InVision presents

Principles of Product Design


by Aarron Walter

Successful design-driven companies building the best products with the strongest design teams have practices in common. These extensively researched core best practices will help your team design better, faster, and more collaboratively. Combined with the power of design thinking, these product design principles will accelerate your team’s design practice.


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Guess less
Stop wasting time

The software industry celebrates stories of lightning-strike success so much, you’d think hunches and risky bets could create unicorns. The best product design teams understand the reality—customer research forms the bedrock of successful products and companies.

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Story first
Find your North Star

Humans have used stories to foster collective understanding since the beginning. The most powerful designs start with a story—the why—and where your designs fit into people’s lives. Using product stories, journey maps, storyboards, and user personas, teams can build empathy and understanding before designing.

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Pencils before pixels
Think divergently

Every design begins somewhere, in imperfection. Sketching brings together designers and key stakeholders so they can collaboratively find the best solutions without getting lost in design details.

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Show and tell
Create a culture of feedback

When it comes to feedback, there’s little room for polite reserve within a design team. Use design reviews, retrospectives, design standups, and careful space planning to facilitate a culture of feedback within your team—your designs and designers will benefit.

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Fast feedback
Product prototyping—accelerated

Building great products requires an iterative process. The more your team tests their designs through prototyping, the faster you’ll discover needed course corrections or new possibilities. Through building blocks like pattern libraries and user feedback, teams can always design with fresh eyes.

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Lateral design
We're better together

Your org chart can greatly influence the design process at your company. Bridge gaps between design, engineering, research, product, and others with cross-functional teams, sprints, working groups, and other structural changes that enable better lateral design.

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Break the black box
Product design is people

As your company and design org mature and scale, it gets harder to maintain the visibility and transparency crucial for great product design. You’ll need to take on streamlining communication, surfacing design within the company, and more big-picture challenges beyond your desk.

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01

Guess less

Stop wasting time

Listen to Chapter

Have you ever bought a lottery ticket? I admit, I’ve played a few times. You won’t be surprised to learn I never did win the big jackpot. Seeing winners on the evening news gives the false impression that anyone could win, but the odds of winning are long—very long.

Rod Wolfe knows a thing or 2 about long odds. His friends call him “Lightning Rod” because he’s been struck by lightning not once, but twice. What are the chances? Well, you’re more likely to be the next Rod Wolfe than you are the next lottery winner.

The software industry has a lot in common with the lottery. We see big winners in the news everyday—Facebook, Uber, Airbnb. Their success bolsters our ambitions of making the next big product. Our ambitions are big and we act fast hoping to beat competitors to the market.

Software success hinges on a lottery-like collection of variables: the right product with the right features for the right audience in the right market. If you’re even a little bit off in your planning, you can end up wasting time and resources, and potentially put your company in a very difficult situation.

In this excerpt from the documentary DESIGN DISRUPTORS, veteran designers Daniel Burka and Mike Davidson talk about the problems of waiting until you ship a product to get customer feedback.

Optimistic that they already understand how to design a winning product and eager to get to market, many companies dive straight into production without spending time learning about customers and their needs. They base their designs on guesses that make the odds of success long.

Guesses make messes

Buffer, a popular publishing platform for social networks, found itself in financial turmoil in part because they’d over-invested in products and features that weren’t relevant to their customers.

Buffer had to let 10 employees go and made painful budget cuts to recover. The good news is they’re starting to get back on track, but optimism and assumptions almost took them down. If you’ve spent time in the software industry you know Buffer’s story isn’t unique.

So many companies base their strategies on optimistic guesses and get it wrong far too often.

Guessing is expensive—if you’re wrong you could be out of business.

Guessing puts you at a competitive disadvantage—when you know little about the customers you serve, you know little about how to succeed.

Guessing is arrogant—you’re lying if you think you understand your customers without studying them first.

There’s a way to tweak your odds of succeeding, though. Rather than making assumptions about customers, we can start to learn from them. Customer research is easy to do and can be folded into any workflow—Sprints, Agile, Lean, whatever! As you start to think about customer research, you’ll probably find you have a lot of data already on hand that can inform your work—you just need to bring it to the surface.

Guessing makes your odds of success long. Let’s stop playing the product design lottery and start getting the insights we need to make great products.

Here’s how to do it.

