October 12, 2018

Alissa Briggs: constructing better designer-developer collaboration

Alissa Briggs

Alissa Briggs

Head of Design, PlanGrid

Alissa Briggs is Head of Design at PlanGrid, the global leader in construction productivity software. Previously, Alissa was Director of User Experience at Brigade, the world’s first network for voters. She also led design for Intuit’s Payroll division where she managed 15+ product lines powering prosperity around the world. As an active member of the design community, Alissa has spoken at Enterprise UX, UXPA, SXSW and other top conferences around the world. She’s also been featured by FastCo.Design, O’Reilly Media and other industry publications. [Via Alissa’s LinkedIn profile].

Eli: Alissa Briggs, head of design at PlanGrid, welcome to Conversations on DesignBetter.Co.

Alissa: Thank you, happy to be here.

Eli: Great to have you. For those not familiar with PlanGrid, could you talk a little bit about the company and what you are up to?

Alissa: At PlanGrid, we’re building construction productivity software that helps construction teams build better together on the construction site. When you look around you, construction is everywhere. It really is the fabric of humanity. The jobs that we go to—our schools, our hospitals, our homes—none of these things are possible without construction. And that makes it a really interesting, essential, and often overlooked industry.

The reality is, construction is one of the biggest and oldest industries in the world, yet it lags behind every other industry in terms of productivity. Even though we are building things at an amazing level of scale and complexity, the majority of construction is still done using paper blueprints. When you’re trying to use those to coordinate 8,000 people building a museum, it’s just a real nightmare. We believe there’s a better future for construction teams. At PlanGrid, we’re creating tools that make building faster, safer, and remove the friction from collaboration.

Eli:  I used to work construction during summers in college and a little bit in high school, so I have an appreciation for the low level of technology available; at least, this was 20+ years ago, but it certainly seemed like there were a lot of things that technology could improve in that space.

Alissa: Absolutely, so many things.

Eli: I was doing a little LinkedIn sleuthing, and it looks like you did your undergrad in computer science and then M.S. in human-computer interaction at Carnegie Mellon. What was your path from the computer science world into the world of design?

Alissa: To be honest, when I was thinking about going to college I actually had no clue what I wanted to major in. I remember I had this list of different options and was getting very stressed out about it.  

Finally, my parents got tired of listening to me and were like, “Look, these are all good options, just choose one and see if you like it. If you don’t, you can always go back and do something else.” That was really good advice, and I ended up deciding to study computer science. Then I stumbled upon the human-computer interaction department, which focused on the intersection of technology, design, and psychology. I was like, “Oh my gosh, this is my dream major.” The deeper I got into that world, the more fascinated I was about how technology can be used to solve meaningful human problems. I feel really lucky that I’ve been able to spend my career doing just that.

Eli:  I have a similar undergrad story where I had no clue what I really wanted to do, I sort of wanted to be an artist but my parents pushed me a little bit more toward the technical side, so I started in symbolic systems doing human-computer interaction and taking a lot of product design classes, and I found that product design is a pretty great blend of engineering and art. So since you do have this foundation in engineering and computer science, do you have any tips for designers who want to gain better empathy with their engineering counterparts?

Alissa: I think a great way to build that trust is by taking time to understand what your specific engineering partner really cares about. Just take them out for coffee and ask them what they love about their job, what’s frustrating to them, what success looks like to them, and get to understand their world. And share a little bit about what matters to you as well. It’s usually pretty easy to find common ground. Maybe it’s a shared passion for creating products that help people. Or a shared love for the craft. In any case, if you get to know and care about that individual as a person, the partnership and collaboration and good work follows.

I always wanted to engage really closely with the engineering team, so I ended up doing a lot of initially just sharing my designs with them and asking them a lot of questions about the technical constraints I wasn’t considering: Is it possible to build this kind of thing? Or is there something else I should be exploring? And as I built more confidence in coming to them with a lot of questions and asking them for their expertise, I then also started to bring them into my world and teach them how to give better design feedback to me and also engage with them, going to the whiteboard and actually brainstorming different solutions together.

The more I did that, the more I found they had so much to bring to the creative process, and on the flip side there were a lot of things where I could help them understand.

Eli: That’s a great mindset. What are some of the biggest points of tension for designers working with developers and vise versa?

Alissa:  When that trust isn’t there, sometimes we get caught up in negative stereotypes. The classic one is designers thinking engineers just try to build the easiest thing without caring about building a great user experience and engineers thinking that designers just want to make stuff pretty. Fundamentally, I think it comes down to a misunderstanding. I think these stereotypes are hurtful because they get in the way of us aligning our goals and making good decisions and tradeoffs together. That’s why it’s so important to build that shared trust and understanding.

Eli: You may already have this scenario but if not in your dream scenario what would a perfect workflow look like between design and engineering?

Alissa: First of all, I don’t think there is a perfect workflow. The reality is that every company, every team works a little bit differently. Even here at PlanGrid, as the company has grown, we’ve needed to evolve how we work together quite a lot. When we were quite small, it was okay for things to be a bit loose and unstructured. But as we’ve grown, we’ve been codifying more of our processes. We’ve gotten more structured about how we communicate and collaborate.   

Eli: I think that’s a point well taken. The way we talk to other companies and we teach workshops and we do education, we often advocate for bringing engineers to the design process sooner. What are some practical ways to do that, that you’ve experienced?

Alissa: I’m a big fan of Jeff Gothelf’s book called Lean UX. When I was a junior designer, I remember seeing him give a talk about bringing engineers into your design process. When I got back to the office, I remember asking my engineering teammates if I could start sharing some of the stuff I was working on for 15 minutes after daily standup. Fifteen minutes isn’t a big ask, so of course they were like, “Sure, let’s see how it goes.” Next thing I know, I’m getting all this awesome feedback and new ideas. The engineers want to get more involved in brainstorms and user studies. I’m hearing the technical constraints before I get too far into a design direction. It was great for me and great for them.

Eli: I wanted to shift over to talk about design leadership, and I know you’re a member of our Design Leadership Forum. I also noticed that you have design leadership office hours, so I’m curious about some of the common topics and questions that you’re getting there, and what you’ve been learning.

Alissa: That’s right, I hosted open design leadership office hours during PlanGrid’s hackweek. It was so much fun that I really want to do some more. I ended up talking with about 15 people over the course of the week. It was people in all places in their leadership journey.

There were two main types of questions I got: Some were logistical like hiring, recruiting, and how to deal with performance issues. In those cases I pointed people to resources I’ve found useful, such as the Manager Tools podcast.

The other types of questions that came up were really around the soft skills of management. A common situation was someone having a conflict with a coworker or feeling frustrated about something their manager is doing. In those cases I’d usually ask, “What happened when you talked with that person about it?” And they’d say, “Hmm… yeah, I haven’t actually talked with them yet.”

It sounds obvious, and I’m sure I’m guilty of this myself:

Eli: That’s a good segue into the next question, which is, are there any other books or blogs or podcasts that are helping you now as a design leader?

Alissa: I highly recommend Org Design for Design Orgs. It’s one of the few books I’ve found that really digs into design operations at modern tech companies.

I’ve also found general management books to be helpful. Two good ones are It’s Okay to be the Boss and Five Dysfunctions of a Team. The Manager Tools podcast also has  a great philosophy on what it means to lead with integrity. I base a lot of my personal management philosophy off of that.

Eli: That’s a great list. Alissa, it’s been an absolute pleasure having you on Conversations, thanks so much for sharing all your insights.

Alissa: Thank you so much, and great questions, and I really appreciate you making the time.


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