Predictability and a feeling of progress towards a goal is something we all want. When something happens outside of your control and forces a change in course, it can be hard.
My team experienced this a while back. It was the end of the summer in 2016 and we were designing unique product for Uber’s customers in China as a part of the China Growth team. Things were great, but on a warm Sunday evening, it was announced Uber China would merge with Didi Chuxing. Suddenly our work ended in an instant.
After that restless night, the following morning brought massive change to the team. We were all incredibly fortunate to find welcoming new homes elsewhere at Uber, but we were left with a lot of questions, none bigger than: What new purpose would we dedicate ourselves to? Working on China was more than a job, it was a passion that we put everything we had into every day. We all had our own reasons for feeling so dedicated. Some were excited to reconnect with a culture they’d left as children while others wanted to see a western tech company have success in China. I was driven by a desire to bring China and the U.S. closer through our work, helping shine a light on the misconceptions our countries often have about each other. Replacing that void — and finding the reason to head into work everyday — wouldn’t be easy.
Moving from being reactive
Several of the teams folks landed on were newly formed and needed to figure out what to put on their blank roadmaps. The designers took a proactive approach. We decided our goal was to provide leadership to the wider team through design — inform the roadmap and answer the nagging desire for a sense of purpose with clear, deliberate action.
We set off to create for our new teams with what Julie Zhuo calls “North Stars”: bold visions for where we want to be in the near future. As designers, we’re uniquely capable of helping to translate these visions into reality because of a superpower that we all share.
The designer’s superpower
The ability to visualize ideas in a compelling way is a skill unique to designers. Over the last century, graphics from designers have inspired unification around causes and revolutions against others. Posters, bumper stickers, signs and flags are all visual artifacts that, when executed effectively, stir emotion and rally people around a cause.
That’s exactly what we were seeking: a wave of new, big, bold bets that would help push our teams to contribute meaningfully to Uber’s mission of transportation as reliable as running water. All we had to do was dream big, create artifacts for these ideas, and tell compelling stories.
To get going, each designer was encouraged to think about an area their team was or could be working on that they were curious or passionate about. We wanted each North Star to be in line with the mission of the team each designer was on, but the final output needed to be inspirational and push past what the team was already thinking of doing: an inspirational vision of a realistic future.
With our ideas chosen, ‘jam sessions’ were set up and each designer, along with a few relevant folks from around the company, came together to talk about the idea in front of a whiteboard. These sessions were where much of the magic happened. We’d go super wide, drawing upon the diverse set of experiences from all participants. UX researchers would bring up findings they hadn’t yet seen impact a project but still felt were important. Designers talked about ideas they had stewing in the back of their minds that they thought users would love. PMs let loose from their normal need to prioritize for near-term impact and fired up their imaginations for where the team was going.
The outputs were anything from user journeys to interface sketches to taglines and marketing pitches. Every time we came away with different parts of the puzzle, but the goal was the same: give the idea enough critical mass and build excitement to push the designer through the execution phase.
With the core ideas either formed or rapidly coming together, the designers would go off on their own to explore the UX of their work. Some kept close to existing paradigms for our apps, others took the opportunity to revolutionize the product their experience would live in.
Sketches, storyboards, video simulations, UI, and motion design all were used to shape the visions. Since the Uber experience is more so in real life than within the confines of a smartphone, designers use many methods to realize their work. Our North Stars were no different.
Each North Star had a main thread that was important to explore adequately, but there were also tangential ideas that continued coming up. These would be called out as ‘what ifs’ with some light exploration, but sticking to the main story was key. Those related ideas can be explored in future North Stars.
All of the executing was really in preparation for the final deliverable, which was the deck and presentation that sold the idea. Communicating the concept effectively, in a compelling way, is as important as the work itself. Everyone focused their presentations not only on what the work was about, but why it was a compelling opportunity for Uber to pursue. Some of the concepts would ask a lot of the organization to make them happen. The communication of the concept needed to be solid, giving the vision the best chance to achieve the desired impact.
We put significant effort into honing our presentations as a group. Everyone wanted to help each other to make sure the ideas were solid and the story was compelling.
How our work was received
We presented some of the projects to the wider Uber design team. The response was electric. The International Growth designers were proud to show off their creations and felt energized with the positive response from the larger design team. Other designers in the audience were excited to see what we had been working on, but the most powerful thing is what they will do after this.
All of the ideas we came up with are open to any designer to use within Uber. There’s no marketplace for good ideas. Ideas frequently come before their time or to people that can’t execute on them right away. Our sincere hope was that the thoughts that build off of our North Star projects are bigger, better and benefit our users more than what we initially hoped for, even if it’s another team that makes that push. When talking to someone in the office about this thinking, she said North Stars are just like stars in the sky: once they are up there, they don’t come down. A bit cheesy, but nonetheless true.
Why designers should do this
Designers can not only see the big picture, but convey that picture to the rest of the team. It’s a task that we are uniquely suited to, and it’s an important one for us to carry out. Other roles are often focused on the short term, the task at hand, solving this particular problem or that one. Designers are gatherers, collecting information, able to synthesize ideas and surface them when the time is right.
North Stars are a manifestation of that messy process. As design organizations mature, we need to start to contribute at this strategic level. When times are good, this work is important. When times are challenging, it is essential.