Research fast and make things

Customer research fits into every workflow, every role, and every company size. Whether you’re a designer, project manager, or director, the goal is to guess less and work from a position of being informed and confident.

There are 2 types of research you can do to learn about your customers:

  • Quantitative: These are the things we can measure. Examples include analytics that communicate customer behavioral patterns and aggregate stats about customer cohorts.
  • Qualitative: These are things that tell us about the qualities of a product or experience. Customer interviews, for example, give us insights about how a customer feels, which can provide a lot of insight into what motivates their behavior.

Think of quantitative and qualitative research as the Wonder Twins. They each have incredible powers, but they’re much more useful when they work together. Relying on 1 can sometimes lead you down the wrong path.

For instance, a couple years ago the user research team at MailChimp stumbled upon an interesting piece of quantitative data: many customers connected their Facebook accounts to their MailChimp accounts.

Based on the quantitative findings, the product team started to consider how to further the MailChimp-Facebook connection, but the qualitative findings from customer interviews told a different tale. Most customers only connected to Facebook because it seemed like something they should do given the social network’s popularity, but they never actually did anything meaningful with the integration. The product team changed course once the qualitative findings clarified the motivations behind the customer behavior.

Surveys that impact product design

Surveys are a handy way to learn about your customers and can be conducted ad hoc or even automated. There is a host of different surveys you could run, but use them sparingly, as too many will alienate customers.

There is an art to creating effective surveys, and the Google Ventures team has a wonderful guide that will help you avoid rookie mistakes as you begin this practice.

Tips for building effective surveys

  • Start simple with clear goals about what you want to learn.
  • Keep your surveys as short as possible to get better response rates. “Nice-to-know” questions should be cut, as they just increase the length of your survey.
  • Never ask respondents for information you could get yourself. For example, don’t ask when someone signed up for your service if you already have that info in your database.
  • Randomize answers to question to avoid response order bias.
  • Conclude with an open-ended question like, “Is there anything else you want to tell us?” to give respondents an opportunity to surface interesting issues that may surprise you. This is a great way to find good candidates for interviews.
  • Run a pilot test of your survey with a small sample of people before you send it to everyone. This will help you find questions that may be missing response options or identify places where things aren’t clear.
  • Spend time carefully writing the email asking customers to take your survey, as it will greatly influence your response rate.

Automated surveys

Who they help: Everyone!

Why they’re useful: After you set up an automated survey, data keeps streaming in, giving you fresh insights regularly.

Types of automated surveys you might send

  • Net Promoter Score: Learn about your customers’ loyalty to your brand. Delighted is a lovely tool to run regular NPS surveys.
  • After sign up: Find out why customers signed up, and from which competitor they’re switching. This is useful for marketing teams as it helps identify the language that motivates buying behavior. Send this within a few days of sign up while their memories are still fresh.
  • After account closing: Find out why they’re leaving. Is it you or just circumstance? Are they switching to a competitor? Link to your survey on the page in your app confirming their account is closed.
  • Topic specific: Use a tool like Ethnio or Qualaroo to deliver a micro-survey to specific customers. By placing a small code snippet on a carefully selected page in your Knowledge Base, you can find a customer with expertise on almost any topic.

Ad hoc surveys

Who they help: Teams doing a deep dive on a feature or topic.

Why they’re useful: They can give you an aggregate view of customers’ thoughts on a topic, and help you find outliers who may make for good interviews.

Ad hoc surveys can be conducted in many ways. You can send an annual survey to collect customer data to inform projects throughout the year. You could also send a survey to gather insights or guide development on a specific feature or new product.

You needn’t survey all of your customers to get the results you need. Surveying too many people will produce lower response rates and introduce unwanted noise into your data. Instead, use your customer data to target the right people for your study before you send.

For example, want to learn more about customers who sell things online? Find a segment of those customers who have a shopping cart platform, like Shopify, integrated with your app. Want to hear from customers who are highly engaged with your product? Segment by ‘times logged in this month.’

Netflix, Airbnb, and Intuit have all used automated and ad hoc surveys to inform their work.

Customer interviews

Customer interviews deliver a wealth of information that will help you design more successful products. They’ll give you a glimpse into the emotions that drive customer behavior, help you understand your customers’ workflows, and let you hear the language people use when describing your product. This is essential stuff!

But your time is limited and you probably can’t spend weeks talking to dozens of customers. How can you find the people with the most insight? The answer lies in your survey responses!

