How We Jam

Creating space to solve problems together

Mary Schwab
Design at Sprout Social

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A few years ago, I decided to take a risk on a new career path. As someone who has always valued continuous education, I left a marketing job that was comfortable and stable in pursuit of a new challenge and opportunity to strengthen an untapped part of my brain. After a significant amount of study and project work, I successfully transitioned into the ambiguous, complex and gratifying discipline of Product Design.

With this life transition, I often find myself describing what I do now, and how it’s different (and sometimes the same!) as my past career. When describing Product Design, I’ve found myself landing on the simple statement that “I’m a problem solver.”

One of the best parts about being a “Problem Solver” at Sprout, is that we are never solving these complex product puzzles on our own. When I was learning the ins and outs of product design, I understood design collaboration in theory, but never in practice. It even took a few design roles at different companies to truly understand the importance of collaboration and how giving and getting feedback on a regular basis can challenge our assumptions, help us get unstuck and push our work to be the best it can be.

You might wonder how a team of over 30 Product Designers in a remote-forward organization solicits feedback, promotes transparency and just generally…helps each other get unstuck? I’ve learned there are many factors that contribute to the success of a feedback ritual. Some of these variables include:

  • Design team size and structure
  • Ritual cadence and time constraints
  • Career experience of designers
  • Amount of transparency across design teams
  • Overall team engagement
  • And most importantly, how comfortable and safe the feedback space feels for everyone involved.

Design Jams

We are in a groove at Sprout where our primary, org-wide feedback ritual, Design Jams, is working well for us. As a centralized UX team focused on different product “Zones”, it’s important for us to stay in touch. Design Jams is our opportunity to get together to share experiences, constructive feedback, and perspectives. Just like the product we are building, our rituals are always evolving and improving since we all feel empowered to make it work for us. Here’s some insight into how we jam.

Block time

We give ourselves two (optional) opportunities each week to share work within the Product Design team. We understand that design direction can swiftly change, new constraints can pop up out of (seemingly) nowhere and well…designers are busy people! Our 45 minute Design Jam ritual falls on Tuesday and Thursday of each week, giving plenty of opportunity for us to help each other get unstuck and stay grounded in our practice.

Set expectations

If there’s one thing I love about Sprout, it’s that we don’t have meetings for the sake of having meetings. We always know what to expect upon that “Join Meeting” click, and that’s no different for Design Jams! Designers sign up in advance with a quick intro into the work they want to share and an estimate of the time it will take to get the valuable feedback they need. The Design Jams agenda is shared via Slack within an hour of the Design Jam start time.

Additionally, once the Design Jam has started, presenters are expected to frame their work so that the rest of the team understands the context and problem they are trying to solve, as well as the type of feedback they are looking for. This helps participants match the depth of feedback the presenter is looking for (for example, if the presenter is in the late stages of design, then participants know to not suggest wildly different ideas!).

Presenter framing helps the team level set before providing feedback

Level set with craft principles

At Sprout, we advocate for quality and constantly consider our Craft Principles when sharing feedback on each other’s work. Our Craft Principles are shared in the chat at the start of each Design Jam so all participants can refer back to them, especially when we’re stuck in a particularly muddy or complex problem. Checking back in with our Craft Principles always helps level set the discussion:

Design with discipline
Be relentless in the execution of color, type, form and space as it lays the foundation for any effective design. Paying close attention to these details allows the whole to become greater than the sum of its parts.

Start with familiarity
Use consistency as a tool to create experiences that follow foundational, industry-wide principles and Sprout patterns. When existing patterns aren’t enough, though — don’t be afraid to challenge assumptions to iterate toward new, yet predictable, experiences.

Know your users
Promote genuine understanding of the user’s needs and motivations through frequent observation and continuous gathering of authentic feedback.

Make it obvious
Always design common interactions to be visible, and less common ones to be discoverable. Use clear language, labels and hierarchy to reduce cognitive load. Obvious is predictable, and predictability makes users feel smart.

Balance present with future
Understand the holistic system and how changes will affect it. Plan for future impact while designing for the user’s present need.

Be Inclusive
Sprout is for everyone. Experiences should work for users no matter their background or identity, physical and mental needs, device type, size, or speed.

Tell the truth
Design to communicate the truth by staying honest in writing, interactions and flows. Empower users to make their best decisions by presenting information transparently and factually. How we do the work is just as important as what we do.

Facilitate and notetake

Everyone on the Product Design team is responsible for the success of our Design Jams ritual, so we all take turns owning two different roles: facilitator and notetaker.

Facilitators are responsible for posting the agenda so all participants know what to expect before joining the call. Sometimes we have 30+ people in attendance, so the facilitator is also responsible for coming up with an icebreaker to get folks chatting before the meeting starts, introducing topics, keeping time and fielding questions to the presenter from the chat.

The notetaker also plays an important role, summarizing the meeting to allow the presenter to focus on real time discussion. Notetakers aim to capture any and all feedback suggestions (including any mentioned in the chat) along with the feedback source in case there is need for follow up after the Design Jam.

An example of a Design Jams icebreaker

Be flexible

Our Design Jams are flexible, community-driven and entirely optional. If there are no agenda items for an upcoming Design Jam, then no problem, we’ll cancel and give everyone their time back! Maybe someone doesn’t need design feedback, but they want to talk about planning for the Product Design end of year festivities? That sounds like fun, and we’ll use our dedicated Design Jams time to brainstorm together. We find that a standing, but flexible, feedback ritual works best for all.

Create a safe space

I have realized that sharing my work with others can be one of the most vulnerable aspects of being a Product Designer. It’s human nature to be protective of my work (and ego)!

Luckily, I’ve come to learn that Design Jams is not about judging anyone’s capabilities or their work. We jam to help each other get unstuck, confirm or challenge assumptions and discover alternative paths. We practice asking the presenter clarifying questions and giving context to our feedback. We share our unique craft experience and what has or has not worked in the past. And most importantly, we remember to highlight what IS working and why.

I’m proud of the feedback ritual we’ve created in Design Jams. Not only is it a great place to problem solve together, it’s an opportunity to get inspiration from what other team members are working on. I look forward to the evolution of Design Jams and know it will continue to grow and evolve with our team. Have a similar feedback ritual that works well for your team? We’d love to hear about it! Want to establish Design Jams in your organization? Remember to block time, set expectations, level set on craft principles, establish roles, be flexible and most importantly — create a safe space!

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