What product managers can learn about Design Systems

What makes a good product? What makes a well designed product? A few years ago, I learned about design principles and how principles such as “not getting in the way (of the user)” and “content first” can drive product design. Imagine my initial confusion and intrigue, as a non-designer, when I first heard about a “design system”. Chris Messina – former designer at Uber – has come up with a useful definition of what a design system is:

 

“Design systems provide a convenient, centralized, and evolving map of a brand’s known product territories with directional pointers to help you explore new regions.”

 

Later, Messina went on to add that “Design never was just how it looks, but now it’s also how it sounds, how it speaks, and where it can go.” Apart from capturing how brand and product communicate, look and feel, a design system is also a critical component when it comes to scale. Just take this statement by Vikram Babu – product designer at Gigster – for example:

 

“The problem facing design today isn’t a shortage of skills or talent but that design doesn’t scale when you move from a few screens of designed components to a platform of developed patterns where adding people only complicates the problem… hence design systems.” 

 

The key thing I learned about the value of design systems is that they intend to go beyond just a collection of design elements. Typically, companies will have a style guide. However, more often than not these style guides contain a bunch of design elements or patterns, but not create a fully comprehensive design language or tone of voice, as Nathan Curtis – owner of the EightShapes design firm – explains:

 

“A style guide is an artefact of the design process. A design system is a living, funded product with a roadmap & backlog, serving an ecosystem.” 

 

This raises the question how one goes about creating a design system. Some things that I’ve learned in this respect:

Before you get started

  1. What’s your company vision look like? And is mission?
  2. Which problem is your company looking to solve and why? For whom?
  3. What are the company values which underpin your company culture, product and service?
  4. What problem(s) are we trying to solve through the design system? Why?
  5. What’s the desired impact we expect the design system to have on the way we work?

Getting started

  1. What does the current design and design look like? What works and what doesn’t? Identify the gaps.
  2. Define some underlying design principles, which underpin a fluid and developing ‘design ecosystem’ (see Airbnb as a good example; Fig. 1 below).
  3. Create a visual design language, which comprises a number of distinct but ever evolving components (I loved Adobe’s Nate Baldwin breakdown of some of these components; see Fig. 2 below). Common components of a visual design language are: colour, typography, iconography, imagery, illustrations, sizing and spacing.
  4. Create a User Interface and pattern library.
  5. Document what each component is and how to use it.

 

Fig. 1 – Airbnb design principles – Taken from: https://airbnb.design/building-a-visual-language/

  • Unified: Each piece is part of a greater whole and should contribute positively to the system at scale. There should be no isolated features or outliers.
  • Universal: Airbnb is used around the world by a wide global community. Our products and visual language should be welcoming and accessible.
  • Iconic: We’re focused when it comes to both design and functionality. Our work should speak boldly and clearly to this focus.
  • Conversational: Our use of motion breathes life into our products, and allows us to communicate with users in easily understood ways.

 

Fig. 2 – The foundation of creating a Visual Design Language by Nate Baldwin – Taken from: https://medium.com/thinking-design/what-is-a-design-language-really-cd1ef87be793

  • Clearly defined semantics (and no, “error”, “warning”, “success”, and “info” aren’t nearly enough)
  • Thorough and mature mapping of core elements of design with clear purposes and meanings
  • A solid family of UI components and patterns that effectively support the semantics, and use design elements (based on theirmeanings) to support the meaning of the components
  • Thorough, comprehensive documentation about the visual communication system

 

To make this a bit more concrete, I’ll look at three good examples of design systems, by Google, Bulb and Salesforce.

 

Google Material Design

 

 

Bulb

 

 

Salesforce Lightning Design System

 

 

 

Main learning point: It’s important for product managers to understand what a Design System is and the purposes it serves. Even if you’re not directly involved in creating or applying a Design System, it’s key to understand your company’s design language and how it applies to your product.