Your survey generated data from a variety of customers who can help you better understand how to design your product. Drop your survey response data into Excel and filter to find any of these types of customers:

  • People nearby you can visit in person
  • People who just signed up
  • People who just closed their account
  • People with interesting traits, behaviors, or off-the-wall responses
  • People who’ve said they would or would not recommend your product to a friend

When you’ve found customers of interest, send them a short, personal email asking to learn more about them. Interviews by Skype or Google Hangouts can be conducted in a conference room where your whole team can listen in—they’ll comprehend the feedback more easily if they hear from the customer themselves. About 20-30 minutes is all that’s needed for a phone interview. It’s always a good idea to record interviews so you can reference them later.

Visiting customers in person takes a bit more time, but can be eye-opening. You’ll get to see the hardware they use, the distractions of their office, the flow of their day, and meet some of their colleagues. The entire experience will be a vivid reminder to you and your team that you’re designing products for real people.

Tips for conducting customer interviews

  • Customer interviews needn’t always be connected to a project. You can dedicate a day or 2 per month to talk to customers to keep your team in the habit of learning.
  • Limit the number of people conducting the interview so you don’t overwhelm your participant.
  • Assign a person to take notes so the person asking questions is free to drive the conversation.
  • Watch for signs of an energy change from the subject, raised voice, the use of profanity to punctuate a story, leaning in to emphasize a point—these indicate what’s important to your customer, and directs you to ideas for refinement or even new products.
  • Bring a voice recorder to capture the interview so you don’t feel compelled to furiously capture every word.
  • Each interview will yield 1 or 2 golden insights. Don’t get lost in the details—train your ears to listen for the meaningful insights.
  • Use the Switch Interview technique to learn from people who just bought or just left your product.

While at MailChimp, my team noticed a small trend of customers departing us for more complex and more expensive competitors. Using surveys, we recruited customers who had just recently closed an account and cited a competitor’s platform as the reason. We set up 60-minute calls with a handful, and spent 2 days interviewing.

The survey pointed us in the right direction, but the interviews provided the missing link: these customers weren’t leaving because of the app’s shortcomings; they were leaving because of a perception problem. They mistook the simplicity of the app for a lack of sophistication. These former customers were looking for a complex tool to make them feel like the accomplished professionals they are. It was eye-opening, and helped illuminate a new product direction for MailChimp.

Existing data

Sometimes guessing less simply means becoming aware of the data you already have. That’s exactly what happened at Bambora, a new global payments company based in Stockholm. Creative Director Anders Färdigh and his design team craved more insight to guide their work, but the thought of building a dedicated research team felt premature. Maybe there was a simpler starting point?

During a meeting with their COO Patrik Göthlin, Anders discovered that much of the insight his team needed was already being gathered. Patrick’s operations team was doing extensive Net Promoter Score research, surveying Bambora’s customers to determine their loyalty to the brand, and following up with detractors to learn where they were falling short. They’d even been visiting customers in person to capture feedback about their products. There was so much information already on hand to help the design and product teams prioritize their work.

In large organizations, it’s hard to know what research is already siloed within other teams. That’s why it’s important to spend time talking with colleagues on other teams to learn about their work and the research already underway.

Get started by talking to people in these teams

  • Sales: These folks talk with customers all day. They’re collecting insights about product shortcomings and data about every potential customer. You may find that the data the sales team tracks in Salesforce could help you identify interesting customers to interview.
  • Marketing: Analytics often falls to the marketing team to track. They can give you access to Google Analytics and other tools that may help you understand customer pathways and raise questions about interesting customer behaviors. Marketers are often at events talking with customers, and may have insights to share with you.
  • Customer service: Few teams have as much actionable information for refining your product as the customer service team. They hear the struggles of your customer daily, and they know what themes are strongest. Make a habit of talking to many customer service agents to get the broadest perspective on your customers’ pain points.
  • Data science: Your customer database is a goldmine of information. If you have a data science team then chances are they’re already querying that database to find customer cohorts. This team will be your most treasured ally as you dig deeper into customer research.
  • Engineering: You’re probably already working closely with the engineering team on the product, but you should also be talking to them about the data they could be logging for you. Curious about which integrations customers connect first to your app, or failure rates of a particular workflow? Your engineering colleagues can probably log that data for you and have the app email you a report.

