Design at Nutanix, a ‘Nubie’s’ Perspective
I joined Nutanix roughly four months ago when PernixData was acquired by Nutanix. A four-year veteran at PernixData, I was the sole product designer, responsible for the overall structure, usability, and aesthetics of our software products. Nutanix and Prism were certainly not strangers to me because in my role, I frequently kept tabs on competitors and those in the general cloud infrastructure space. On the surface it seemed like a good fit, given my role and what I perceived to be Nutanix’s strong commitment to design and building great software for its customers.
Still, I wondered how much I would enjoy coming to Nutanix and joining a larger design team, since it meant that I would no longer be the only person focused on design and user experience-related decisions. I knew that I could work effectively in the Nutanix environment, having worked at large successful tech companies in the past, but I wasn’t sure how much I would enjoy it after my experience at PernixData.
When I joined the design team at Nutanix, I was immediately impressed by the caliber of people in the group. I found the visual designers, primarily responsible for the overall beauty and delightfulness of the software, to be top notch. Not only did they have amazing artistry skills, they also had strong technical skills which enabled them to be extremely effective working in a complex domain. From my prior experience, it is very difficult to find folks with a mix of those skills. Similarly, I found the UX designers, primarily responsible for creating workflows and ensuring that complex software is highly usable and also meets actual user needs, incredibly strong as well. They are a passionate bunch that advocate for users in every meeting and every hallway conversation. These folks would run through a brick wall to ensure that Nutanix builds the best software for its users.
Ultimately though, a strong group of design talent can only take you so far. If leadership in the company is ambivalent towards user experience and design, the team’s ability to deliver will be compromised. Sure the team could produce great work, but if design isn’t made a priority within the company, the engineering team can become quite conservative and descope critical aspects of a design at the first sign of technical challenges.
Thankfully at Nutanix, the commitment to design and user experience is evident. Even at the CEO level, those concepts are frequently mentioned and their importance stressed. This helps to establish a culture where the engineers have a positive can-do attitude towards building a top-notch user experience. When technical challenges arise, instead of shying away and compromising the design, engineers think of creative and innovative ways to work around such issues. Even if we can’t get 100% of the way there, we’ll get 95%. That’s a big difference from immediately shooting down a design and forcing a drastically inferior approach.
This commitment and attitude isn’t just relevant to designers and UI developers. Backend developers have a huge impact on the user experience of a product. Take Nutanix 1-click upgrade as an example. It has a huge impact on the experience of using the Nutanix platform, and it has nothing to do with pixels on a screen. Sure there is some button that needs to be clicked, but the magic is what the backend developers have done to eliminate a whole bunch of manual interaction within the system. When developers at all levels of the stack understand the importance of design and user experience, as well as how their work impacts these, some truly great software can be built.
Of course no situation is perfect and life at Nutanix as a designer isn’t without its challenges. In a culture where design is emphasized, various stakeholders won’t be shy about bringing their opinions to the table. After all, design is much easier to have an opinion about than how a backend algorithm is implemented. This can lead to having a lot of ‘cooks in the kitchen’. Ultimately though, having passionate people that care so strongly about building the best software possible is a much better problem to have than the ambivalence mentioned earlier. It just forces designers to navigate these waters and learn when to incorporate feedback, versus when to stick to their guns and provide appropriate justification.
Additionally, while the company is supportive of design, not everyone may be aware of the finer details of the design process. For example, Nutanix is creating invisible infrastructure to reimagine all of enterprise computing. At the macro level, this requires a great deal of imagination, bold decisions, and solving conventional problems in creative and innovative ways. At the micro level, the principles of intentional and opinionated design are leveraged to reduce cognitive load and streamline the user experience as we realize the overall vision. To some, it may not be clear how certain aspects of conventional UX processes, such as user research, fit into this general approach.
In reality, however, they work together quite nicely. Research is leveraged to inform, rather than dictate, what is built. Formative user research is done to observe behavior and understand the underlying intent. It is used to build empathy, and thereby inspire the creative ideation process, both at the macro and micro level. Concept validation research ensures our awesome ideas resonate and that our opinionated design approach has emphasized the right workflows, while providing only the most pertinent choices. Lastly, iterative usability testing helps ensure the end product is both usable and delightful. Thus user research augments the Nutanix product design process to help ensure our products are high quality and well received, in a way that is closely aligned with the company’s core principles.
The design team has done a great job of educating internally about the value of research. They have gone so far as to train others in the company (e.g., engineers and product managers) about how to perform certain types of research, giving them a chance to do so directly at Nutanix’s .NEXT conferences. This proactive approach, in conjunction with a general open mindedness and willingness to learn that I have observed at Nutanix, has gone a long way towards changing any skepticism of a designer’s process into embracement.
Overall, I’ve found Nutanix to be a great place for a designer. My concerns about coming to a larger established team have ended up being a non-issue. While I may no longer have comprehensive control over design, which is natural in a larger team environment, I still have a huge amount of decision making ability within my focus area. And ultimately, when the caliber of people you work with is high, it doesn’t matter that you don’t have all decision making ability, because you trust others to make decisions just as well, if not better, than yourself.