 

 

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://bulb.co.uk/blog/introducing-bulbs-design-system
  2. http://design.bulb.co.uk/#/patterns/styles/colors/README.md
  3. https://www.fastcompany.com/90160960/the-design-theory-behind-amazons-5-6-billion-success
  4. https://www.invisionapp.com/blog/guide-to-design-systems/
  5. https://www.invisionapp.com/blog/scale-design-systems/
  6. https://medium.muz.li/how-to-create-a-style-guide-from-scratch-tips-and-tricks-e00f25b423bf
  7. https://www.invisionapp.com/blog/secrets-design-leadership/
  8. https://www.lightningdesignsystem.com/
  9. https://www.uxpin.com/create-design-system-guide
  10. https://medium.freecodecamp.org/how-to-build-a-design-system-with-a-small-team-53a3276d44ac
  11. https://www.uxpin.com/studio/ebooks/create-design-system-guide-checklist/
  12. https://blog.prototypr.io/design-system-ac88c6740f53
  13. https://medium.com/thinking-design/what-is-a-design-language-really-cd1ef87be793
  14. https://airbnb.design/building-a-visual-language/
  15. https://material.io/design/

App review: Forest

My quick summary of Forest before using the app – I think I first heard Nir Eyal, who specialised in consumer psychology, talk about Forest. Given that Nir mentioned the app, I can imagine Forest impacts people behaviour, helping them achieve specific outcomes.

How does Forest explain itself in the first minute? – “Stay focused, be presented” is Forest’s strap line which I see first. This strap line is followed swiftly followed by a screen that says “Plant a Tree” and explains that “Whenever you want to focus on your work, plant trees.” This suggest to me that Forest is an app which aims to help people focus on their work and eradicate all kinds of distractions.

How does Forest work? – The app first explains its purpose in a number of nicely designed explanatory screens.

After clicking “Go”, I land on a screen where I can adjust time; presumably the time during which I want to focus and avoid any interruptions.

I set the time at 10 minutes and click “Plant”. I love how, as the time progresses, the messages at the top of the screen keep alternating, from “Don’t look at me!” to “Don’t look at me!” to “Hang in there!” Nice messages to help keep me focus and not fall prey to checking my phone. At any stage, I can opt to “Give up” which presumably means that the tree that I’ve been planting – through staying focused – will be killed.

I’m motivated to see this through and plant my first tree. When I complete my 10 minutes of uninterrupted time, I expect to see a nice tree right at the end of it. Try and imagine my disappointment when I don’t see a tree but instead am encouraged to create a Forest acount

Did Forest deliver on my expectations? – I can see how Forest helps people to focus and avoid checking their phone constantly. Just want to explore the gamification element of the app a bit more.

Michael Margolis: “user research, quick and dirty” (2)

I wrote earlier about Michael Margolis’ Startup Lab workshop, in which he teaches attendees about “User research, quick and dirty”.  Michael Margolis, UX Research Partner at Google Ventures covers user research topics such as user interview types and getting to the right learnings. He also offer a number of practical tips with respect to recruiting users and how to best conduct user interviews:

Recruiting users

Margolis mentions that recruiting 5 people to get feedback from is often sufficient, especially when you’re doing usability testing. He does stress that it’s worth the effort recruiting these people selectively and carefully, as this will help generate better results and avoid wasting time. Creating a simple participant screener document or survey is a good way to recruit the ‘right’ users (see an example in Fig. 1 below).