Learning in the background

There are a number of handy tools that can collect data for you behind the scenes, giving you yet another source of information to tap when you need it most.

Fullstory

Have you ever wished you could just watch your customers using your product to see where they stumble? Fullstory gives you that super power. It’s like a DVR for your app or website—it captures every session in your app and lets you play them back.

Want to see sessions of every customer who’s signed up in the past week and clicked the help button? Or maybe you want to see sessions where a specific error happened so you can diagnose the problem. Fullstory has incredible search options to help you filter sessions to find exactly what you’re looking for.

Intercom

Intercom’s customer feedback features can help you get in touch with customers who have taken specific actions, so you can then ask them about their experience. Once you’ve defined the rules for the customers you want to speak with, you can create automated messages to be sent via email or in-app. All of the feedback lands in a shared inbox, where your team can tag and organize messages to identify patterns.

Builtwith

You can learn a lot about your customers just by examining the tools they use, and Builtwith will help you discover every technology your customers use to power their website. When a new customer signs up for your product, pass their URL over to the Builtwith API to retrieve and store their tech stack data for your research.

Knowing that a customer is using Shopify, MailChimp, and Zendesk gives you clues about their business—they sell stuff online and have marketing and customer service teams; they’re using tools that are very design focused; and they’re using tools that are DIY, so they may not have developers on staff.

As you look at the tech stacks of your customers you’ll begin to read them like tea leaves, giving you clues that can guide you to the right interviews and aggregate data to understand customer cohorts.

Against all odds

You know why the lottery is fun despite being a losing game? There’s not much at stake. I know the odds are wildly against me, but when I lose I’ll only be out a few bucks. Rent will still get paid.

Product design also has tough odds, but the stakes are much higher. If your product fails to get traction with your customers, you and your colleagues could be out of a job.

“Fail fast” is the mantra of the software industry. The surest way to achieve that goal is by basing your product design on guesses. Successful, design-driven companies are doing just the opposite—they’re succeeding fast by guessing less. They’re finding ways to inform their work each step of the way, tapping into existing data, setting up systems to continuously gather feedback, and they’re talking to their customers all the time.

Research isn’t some monolithic, academic process. It can fit into every workflow, every role, and every company size. Whether you’re a designer, project manager, or director, the goal is to guess less and work from a position of strength by being informed.

04

Show and tell

Create a culture of feedback

Listen to Chapter

Feedback is the lifeblood of a healthy design team. It informs the design process, leads to better products, and helps designers grow. Despite its essential role in design, it’s too often absent in our work.

In most design programs, feedback is folded into virtually every aspect of learning. I was reminded of this fact a couple years ago when I was invited to the Stanford d.school to speak to Enrique Allen’s class about design. Before meeting with students, Enrique provided a quick tour, pointing out works in progress. His colleague Scott Doorley joined us to explain the thinking behind each workspace in the school.

In some ways the school was like many others I’d visited—the energy of overly caffeinated students laboring over projects was palpable. But there was something peculiar about it: every space was messy. Not unkempt, but messy with ideas in progress. There was a sense of urgency to the way work was posted on walls and scribbled upon. Work tables were strewn with exacto knives, rulers, tape and scraps of paper—instruments of creation. All the furniture—desks, couches, work tables, and whiteboards—was fitted with casters and either pushed into clusters for conversation or lined up against the walls to open up room to build. The space was very carefully designed to facilitate the chaos of creative thinking.

The energy was incredible, and I didn’t want to leave. It was an ecosystem of ideas, where projects sprouted and grew or died to make room for the next experiment.

The d.school’s design studio is so different from those in nearly every tech company, where the space is pristinely decorated and filled with desks for solitary work. The walls of most startups I’ve visited are reserved for clever posters or artsy murals, not the design concepts that will lead to the next product release. Those designs remain trapped in a legion of MacBooks, starved for critical discourse that could help them grow into something far greater.

Healthy feedback

Something’s lost when we transition into the professional design world. Work no longer happens out in the open. Creative chaos is traded in for tidy presentations of fully formed ideas. Things stop being messy.

The d.school’s messy studio is an indicator of a healthy feedback process. Students are making things, showing what they’ve made, and getting feedback that helps them see their work differently. Then the process repeats, often quickly.

Healthy design teams have feedback built into their processes, so ideas can evolve and designers can grow. Work is shared with colleagues consistently and intentionally in design reviews, daily standups, and casual conversations.

