and define products that consumers will find delightful to use. There exist many natural synergies between the two disciplines, and each field’s strengths complement the other’s weaknesses. Despite this, product development and user experience teams often work in siloed circumstances with insufficient communication and collaboration and sometimes with quibbling. The current modus operandi leads to loss of productivity, longer time to market, higher costs, and products that fall short of their full potential.

User experience design is a relatively new field that has gained mainstream recognition in the past decade, and consequently, there has not been a lot of time to establish best practices for product development and user experience design to work most effectively together. The good thing is that it does not take a huge paradigm shift but rather an evolution of the current model to attain a more integrated approach to product strategy and design.

How the Process Works Right Now

Currently, the product design and development process typically starts with a product developer or a team of product developers being tasked by the executive management to conceive and oversee the production and distribution of a new product or suite of products. The product management team will conduct market research and competitive analysis, engage in fuzzy front-end brainstorming, conceive features, and will compose a long document specifying the product.

The specification document will then usually be passed on to the user experience design team, which will further define the product by designing how features will work and elements will be structured. The user experience designers will recommend new features, improve others, and redact a few.  Their designs will be articulated in specialized formats that are great for capturing elements of the design, but are not easy to understand for executives.

Subsequently, mock-ups or working prototypes of the product design will be created and tested by the user experience design team or a related team such as usability researchers. Once data and feedback have been gathered, the product developers and user experience designers will work to refine the product design. Usually, the designs produced by the user experience designers will be incorporated into the initial specification document.

At this point, or in conjunction with the user experience design, the product developers will formulate a strategy for making and selling the product. Finally, they will then manage the implementation, marketing, and distribution of the finished product or suite of products.

Linear Product Development Process

The standard product strategy and design process is quite linear with long phases. (This simplification does not include testing.)

This process is usually quite linear, and the constituent parts tend to be quite discrete from on another. Knowing that they only have one go at it, both the product development and user experience design teams fight for influence. Consequently, there tend to be many missed opportunities, inefficiencies and bruised egos along the way.

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Web Squared: What It Means for Product Design

It has been five years since John Battelle and Tim O’Reilly launched their Web 2.0 Conference. The Web has changed immensely in that short period. Since 2004, web-enabled mobile devices have gained wide-spread adoption, all kinds of devices have started interfacing with the internet, events on the Web have started occurring in real-time, and we have increasingly been emitting data in our everyday life through our mobile devices, on websites, as well as countless other channels.

John Battelle and Tim O’Reilly have recently published a report, titled “Web Squared: Web 2.0 Five Years On,” that reviews major changes over the past five years, sums up the current state of the Web, and predicts where it is going in the near future. “Web Squared” is the term that the authors give to the current state of the Web; it has evolved beyond the term “Web 2.0.” The paper sublimely encapsulates the past, present, and future, and it should be required reading for all product strategists and user experience designers.

A More Inclusive Web

To say that the Web has grown might be missing the point. The Web has grown not only in size, but more importantly, it has also grown to include many new ways of interfacing with it. In 2004, the primary mode of connecting to it was through a computer. Interacting with the Web involved a screen and standard modes of input such as a keyboard and mouse or trackpad. In 2009, we interface with the Web through innumerable novel devices that are fundamentally different from the old interaction paradigm. We may connect to the Web through widgets on an HDTV or through a touch interface on a mobile device. I like to think of these as varying nodes or portals that give us an interface to the many arms of  the Web. For example, my TiVo now streams movies from Netflix directly to my TV. The experience comes complete with a TV-based interface as well as web-based interaction components. There are countless of other examples of new interaction portals:

Web Squared: Various Novel Devices Now Are Portals to the Web


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Paint Me a Picture: Empowering the Consumer

When people consider buying anything, whether it be clothes, a gadget, or home, they often spend a lot of time comparison shopping and trying to gather information to inform their choice. In fact, a major effort is generally exerted to try to experience the item:

  • When shopping for shoes, we will put on one shoe and walk back and forth; then the other shoe, check ourselves out in the mirror and hold on to the item while scanning for other options.
  • For hotels and trips, we read reviews, look at pictures, and find out what our friends know about a destination or establishment. We look out for those horror stories and shop around for a balance of quality and price.
  • When shopping for a home, we take tours, learn about the previous owners, walk/drive through the neighborhood, look for restaurants and amenities nearby that match our interests and try to picture how we would arrange the rooms and furniture.

What this all leads to is a frame of reference. People try to create and imprint a picture in their minds of the item, not just on its own, but within their lives. It is easy for businesses to lose sight of this fundamental aspect of the decision-making process and leave it to the customer to do all this leg-work with little assistance. But this is a mistake.

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A Walk Through of Lufthansa’s Touch Screen Entertainment Application

I flew on Lufthansa during a recent trip to Europe. Not only was it one of the nicest flying experiences that I have ever had, but it also turned out to be an opportunity to experience a very well-done interactive experience. Despite some shortcomings, Lufthansa’s touch screen entertainment application was a prime case study in good user experience design. I have seen and used other in-flight applications on other airlines, but they were always clunky, often confusing, and not very enjoyable to use. Lufthansa’s application (pictured below), on the other hand, was elegant, simple, intuitive, and did everything that a typical passenger would likely need without mucking up the experience with useless features.


Home (Welcome) Screen

Home (Welcome) Screen

I witnessed something that was a true testament to the entertainment application’s outstanding design. Even before I had a chance to play with it, I looked over across the aisle where an elderly woman in about her seventies ventured to use the touch screen application. She poked the touch screen with resolute force and very intently examined the screen. From having done a number of usability studies, I guessed that she was a rather novice computer user, and I got excited to witness her use the application. From past usability studies with inexperienced participants, I anticipated that she would quickly get lost, confused, frustrated, and would abandon her task. To my astonishment, she prodigiously navigated through the application, browsed TV programs and movies to watch and ultimately played a movie on the touch screen in front of her. Needless to say, I was completely astounded by how easy to use and intuitive the application was even to a computer novice.

After studying my unaware participant, I quickly took out my camera and examined Lufthansa’s in-flight touch screen entertainment program. Below are my observations. I draw on some particular screens to illustrate certain points, and all of the ones that I photographed can be seen in the gallery at the end of the post.

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