Fig. 1 – Ethnio.io screen survey example – Taken from: https://www.nngroup.com/articles/live-intercept-remote-test/

Margolis lists a number of very helpful questions to feed into your screener document, in order to engage with the right users (and exclude those that aren’t right):

Users to include

  • Who do you want to want to talk to?
  • What exact criteria will identify the people you want to talk to?
  • What screening questions will you ask? (questions shouldn’t reveal “right” answers)

Users to exclude

  • Who do you want to want to exclude?
  • What exact criteria will identify the people you want to excliude?
  • What screening questions will you ask? (questions shouldn’t reveal “right” answers)

Conducting a user interview

Fig. 2 – Arc of a typical user interview, by Michael Margolis – Taken from: https://library.gv.com/the-gv-research-sprint-finalize-schedule-and-complete-interview-guide-day-3-b8cddb8f931d

The representation of the user interview in the form of an arc, I probably found the most helpful aspect that Margolis (see Fig. 2 above). This arc really helps in structuring an interview, identifying the appropriate sequence of activities during the interview.

Main learning point: User research doesn’t have to be complicated, super time consuming or overly expensive. A huge thanks to Michael Margolis for sharing such a wealth of very useful and practical user research insights!

 

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://www.usertesting.com/blog/2015/01/29/screener-questions/
  2. https://www.nngroup.com/articles/live-intercept-remote-test/
  3. https://library.gv.com/the-gv-research-sprint-finalize-schedule-and-complete-interview-guide-day-3-b8cddb8f931d
  4. https://www.nngroup.com/articles/interviewing-users/

Michael Margolis: “user research, quick and dirty” (1)

Why do I keep coming across businesses that struggle to engage with their (prospective) customers, to learn about their needs and behaviours? Too often for my liking, I hear comments like:

“Marc, we’re a startup, we don’t have the time and budget to do customer research!” 

“I’m not allowed to talk to customers.” 

“In my old place, we used to have a dedicated user research team and they’d just give me their research report on a platter, after them having spoken to users.”

It therefore felt quite timely when a colleague pointed me in the direction of Michael Margolis, UX Research Partner at Google Ventures.  Back in 2013, Margolis delivered a great Startup Lab workshop in which he covered the ins and outs of “User research, quick and dirty”. The recording of the 90 minute workshop is available on YouTube and you can find Margolis’ slides here (see also Fig. 1 below).

Fig. 1 – Michael Margolis’ Startup Lab workshop: “User Research, Quick ‘n’ Dirty” – Published on 26 February 2013 on https://youtu.be/WpzmOH0hrEM

I watched Margolis’ workshop in full and these are my main takeaways:

Seeing through users’ eyes

Margolis started off his session by talking about the importance of continuously learning about users, seeing things through their eyes. In a subsequent Medium post, Margolis writes that in his experience, startups will typically use UX research to achieve one of these objectives:

  1. Improve a process or worklflow
  2. Better understand customer shopping habits
  3. Evaluate concepts
  4. Test usability
  5. Refine a value proposition

Two types of user interviews

It’s great to hear Margolis making a distinction between two types of interviews:

  • Usability: A usability interview is all about learning whether users can actually use your product and achieve their goals with it. Can users do it? Can they understand it? Can they discover features?
  • Discovery: Discovery type user interviews tend to be more contextual, and delve more into the actual user. Who? Where? When? Why? How? All key questions to explore as part of discovery, as well as the user’s existing behaviours, goals, needs and problems.

Margolis then talks about combining the two interview types and highlight two sample questions to illustrate this combination:

“How do you do things now?”

“How do you think about these things?”

The distinction between “usability” and “discovery” isn’t just an artificial one. I love Margolis’ focus on objectives, acknowledging that objectives are likely to vary depending on the type of product, its position within the product lifecycle and the learnings that you’re looking to achieve. I’ve found – at my own peril – that it’s easy to jump straight into defining user tasks or an interview script, without thinking about your research objective and what Margolis calls “North Star questions” (see Fig. 2 below).