Building feedback into our design practice helps in so many ways:

  • It helps us avoid spending too much time on a design that may have significant flaws.
  • It gives us multiple perspectives on a single problem, helping the designer get closer to an effective solution faster.
  • Presenting work for feedback keeps the team synced on project progress, and holds everyone accountable to milestones and deadlines.
  • As designers get in the habit of presenting their work and giving feedback to others, they learn to think more clearly about their design decisions and become comfortable articulating their ideas.
  • Regular feedback processes will give junior designers the opportunity to learn from senior designers, helping your entire team level up.

There are many ways to create a culture of feedback in your team, but be patient—change won’t happen overnight.

Related: E-course: Making a product designer

Creating a culture of feedback

Giving and receiving feedback is a skill that needs to be cultivated. Dropping a few design reviews on the team calendar creates the opportunity for your team to exchange feedback, but it doesn’t ensure that anyone will actually know how to participate.

It can be a little scary to give feedback—we don’t want to create conflict by coming across as negative. And receiving feedback is even more intimidating. No one wants their work to be criticized! With practice, your team will learn that these fears are misplaced. Design feedback, when properly delivered, is constructive, supportive, and helps designers grow.

As they talk about design, your team will develop the language they need to deliver constructive feedback, and their perspectives on the qualities of good design will mature. You’ll hear fewer vague observations and more constructive feedback that can improve the design. For instance, rather than hearing, “I like the type you’ve chosen,” you’ll begin to notice statements like, “The type selection feels trendy, which contradicts the project’s goal of inspiring trust in the content.” The former isn’t helpful, while the latter is instructive.

Tweaking the language used in critiques can help ensure designers don’t take criticism personally. Say “the design doesn’t meet the goals of the project,” not “you didn’t meet the goals of the project.” Always talk about the work, not the person who made it.

Good feedback develops with rapport. For that reason, you may want to temper overly critical feedback early on so people feel safe presenting their work. Designers need to hear where they’re headed in the wrong direction, but deliver the message with encouragement. Work your way into more direct criticism once rapport and trust are established.

Setting the stage

Feedback happens more naturally when you create the right environment. Does your design practice make affordances for creative chaos like the Stanford d.school does, or is it built for solitary work?

By simply changing your space, you can set the stage for feedback and collaboration in your team. For distributed and remote teams, this is doubly important. Establishing dedicated times and places for sharing works in progress keeps everyone connected.

In person

The walls of your design studio are a sacred space. This is where your team’s ideas can be shared, debated, retooled, and celebrated. Make it clear to your team that the studio walls are not a gallery—this is work space!

If you don’t already have one, invest in a large format printer and get the whole team connected. Print design work daily and post to your studio walls for scheduled design reviews and casual conversations.

If your walls aren’t ideal for posting work, you can buy 8-foot by 4-foot sheets of foam core and lean them against your walls. Get some nice Washi tape to post your designs in style (and easily peel off later). Leave markers and sticky notes nearby so your team and anyone in the company can easily jot down feedback and post it.

The design team at Greater Good Studio has gone so far as to create project bays, a modular space to post work for critical discussion. Each new project they begin gets its own bay—a physical manifestation of their progress.

The fidelity of the work you post can influence the feedback you get. Pixel perfect comps may lead others to believe the work is finished, which will inhibit feedback. Work that’s lower fidelity or with notes scribbled on it will make it clear to all that you’re still working through ideas.

Remote

Remotes teams can also set the stage for feedback using tools like Slack, Trello, Google Hangouts, and of course, InVision. The entire design team at InVision is distributed and uses their own product to conduct design reviews. LiveShare, a design collaboration feature in InVision, lets the team present and get real-time feedback. Early ideas are explored with Freehand and Boards, later becoming Prototypes that are again shared with the team for feedback.

With so many affordable tools at hand, remote teams can easily build feedback into their design process too.

Bringing everyone into the process

Once your space is set up and designs are being posted, pay attention to how people behave. In person, are more people stopping by, curious about your work? Are spontaneous conversations happening in front of design work? Do you see designers staring at the wall, head tilted, pondering what’s been posted? Online, are people commenting on work shared on Slack or InVision? Is your Trello board exploding with links to new ideas?

These are all positive signs that your culture is shifting for the better. You’re bringing everyone into the design process!

