Tricia Spoonts on Why Enterprise is the Frontier of Design
Enterprise products are rarely known for being user-friendly or beautifully designed — but that’s what makes them an exciting new frontier for Mavenlink Director of Design Tricia Spoonts. For this story, we asked her to explain what she likes about that challenge, how the culture of pair programming affects her work, and why she joined Mavenlink in the first place.
Tell us about Mavenlink and your role on the design team.
The Mavenlink platform gives service providers — design agencies, for example — the tools and insight they need to grow their businesses. It’s one of the most challenging and rewarding products I’ve ever worked on.
I joined the company as a senior UX designer and moved into my current role as Director of Design when we started scaling the team. A lot of my current focus is on creating the framework and processes we need to grow. It’s a huge endeavor to build everything up from scratch, but it’s also been super fun.
Why did you decide to join Mavenlink?
Mavenlink was my client at first; I was working with them as a design consultant from a local design agency. Eventually, I asked Mavenlink if they wanted to bring me on full-time. There were three things that appealed to me about this company. Things that I’d never had in another job.
First, the problems here are really meaty and hard to solve.
Second, the market has already been established, so I know we have a viable product — but the company is also fairly new, which means there’s lots of opportunity for growth and development.
And third is the culture here. Mavenlink believes in designing from the ground up, rather than treating it as an add-on. Design thinking is at the heart of every one of our processes — engineering, design, product. That’s really important to me.
What do you enjoy about designing Enterprise products?
Enterprise presents a lot of interesting UX challenges. For a given project, we might need to cater to both tech-savvy and novice users, or to some users who need the product once and others who will use it over and over.
Enterprise products are also generally optimized to appeal to the people who buy them, rather than the end users. So Enterprise has this negative reputation as something you’re just forced to deal with. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We have the opportunity to stand out by making a beautiful product that’s designed with the end user in mind.
For example: Enterprise hasn’t historically paid much attention to the emotional aspect of getting things done. But our research tells us that emotional connection is really important. Some people write their tasks out on sticky notes, right? And they love crumpling them up and throwing them away as they finish things up. We want to design in a way that gives users that same satisfaction.
We’re curious about what informs your design concepts. What’s your research process like?
We do a couple different kinds of research. The first step is pinpointing what users want. Then, once we’ve developed an idea, there’s testing and iterating. At Mavenlink, the design team works closely with users during the entire process, both before we build something and afterwards. If we get tickets or feedback, we try to reach out to those people, so they get not just customer support touch but also designer support. It helps them, but it also helps us improve our product.
I think Mavenlink is successful in part because we’re an agile, user-focused shop. We can take what we learn from our users, and — because we have a quick release cycle — we can fix something in a day. There’s no waiting three weeks for the next release. That makes design so much easier.
Beyond that direct feedback, how do you find the problems you want to solve?
In addition to our overall road map and the things our users request, we have a whole bunch of design-driven initiatives. For example, we just did some research with Mavenlink users, looking at how they organize their work and get things done. It’s fascinating; people have all of these different approaches. Say they’re building a website. There’s a whole list of tasks — some of which they don’t want or need to share with the client, or with their boss. But they still need to track those tasks and manage their individual workflow within the larger workflow. Understanding those different use cases helps inform what we design.
Even for something as simple as a timer, we do research and testing to tailor it to the different needs of different users. We recently made our timer more flexible, because some people prefer to start it with a click and others want to type in the time. That sounds pretty simple, but there’s a lot of complexity that goes into designing something to perform the same task in multiple ways.
We know that pairing is an important part of the culture at Mavenlink. Can you talk about who you pair with and how it affects your work?
Sure. Designers might pair with each other, or with developers or product managers. It just depends on the situation. If nothing else, we try to pair a UX designer with a visual designer on every project. It can be a great learning experience, because it’s tricky to apply the visual language to something you’ve been thinking about for a long time as the UX designer. With pairing, you can each focus on a particular area, but you also get fresh eyes on the wider perspective. If I work on both the experience and visual rounds of a project, I might not catch a problem I’ve created, and I’ll just keep designing deeper into that hole. Pairing helps mitigate that, which makes the entire process more efficient. I’ve been a team of one before; you always think your own ideas are great. Sometimes they are and sometimes they aren’t. When you pair, you can find problems — and solutions — much sooner.
Are there any pairing-related challenges that you’ve had to overcome?
I tend to be an introvert, so pairing can be exhausting for me. I like to think things through and perfect them. But that can be a good or bad approach, depending on the situation. Pairing forces you to be comfortable with partially thought-through ideas, which can help ensure you’re seeing the forest and not just the trees. But it can also be really hard, particularly for a designer who may need to think through the entire flow before committing to any one design. That’s why we don’t pair all the time.
What makes Mavenlink different from other places you’ve worked?
Design here is so tightly integrated with our other departments. I’ve worked for companies where I would hand something off to development, and they would do the rest. We barely talked to each other. That’s not how it is at Mavenlink; designers and developers pair together and we go to the same stand-ups. We keep design involved throughout.
We also do a lot of beta testing with end users, which lets us course-correct as needed. Other companies might keep design involved to the end, but without that testing, you can still wind up implementing stuff that users don’t like — which either goes unaddressed, or takes time and money to rework after it’s been shipped. At Mavenlink, we’re better-equipped to develop something that our team is proud of and that actually works for our users.
This story was created in conjunction with Job Portraits, a San Francisco based employer brand agency that helps startups hire at scale.