Fig. 2 – Michael Margolis’ 5 studies startups needs most- Taken from:  https://library.gv.com/field-guide-to-ux-research-for-startups-8569114c27fb – Published on 5 May 2018 

Margolis provides some very useful pointers about discovery and usability questions, which you can use to create a research plan and an interview guide:

Sample discovery questions – as suggested by Michael Margolis:

  • What are users’ behaviours, attitudes and expectations towards the product?
  • Who are the key user groups? What are their needs and behaviours?
  • What are the pros/cons of different designs? Why?
  • What are the pros/cons of competitor products?
  • How are people using existing/competitor products? What features are mots important and why?
  • What barriers hinder users from adopting <product>?

Sample usability questions – as suggested by Michael Margolis:

  • Can users discover feature X?
  • Are users able to successfully complete primary tasks? Why (not)?
  • Do users understand feature X? Why (not)?

In a similar vein, I believe it’s important to distinguish between problem and solution interviews. There’s a risk of your customer insights becoming muddled when you mix problem and solution interviews, especially if you alternate problem questions with solution questions.

In a problem interview, you want to find out 3 things:

  • Problem – What problem are you solving? For example, what are the common frustrations felt by your customers and why? How do their problems rank? Ask your customers to create a top 3 of their problems (see the problem interview script in Fig. 1 below).
  • Existing alternatives – What existing alternatives are out there and how does your customer perceive your competition and their differentiators? How do your customers solve their problems today?
  • Customer segments – Who has these problems and why? Is this a viable customer segment?

Fig. 3 –  Outline of a problem interview script – Taken from: Ash Maurya – “Running Lean”

In a solution interview, you want to find out 3 things:

  • Early adopters – Who has this problem and why? How do we identify and engage with early adopters? (see Fig. 3 below)
  • Solution – How will you solve their problems? What features do you need to build as part of your solution, why?
  • Pricing/Revenue – What is the pricing model for your product or service? Will customers pay for it, why?

Fig. 4 – Outline of a solution interview script – Taken from: Ash Maurya – “Running Lean”

Main learning point: In his Startup Lab workshop, Michal Margolis, drops a lot of very valuable tips on how to best keep customer research quick and simple, whilst still learning the things about your customer and/or product that you’re keen to learn. So much so that Michael Margolis’ tips warrant another blog post, which I’ll share soon!

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://library.gv.com/field-guide-to-ux-research-for-startups-8569114c27fb
  2. https://library.gv.com/user-research-quick-and-dirty-1fcfa54c91c4
  3. https://www.slideshare.net/LauraKlein1/shut-the-hell-up-other-tips-for-learning-from-users
  4. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WpzmOH0hrEM
  5. https://library.gv.com/tagged/design
  6. https://medium.com/@maa1/book-review-just-enough-research-2d714d447eda
  7. https://medium.com/@maa1/my-product-management-toolkit-23-customer-empathy-a1e66ff15012

Product review: Rocket Mortgage’s Instant Mortgages

Can the whole process of getting a mortgage made a lot easier!? Whether you’re looking to buy a home or refinance your current one, the mortgage process can be a real pain in the neck: slow, stressful and opaque. Given the emergence of players such as Trussle, Habito – both UK-based online mortgage brokers – and my professional interest from leading product at Settled, I’m keen to explore this further.

Let’s start with a look at Rocket Mortgage, an “instant mortgage” product by Quicken Loans.

My quick summary of Rocket Mortgage before using it: I expect a product that makes it very quick and easy for a me as a consumer to apply for a mortgage.

How does Rocket Mortgage explain itself in the first minute: “You May Be Surprised to See How Much You Can Save – Can’t Hurt to Look” and “We’ve Reinvented the Mortgage Process to Put the Power in Your Hands” are two strap-lines on Rocket Mortgage homepage that stand out to me. Both lines are ‘above the fold’ and do make me curious to learn more about what Rocket Mortgage does (differently) to established mortgage providers.

How does Rocket Mortgage work? Mortgage applicants can submit their personal and financial information online (“Share Your Info”), and they receive a mortgage quote in return. This initial quote can be reviewed and customised to meet one’s personal needs and circumstances (“Explore Your Options”).

