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.

Managing products of the future – Business as usual?

“Managing products of the future” came up when I was thinking of a suitable title for a piece about products that look and feel very different to most products that we see today. Products such as driverless cars and voice assistants popped into my head as examples of products that are likely to dominate our daily lives before we know it.

However, these products are here already and I’m keen to look at if and how this does affect the role and focus of product management.

Will we manage products differently when the user interface of these products changes? Do we need to think differently about our products when data becomes the main output? Will customer needs and expectations evolve? If so, how? These and other questions I will start thinking about; considering the nature of machine learning, different product scenarios and their impact on the role of the product manager.

Taken from: https://robertmerrill.wordpress.com/2009/04/15/the-future-is-already-here/

It’s easy to get swept up by the hype surrounding AI and products based on machine learning, and to start feeling pretty dystopian about the future. But how much will actually change from a product management point of view? People will continue to have specific needs and problems. As product managers, we’ll continue to look at best ways of solving these problems. Granted, the nature of people’s needs and problemx will evolve, as it has always done, but this won’t alter the problem solving and people centric nature of product management.

To illustrate this, let’s look at some AI-base products and the customer needs and problems that they’re aiming to solve: Google Photos, Sonos One and Eigen Technologies.

Google Photos

Google Photos’ strap-line is “One home for all your photos – organised and easy to find”. Over the coming months, Google Photos will roll out the following features:

  • Using facial recognition, Google Photos will know who’s in a picture and will offer a one-tap option to share it with the person in question – provided that this person is in your phone’s contact list, Google Photos will have learned this person’s face. If that person appears in multiple images, Google Photos will even suggest to share all of them in one go.
  • Automated image editing suggestions, Google Photos will suggest different corrections based on the look and quality of the image. For example, if there issues with the brightness of the image, Google Photos will automatically display a “Fix brightness” suggestion.

Taken from: https://www.digitaltrends.com/photography/google-photos-suggested-edits/

With these new features, Google Photos aim to address customer needs with regard to sharing pictures and improving image quality respectively. These needs aren’t new per se, but the ‘intelligent’ aspect of Google Photos’ approach is.

Sonos One

The Sonos One is entirely controlled by voice. The speaker works fully with Amazon Alexa, which means that if you’ve got an Amazon Alexa compatible device, you can control your Sonos sound system through Amazon Alexa. Because Alex is a native app within the Sonos platform, you don’t even need to have an external Amazon device – i.e. Echo or the Dot – installed to control your Sonos One speaker. The installation of the Alexa mobile app will be enough.

Taken from: https://uniquehunters.com/sonos-one-marries-amazons-alexa-high-end-audio-hardware-exquisite-musical-enjoyment/

The integration with the Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant is a logical next step within Sonos’ mission to “empower everyone to listen better” and makes it easier for people to control the music they listen to. Granted, the user interface of Sonos One is different to other product; it doesn’t have buttons, for example. However, it still is a product like any other in a sense that it delivers tangible value to customers by solving their music listening needs.

Eigen Technologies

“Turn your documents into data” is London and New York based Eigen Technologies’ mission statement. The company enables the mining of documents for specific data. For example, if you work for a mortgage lender and are looking to make a decision about the credit worthiness of a home, Eigen’s data extraction technology helps to quickly pull out key ‘decision inputs’ from a number of – often very lengthy – property documents.

Taken from: https://www.artificiallawyer.com/2017/11/03/legal-ais-dark-horse-eigen-technologies-comes-into-the-light/

The way in which Eigen Technologies use machine learning algorithms, is ultimately to improve the speed and quality of decision making. Even though the underlying technology is based on machine learning, the outcome is very much like that of any other product: a clear user interface which shows the relevant document data that a user is interested in and needs to make decisions.

Main learning point: AI and machine learning based products will no doubt change the ways in which we interact with products and what we expect of them. However, existing examples such as Google Photos and Sonos One already show that the core of the product manager’s role will remain unchanged: building the right product for the right people and building it right!

 

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://productsthatcount.com/blog/66-google-vp-product-ai/
  2. https://www.wired.com/2015/05/bradley-horowitz-says-that-google-photos-is-gmail-for-your-images/
  3. https://blog.sonos.com/en-gb/making-sonos-one/
  4. https://www.engadget.com/2018/05/08/google-photos-will-add-ai-powered-suggestions-to-fix-your-images/
  5. https://techcrunch.com/2017/10/04/sonos-announces-alexa-controlled-wireless-speakers/
  6. https://www.digitaltrends.com/photography/google-photos-suggested-edits/
  7. http://www.wired.co.uk/article/sonos-one-alexa-review-uk-price
  8. https://techcrunch.com/2018/02/20/sonos-one-is-the-speaker-to-beat-for-those-that-want-great-sound-and-smarts/
  9. http://uk.businessinsider.com/connected-speakers-explainer-sonos-libratone-echo-google-home-2018-4
  10. https://assistant.google.co.uk/
  11. https://www.sonos.com/en-gb/social-impact
  12. https://www.artificiallawyer.com/2017/11/03/legal-ais-dark-horse-eigen-technologies-comes-into-the-light/
  13. https://www.eigentech.com/
  14. https://blog.bolt.io/what-cracking-open-a-sonos-one-tells-us-about-the-sonos-ipo-dcab49155643

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