What I learned from visiting the best-known Product Companies in the Silicon Valley.

Last May, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to visit the Bay Area with some of my BlaBlaCar colleagues. The idea was to meet product company whose lead their market and share some “fail & learn” on projects, organisation, or product. 
Below you’ll find a quick synthesis of Product Designer’s interviews at Google, Facebook, Airbnb, LinkedIn, Adobe, SmartRecruiters… A big thanks to them for accepting the sharing session.

I was focused on 3 points:

  • Organisation & Methodology
  • User research
  • Consistency

These are not small things. On the contrary, they are key for the growth of a design department.

Stay focus.

For each interview, my 1st question was: What’s a typical journey for a Product Designer at [company]? 
And the answer was not UX oriented, very surprising and always the same:

Meetings! 
We’ve many meetings. Too many meetings. 
We try to limit them. But..you know..by the way, it’s complicated because they are all useful…

It’s interesting to observe this typical damage from a Product Company. 
The desire is sharing as much as possible so that everyone else has the same level of information, that everyone understands the constraints of each, that everyone is warned when a part of the product evolves. 
This means not only sharing with people who do the same job (for example, designers), but also sharing with people who work on the same projects (engineers, PM, etc.) and communicate results for the other teams. 
And remember that all these companies operating in agile methods, which which certainly doesn’t help with the number of meetings!

To deal with this problem, every company has created their own rules and guidelines:

  • Edit the settings in Google Calendar for 30 min meeting as default time. And not 1hour.
  • Block day without meetings (1 per week). The employee can choose to work at home or in the office. And progress on their projects without being disturbed.
  • Each meeting has a defined goal and a quick report.
  • Each week, an All-hands meeting with the whole company.

You’re right. Nothing new. Nothing extraordinary. Nothing dedicated to UX Design. But we all know that’s it’s not a detail.

Keep our agility.

Most of the designers interviewed are integrated in a 
multidisciplinary team. And not in a design team. This is something that massively impacts the way they work:

  • They mostly work on one single project. They dig into the why (with the User Researcher, 1 per team), the what (with the Product Manager) and the How (with content designer, engineers, etc.)
  • As they stay focused on a single project, they are working very deeply (with a lot of iterations), but also on the final “deliverable” (with a very high fidelity prototype, similar to the reality).
  • Like the rest of the team, Designers work in sprint (often 2 weeks) and are in daily contact with the engineering team.
  • Not to be too tight on delivery, they keep 2 sprints ahead of the rest of the team.
  • Sprint’s Google Venture book is the bible of Silicon Valley right now. Adobe’s team has adapted the method in the following way: 
    1st week: Sprint Planning (Monday) → User Test (Friday)
    2nd week: Iterate according User Test → Review (Friday)

Share guidelines for consistency.

At BlaBlaCar, we’re already obsessed with consistency. And it’s only the beginning. But we’re still far from the Bay Area:

  • Every company has a dedicated team of designers who work on product guidelines.
  • Personally, I really like the name set up by LinkedIn: The Pattern Team.
  • By the way, you can also read this article on Spotify and how they deal with consistency.

On this topic, each company has his own tips for sharing consistency:

  • With Airbnb, the guidelines are available to all, and on Github so that designers and developers can make specific demands on each component.
  • Facebook has developed a Sketch Plugin for every designer uses the same library (a kind of custom Craft Plugin).
  • LinkedIn simply share a large file with all assets.

Share by reviewing.

What is certain is that the consistency is obtained by sharing with peers.

  • For example, each of the 100 designers at LinkedIn has a buddy in the famous Pattern Team, who attends each review, with whom they can discuss all projects, and validate designs.
  • Finally, there are quite a few workshops or brainstorms organized (with 4 designers max at each session).
  • The review is done with all members involved in the project (engineers, PM, stakeholders, …)
  • No review with all the other designers. It’s not a scalable solution. That’s why the “Pattern Team” exists.
  • On each project, there are 3 reviews: Beginning (project scope, problem solving), Middle (1st screens, different iterations), end of the design phases (high-fidelity prototype).

It doesn’t matter what tools you use.

Finally, through all these interviews, what pleases me most is that tools and software were discussed very briefly. It does not represent the bulk of the work of a designer.

  • They all start to paper and quickly switch to Sketch (except the Adobe’s team).
  • The wireframing (digital) phase is less used.
  • With redpen.io , they can comment and add some feedback on mockups.
  • Invision or Marvel is the 1st step of prototyping, after they finalize interactions with Origami, among others.
  • Even if they work with agile methods, they do not use a task tracking tools like Jira.
  • Except Lookback, no tool is unanimous for the User Research. The best way to find insight is calling or skype. By the way, User research is built empirically. There is no magic recipe. This is on a case-by-case basis.
  • With Lookback, you can directly sharing the passages of videos relevant to the team to make a clear summary. Because it’s essential to involve everyone working on this project.

Necessarily all this points mentioned lead a virtuous circle. Since remaining focus, you can get ahead, so be proactive and able to impact the next projects of the roadmap and prioritizing the real problems to solve.

By exchanging with all these designers, I was really impressed with their maturity level, their seniority.

What makes besides their strengths is their mindset, very positive which embeds the entire team behind his ideas. This skill of facilitator is essential.

Nevertheless, through these exchanges, I mostly learned that nothing is insurmountable. We are already aware of many things. Everyone can, in line with their own size and scale, reproduce these working methods that have been proven in Silicon Valley.