Let’s look at the individual steps in more detail:

User answer pre-approval questions

To apply for a Rocket Mortgage loan, you’ll first need to create an account by entering your name and email address, followed by choosing a password. Once you’ve clicked the “Save & Continue” button, you’ll be presented with a number of questions about your personal situation, both from a personal and a financial point of view:

User uploads personal assets

Rocket Mortgage will connect to your bank account(s) and your asset information will then be uploaded automatically onto the platform. You can then update the information or remove assets from consideration from your mortgage application, , after the boxes have been auto-filled. With the advent of PSD2 and open banking, I expect loads of US mortgage lenders and startups to enable a similar synchronisation with a user’s personal accounts.

If you have any other financial assists, like investments in shares via platforms such as Betterment and Wealthify, you will need to enter this data manually as well as related documents. The same applies to Rocket Mortgage requiring you to enter specific info to be able to generate a personal credit report and score. In future, I expect platforms like these to seamlessly integrated with credit score companies like Experian and Equifax.

User explores options

 

User obtains a mortgage rate

Once you’ve locked down a mortgage rate, there’s a separate Rocket Mortgage online tool which lets you finalise the mortgage.

Who else is doing this? I had a brief look at “mello”, the digital loan platform by loanDepot, and the product and its experience feels quite similar to Rocket Mortgage. In the UK, Molo is a new player on the scene, promising to “reimagine mortgages.”

Main learning point: It’s clear for everyone to see that these players are aiming to make the experience of applying for a mortgage as intuitive, transparent and quick as possible.

 

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://www.highya.com/rocket-mortgage-reviews
  2. https://techcrunch.com/2015/11/24/this-could-be-the-mortgage-industrys-iphone-moment/
  3. https://studentloanhero.com/featured/quicken-loans-review-rocket-mortgage/
  4. https://digit.hbs.org/submission/quicken-loans-rocketing-forward-the-digital-mortgage/
  5. https://www.nerdwallet.com/blog/mortgages/for-rocket-and-its-rivals-mortgage-advice-is-next/
  6. https://www.nerdwallet.com/blog/mortgages/loandepot-mortgage-loans-review/
  7. https://www.loandepot.com/blog/inside-look-loandepot-mello
  8. https://www.roostify.com/
  9. https://molofinance.com/

App review: StatusToday

Artificial Intelligence (‘AI’) has rapidly become yet another buzzword in the tech space and I’m therefore always on the lookout for AI based applications which add actual customer value. StatusToday could that kind of app:

My quick summary of StatusToday before using it – I think Status Today provides software to help manage teams of employees, I suspect this product is geared towards HR people.

How does StatusToday explain itself in the first minute – “Understand your employees” is the strapline that catches my eye. Whilst not being entirely clear on the tangible benefits Status Today delivers on, I do get that it offers employee data. I presume that customers will have access to a data portal and can generate reports.

What does StatusToday do (1)? – StatusToday analyses human behaviour and generates a digital fingerprint for individual employees. The company originally started out with a sole focus on using AI for cyber security, applying designated algorithms to analyse internal online comms, detecting behavioural patterns in comms activity and quickly spotting any abnormal activity or negligence. For example, ‘abnormal file exploration’ and ‘access from unusual locations’ are two behaviours that StatusToday will be tracking for its clients.

What does StatusToday do (2)? -StatusToday has since started offering more generic employee insights services. By plugging into a various online tools companies may use, Google and Microsoft for example, StatusToday will start collecting employee activity data. This will help companies in getting better visibility of employee behaviour as well as making the processes around data access and usage more efficient.

It makes me wonder to what extent there’s a “big brother is watching you element” to StatusToday’s products and services. For example, will the data accessible through StatusToday’s “Live Dashboard” (eventually) make it easier for companies to punish employees if they’re spending too much time on Facebook!?

Main learning point: I can see how StatusToday takes the (manual) pain out of monitoring suspicious online activity and helps companies to preempt data breaches and other ‘anomalies’.

