Living through a major remodel (and what it means to a product designer)
I was in third grade when my dad decided to remodel the house. This wasn’t just installing a new kitchen or throwing up room partitions — it involved actually tearing down walls, building new rooms and completely changing my childhood home. The front porch migrated to the western side, the garage was demolished, a bathroom was added, and our home was basically unrecognizable by the end of the remodel. The attic was the only room to escape alteration, either because it was a key part of the structural integrity — or simply because it had been forgotten about. The changes were meant to give us a better home — private bathrooms, more space, central heating & A/C, and a generally updated and better insulated structure.
All of the construction took place while we still lived there. I think Dad reasoned that the inconvenience would be worth it to save the money of having to move somewhere else during the renovations. Living with all the remodeling meant it was sometimes the MVP of housing, with plumbing, a roof, and walls but not much else. The construction was a messy affair that needed to be done.
Similarly, Axial has been in the process of redesigning and rebuilding into a better user experience. Although I have sometimes fantasized about a clean slate to start from, the reality is we have a whole bunch of customers who can’t live out in the cold while we construct a new experience.
The new experience is not just a refresh of pretty UI, there is a complete overhaul of the user’s experience. Just as Dad wasn’t settling for a new paint job and tile, we aren’t just stopping at the surface treatment. We redesigned the way our users send and receive their deals on the site, while also providing more confidentiality and better tools to efficiently assess their recommendations. Our matching algorithm was also rebuilt from the ground up to have a better technical foundation and more intelligent results, and an unprecedented level of flexibility, so we can continue to tweak it as we learn.
Axial’s house is not done being built. In the same way that Dad didn’t completely level the original house to build on top of, we haven’t deleted all of our code to replace it with a whole new product. In fact we just launched a completely new user experience for one side of our market place. We’re now some-what in the middle of construction, the plumbing is working, but really only half of the house has been finished.
Certain challenges arise when you’re building drastically new user experiences on top of an existing product. Here are three that have a lot of my focus:
Inconsistencies in the UI
At one point during the reconstruction half the house had hardwood flooring and the other had carpeting. One room had living room furniture, and another all of the workers’ tools. In a similar way, our users our living through our remodeling, with some features missing and new ones added.
The most obvious challenge is making sure the experience of inconsistencies in the UI and user flows isn’t too painful or confusing. Strategically, we focused on updating the entire experience for one side. For users seeking capital, their experience from home page to receiving recommendations is a comprehensive redesigned experience.
The new designs are based on a flexible design system with defined elements. This allows for adaptation and iterating within different contexts while sharing the same language of type, color, and form.
As we continue to design and put our prototypes in front of users, we continue to find ways to improve on the design. The challenge is how we incorporate new designs with the work that was just launched. Do we continue moving ever forward, leaving the recently launched already out of date? Or do we take the time to update both at the same time?
There are four questions I carefully consider in the context of each proposal for a new design:
- What is the lift we gain with the improvement?
- How difficult is the technical complexity?
- Is this improvement based on feedback we’ve heard from users?
- How badly will this divide the look, feel and usability of the application?
If the design is a significant enough improvement, not too challenging to implement, and is based on research, then it is worthwhile incorporating into the new designs and into the sprints of the current work on the existing platform.
Nothing is Ever Finished
Unlike a house, a software application is never static. So while a kitchen may be considered “finished”, it is rare that I would ever say any part of our product is. This means that while building and iterating on new experiences, we must still attend to the work that was just launched. Although a lot of the new experience was released at once, it was still very MVP. We’ve been working quickly to release improvements and refine the user experience based on continual user feedback.
In practice, this means a lot of communication between engineer teams and product managers, and making sure user stories and Pivotal cards are up to date with designs in Invision. We hold weekly team meetings to prioritize iterations, and incorporate them into the next sprints.
While it took a full year before the dust had cleared out of the house, by the end of the experience, Dad and I had a home that felt almost new. The experience was challenging, but paid off both financially and with the improved living space we now had. Redesigning a new web product one MVP at a time isn’t too different. Axial will live through the challenges of reconstruction, while keeping the core product running and a roof over our users’ heads.