Formalizing the feedback process

Designing out in the open is just the first step. Your team will also need to get feedback on their designs, sync with teammates to make sure progress is being made, and learn from mistakes. This is a tall order and calls for different types of feedback processes.

Let’s take a look at a few ways to get your team the right feedback at the right time.

Design reviews

When they should happen: Early, midway, and at the end of a project

Who should be there: The designer plus no more than 7 people

How it helps: Designers get the feedback they need to refine their work

Design reviews are critiques that let designers get detailed feedback that’s framed by the project goals. Design reviews can happen at a number of different points in a project. It’s often helpful to do it early on so the designer can get fresh perspectives before investing too much time in an idea that may be misguided. The midway point and towards the end of a project are also natural times to get additional input.

Never use a design review as a big reveal of project. If you wait until you have everything polished, you’ll be too invested to accept the feedback you’re given.

Design reviews are a great opportunity to bring in experts from other teams. Colleagues from customer support, engineering, QA, legal, marketing, or even an executive may have a new perspective to help you see the problem differently. But try not to overload the guest list in these reviews—too many people and you’ll have a hard time guiding the conversation.

Design reviews are not a free-for-all. They should be run with these rules in mind:

Use a facilitator

The designer is not the best person to facilitate a conversation about her work. She’ll have biases that could influence the feedback, and she needs to be free to listen to the conversation unencumbered. The facilitator will write down all of the feedback and share it with the design team after the review.

A facilitator will set the ground rules for the conversation:

  • State the time limit for the design review
  • Introduce the designer and remind everyone that feedback should not turn into committee design. “Susan is the designer of the work we’re reviewing today. We’ll be helping her get fresh perspectives on her work, but let’s offer feedback—not design suggestions. She will use our feedback to inform her decisions.”
  • Let people know how they should give feedback. “Feedback should be specific and candid. Let’s point out what’s working well and what needs refinement. Remember, we’re critiquing the work, not the designer.”

Don’t rush into the review. The facilitator should give everyone time to review the work and for their observations to take shape in silence before the conversation begins.

Frame the problem

The facilitator should give the designer an opportunity to frame the problem at the beginning of the review, including any user and business goals. For example, “Users want to save money more effectively, and we want to keep customers engaged by teaching them to manage their money better.”

Identify the constraints of the project: ”Due to legal constraints, we have to disclose this information before the user can enroll in this new program.” If reviewers aren’t aware of the constraints and goals of the project, their feedback is unlikely to be helpful.

Say what you need

The designer should state what she needs from the design review: ”I’m trying to determine if this photo upload workflow is intuitive.” This will help keep the feedback focused, and prevent the group from wandering into unproductive conversations.

Don’t pitch, just listen

The designer should not pitch her idea or over-explain her designs. If she does, she robs everyone of the fresh eyes they bring to the design review. Once the designer has framed the problem and stated her needs, she should simply listen to the feedback.

Design standups

When they should happen: Daily, if possible

Who should be there: Everyone on the design team

How it helps: Your team gets the chance to sync up on projects

Design standups are short, daily check-ins that help your team stay abreast of the work being done. As the name suggests, everyone remains standing in these meetings so no one can get comfortable enough to launch into a soliloquy.

In a standup, each team member answers 3 questions:

  1. What did you do yesterday?
  2. What will you do today?
  3. Are there any impediments in your way?

While most teams choose to conduct standups in the morning, you may want to consider doing them after lunch—the morning is when our minds are clearest and ready to focus on creative work.

Don’t let standups turn into impromptu design critiques. If someone needs immediate design feedback, ask that they hold the request until after the meeting. A standup should be short and focused on project progress.

Retrospectives

When they should happen: After a project is launched or a sprint is completed

Who should be there: Everyone who worked on the project

How it helps: Your team will internalize lessons from each project

Every project is a learning opportunity, but if you don’t pause to take stock, valuable lessons will slip by. When you’ve launched a project or completed a sprint, reflect on what went well, what was confusing, and what didn’t go so well.

Matth Spiel, Director of Design at Treehouse, conducts retrospective meetings regularly. He sends a pre-retrospective survey to the team before the meeting to capture each person’s perspective individually. This helps to eliminate the bandwagon effect, which happens when the views of the group conform to those of a few vocal people.

Matt asks his team to rate their performance both as a group and as individuals on a scale from 1 to 5, where 5 is the highest. Ratings tend to cluster in a similar spot, but occasionally there are outliers. Team members who’ve given starkly different ratings are asked to share their views in the meeting to promote transparency and honesty.