 

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://techcrunch.com/2018/02/20/statustoday/
  2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KhIkx8ZvA-Q
  3. https://techcrunch.com/2015/09/09/ef4/
  4. https://blog.statustoday.com/1nature-is-not-your-friend-but-ai-is-d94aaa13fd2e
  5. https://blog.statustoday.com/1your-small-business-could-be-in-big-trouble-7a34574ab42c

App review: Warby Parker

I recently listened to a podcast which was all about Warby Parker and its makings. After listening to the podcast, I was keen to have a closer look at Warby Parker’s website:

My quick summary of Warby Parker before using it – Warby Parker is disrupting the way in which consumers discover and buy glasses. I expect a product which removes the need for physical opticians.

How does Warby Parker explain itself in the first minute? – Accessing https://www.warbyparker.com/ on desktop, I see a nice horizontal layout, dominated by two hero images. There are two main calls to action. Firstly, “Try frames at home – for free”, which then offers me to either “get started” or “browse frames”. Secondly, “Shop online” which lets me shop for eyeglasses and sunglasses.

Getting started, what’s the process like? – After clicking on “Get started”, I can choose between styles for men and women.

Having selected “Men’s styles”, I’m pleased that there’s an option for me to skip the “What’s your fit?” screen as I’m unsure about the width of my face 🙂

Selecting a shape of frames feels somewhat easier, but it’s good that I can select all three shapes if I wish. Instead, I go for “rectangular”.

The same applies for the next screen, where I can pick colours and I select “Neutral” and “Black” simply because I find it easier to visualise what the frames will look like in these colours.

I decide the skip the step involving different materials to choose from. The icons on this screen do help but I personally would have benefited from seeing some real samples of materials such as acetate and titanium, just to get a better idea.

It’s good that I’m then being asked about my last eye exam. Wondering if and when I’ll be asked for the results from my last eye test in order to determine the strength of the glasses I need.

The next holding screen is useful since up to this point I hadn’t been sure about how Warby Parker’s service works. The explanations are clear and simple, encouraging me to click on the “Cool! Show me my results.” call to action at the bottom of the screen. I now understand that I can upload my prescription at checkout, but I wonder if I need to go to an eye doctor or an optician first in order to get a recent (and more reliable) prescription …

I’m then presented with 15 frames to choose from. From these 15 frames, Warby Parker lets me pick 5 frames to try on at home. I like how I can view the frames in the different colours that I selected as part of step 4 (see above). If I don’t like the frames suggested to me, I can always click “Browse all Home Try-on frames” or “Retake the quiz”.

I like the look of the “Chamberlain” so I select this pair of frames and click on “Try at home for free”.

As soon as I’ve clicked on the “Try at home for free” button a small tile appears which confirms that I’ve added 1 out of 5 frames which I can try at home. I can either decide to find another frame or view my cart.

When I click on “Find another frame” I expected to be taken back to my previous quiz results. Instead, I can now see a larger number of frames, but there’s the option to go back to my original quiz results and matches with my results have been highlighted.

I really like how the signup / login stage has been positioned right at the very end of my journey – i.e. at the checkout stage -and that I can just continue as a new customer.

My Warby Parker experience sadly ends when I realise that Warby Parker doesn’t ship frames to the United Kingdom. No matter how I hard I try, I can only enter a US address and zip code 😦

 

Did Warby Parker deliver on my expectations? – Yes and no. I felt Warby Parker’s site was great with respect to discovery and customisation, but I do think there’s opportunity to include some explanatory bits about Warby Parker’s  process.

 

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/national-public-radio/how-i-built-this/e/48640659
  2. https://www.recode.net/2018/3/14/17115230/warby-parker-75-million-funding-t-rowe-price-ipo
  3. https://www.fastcompany.com/3041334/warby-parker-sees-the-future-of-retail