Front Conference Recap 2017
Digital Product & Design Highlights from Salt Lake City
During two gorgeous days in May, the 2017 Front Case Study Conference was held in Salt Lake City. I was lucky enough to attend on behalf of Cantina along with roughly 600 other professionals focused on digital design, user experience, and product management. The event featured 14 presentations from a stellar group of speakers who work at companies including Slack, Ancestry.com, Lucid Software, Adobe, and The New York Times.
A major theme was the idea that the best digital products aren’t built on talent alone. Effective team communication and a culture of continuous learning are often the catalyst that takes a product and a business from good to great. Many presentations emphasized that alignment between disciplines (product, UX, engineering, etc.) and a shared responsibility for discovering customer needs and motivations go a long way toward shipping fantastic digital products.
Two panel discussions and several talks offered strong arguments for placing greater emphasis on communication skills in hiring and professional development. Ushering innovative ideas through product roadmaps, design, and development sprints requires lots of coordinated hands. Poor articulation of how something is getting done can be costly. These skills are often overlooked when compared to technical talent or craft, but as Diogenes Brito, a designer at Slack, remarked, “It’s not about what you meant, it’s about what they understood.”
Another consistent thread at Front was real life case studies of projects that required diverse user research and usability testing. Listening for practical research tips and tricks is always a fun part of design conferences and Front 2017 offered a wealth of ideas in this category. Here’s a sampling of some of the techniques I’ll be looking to implement in my own experience design consulting work:
- To understand the value users place on certain features in a roadmap, give them an imaginary $100 and ask them to “spend” it proportionally amongst the features they’d most like to gain access to.
- Align cycles of customer feedback with the rate at which you make product decisions. Product decisions are made more often than once every three weeks so make sure you are talking to customers on a more regular cadence.
- During B2B research sessions, ask everyone you speak with “Who else should we be talking to at your company?” This will expand the reach of your recruitment.
- Set up internal follow-up triggers with customer support groups. When something happens that causes users to request support, reach out and see what insights you can glean that will help the user experience or overall product strategy.
- Use a dedicated Slack channel to capture user research insights in real time, within full view of everyone listening to the session.
- Watch out for local maximums and spending too much time optimizing a less-than-great feature.
- When beta testing pricing options, set up frequent decision points for customers to increase the speed at which your team can learn and refine pricing strategy.
- When possible, spend time talking to customers together as a product, UX, and engineering team. Shared listening enables greater alignment when shipping.
Finally, the theme of constant iteration was a big one at Front. Whether a team is envisioning a new product, researching use cases, exploring pricing, designing UI, or testing usability, continual improvement needs to be the name of the game. Gather a group of good communicators with complementary digital skills, then dive into a rhythm of testing and refinement.
The best way to experience any conference is always by being there in person. The next best way is to watch the recordings from the event. All of the talks from Front will be available within the next couple weeks on the Front Vimeo channel. For those who prefer just the highlights, here are three talks you will want to watch:
Design or Die Trying
Diogenes Brito, a Product Designer at Slack, challenged attendees to “always be getting feedback” and embrace a designer’s role as Facilitator, Steward, and Connoisseur.
Josh Penrod, Vice President of UX, and Kendall Hulet, Vice President of Product, from Ancestry.com shared war stories from collaborative research projects and highlighted why good working relationships will trump overly formal processes.
Goldilocks Pricing: How to Find the Price that’s Just Right
Catherine Shyu, a Product Manager at FullContact, explored the critical topic of product pricing and explained that contrary to common thinking, the right price is never a simple math problem.
In addition to the conference itself, Salt Lake City offered a stunning landscape and beautiful spring weather in mid-May. Attendees could explore downtown and catch a quick light rail ride to the event on the University of Utah campus. The Natural History Museum of Utah, Bonneville Shoreline Trail, and the foothills of the Wasatch Mountain Range provided space for off-hours adventure relatively close to the venue. The conference space itself was top notch, and a great lineup of local food trucks kept attendees nourished each day. All in all, a conference I’d highly recommend for anyone interested in digital product management and user experience design.