Discussion in Treehouse’s retrospective meetings is centered around 3 questions common to most Agile retrospectives:

  • What worked well for us?
  • What didn’t work well for us?
  • What can we do to improve our process?

These questions are sometimes referred to as Start, Stop, Keep—what should we start doing, stop doing, and keep doing?

Honest conversation about each of these questions becomes easier with the cultivation of trust and plenty of practice running retrospective meetings.

Postmortems

When they should happen: After a project has gone poorly

Who should be there: Everyone who worked on the project and an impartial facilitator

How it helps: Your team will learn from their mistakes and find a way forward

Not all projects go well. Some go horribly wrong, requiring all teams involved in the project to come together to consider and learn from the mistakes they made.

Though projects rarely go awry at Etsy, they’ve established a strong process to guide them through those that do. Their process follows many of the recommendations set forth in the Agile methodology.

Here’s how a typical postmortem is run:

  • Before the meeting: Send an email asking the team to identify key points in the project timeline. This will be used to construct a master timeline of events, which will be discussed in the meeting. By focusing on events, you’ll avoid negative finger pointing, which can derail the process.
  • Moderator: Choose a moderator. This person, who wasn’t on the project and can be impartial, should be guiding the conversation from the whiteboard, taking notes for all to see.
  • Ground rules: The moderator should first point out that this is not a blame session. It’s a conversation about the shortcomings of the team’s process, not the people involved. It’s an opportunity to learn!
  • Facts: People recall events differently. The moderator can help the team agree upon what actually happened so lessons can be extracted. Establishing a timeline of events can help pinpoint where things went wrong.
  • Lessons and actions: As key lessons are identified, they should be written on the whiteboard for all to see. The actions required to mitigate the problems stemming from the failed project also need to be identified, assigned an owner, and provided a clear deadline.
  • After the meeting: The lessons learned from the postmortem should be emailed to the entire team, along with the action items that are to be completed.

Postmortems can seem rough, but they’re far superior to repeating the same mistakes. They’re a powerful opportunity for your team to learn and improve your processes.

Putting show and tell into practice

I’ve mentored a number of talented designers seeking guidance on their career path. All tell me the same thing: “I just want to work somewhere where I can grow and learn.” As they visit various companies, interviewing for their next design post, they can sense right away if the environment will give them the growth opportunity they crave. How? They recognize the signs of a company with a culture of feedback.

They see work on the walls. They see the messy signs of creative progress. Design critique is fluid and not limited to formal meetings. These are the signs of a healthy design team, fueled by feedback and always improving.

Building a culture of feedback takes time, but these simple steps will help you enact change:

  • Rethink your design studio: Create areas for work to be posted to foster spontaneous design discussion. It’s okay to be messy. Scribble on comps, add notes, post different versions of the same concept.
  • Stay in sync: Schedule short, daily standup meetings for your team to sync up on projects. It may be best to schedule them at the end of the day, so you don’t block the mornings when minds are most creative and ready to design.
  • Make time for feedback: Schedule design reviews for every project. They should be frequent enough for designers to get the feedback they need to avoid going too far down the wrong path.
  • Learn and grow: Schedule retrospectives after every project to capture lessons learned. When things go wrong, a postmortem meeting will help you learn from your mistakes without pointing fingers.

Hiring, coaching, and retaining great designers is made much easier when design and feedback are out in the open. Help your team show their work and tell you all about it.

About the Authors

Aarron Walter
VP of Design Education

As the VP of Design Education at InVision, Aarron Walter draws upon 15 years of experience running product teams and teaching design to help companies enact design best practices. Aarron founded the UX practice at MailChimp and helped grow the product from a few thousand users to more than 10 million.

He is the author of the best selling book Designing for Emotion from A Book Apart. You’ll find Aarron on Twitter and Medium sharing thoughts on design. Learn more at http://aarronwalter.com.

Eli Woolery
Director of Design Education

Eli is the Director of Design Education at InVision. His design career spans both physical and digital products, and he has worked with companies ranging from startups (his own and others) to Fortune 500 companies.

In addition to his background in product and industrial design, he has been a professional photographer and filmmaker. He teaches the senior capstone class Implementation to undergraduate Product Designers at Stanford University. You can find Eli on Twitter and Medium.

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