Udacity Design

Where we have been and where we are going

The design team at Udacity recently went on a two-day offsite to refine our goals for the future. It was a fantastic experience that increased our collective focus, ramped up our motivation, and left us feeling really excited for the future. We offer this post as a resource to help you execute a similar experience for your team, and we sincerely hope you find it as empowering as we did!

Below, you’ll find some of our suggestions for how to organize a productive off-site, and examples of some of the activities we engaged in.

1. Find a mindful space

Our marvelous senior design producer huddled the design team away from the office for a two day off-site. She rented a beautiful breather space so we had the proper environment to unplug, reflect on our work, and set our intentions for the future. This was really important to the success of the off-site, as we were free of the day-to-day distractions and pressures that can make it hard to think long-term.

2. Set Clear Intentions

The schedule for our two day off-site was packed. However, it was helpful to know that each part of the day was aligned with our goals.

The goals of our offsite were simple:

  • Reflect on our work as design team
  • Identify priorities and goals for design in 2017
  • Brainstorm ideas to create the best student learning experience possible
  • Create a closer team bond, get to know our new designers, and have fun!

3. Start with a Retrospective

A retrospective session is a time to reflect on your work as a team. Retrospectives can be a time to acknowledge successes but also an opportunity to identify processes that can be improved upon in the future.

We started by creating a timeline of launches, and highlighting the moments that new designers joined our team. It was a great way to celebrate our successes, and it enabled us to personalize the accomplishments.

Udacity Product Launches

We conducted our retrospective in the context of an activity called the “Three Little Pigs.” We focused on our current design workflow and processes, our communication (both internal and external), and our team culture. Then, we wrote down topics on sticky notes and organized them in three categories: a house of straw, a house of sticks, and a house of bricks.

  • House of Straw: Things that could topple over at anytime
  • House of Sticks: Things that are pretty solid but could be improved
  • House of Bricks: Things that are rock solid.

By visualizing topics in these three categories, our team could easily figure out which areas of our workflow needed the most attention.

4. Refine Your Principles

Our design team has of necessity had to move at lightning speeds, despite being a relatively small group. So most of our focus has been on producing and shipping quality designs, leaving little time to really think about the guiding principles that should be the foundation for our work. Our offsite afforded us the opportunity to address this head-on.

To define these principles, we brainstormed out words that describe our priorities as a design team. Words like simple, professional, focused, empowering, welcoming. We discussed how each of these words related to one another, and what emotions these words evoked. Then, we voted for the words that resonated with each of us as they relate to developing a world-class experience for our students.

Ultimately we decided on these principles:

Approachable: Our designs make our product simple to use and accessible for all.

Inspiring: Our designs motivate students to prioritize their learning and return to Udacity daily. As a result, students are learning on demand skills and completing their Nanodegree programs.

Trustworthy: Our designs build trust with our students through the consistency of our brand. From our home page to our classroom, the look and feel of our product is consistent.

Innovative: Our designs push design trends in the education space.

Moving forward in 2017, we will examine every design decision against these principles. During feedback cycles, we will ask each other whether our design choices reflect these principles so that at every touch point, students know and feel that Udacity is preparing them for their future careers.

5. Stretch your Design Thinking

After establishing our principles, we dove into a design thinking exercise. We were given a product brief from our Director of Product, Markus Spiering. He challenged us to reinvent the home page experience for our students. We challenged ourselves to understand the current student experience and then ideate, sketch, and wireframe the ideal student learning journey.

The purpose of this exercise was to practice design thinking as a team and work together to come up with creative solutions. Here was our process:

  • We broke up into two groups for this activity. The idea was not to pit one team against the other, but instead allow diverse ideas to flourish. Smaller groups allowed each person to develop, and invest in, unique ideas.
  • We kept a “blue-sky” mentality. We pushed ourselves to be open with all ideas rather than start with the current homepage experience. This type of thinking opens the door to innovative ideas.
  • We sketched. A lot. We sketched out ideas, user journeys, individual features, wireframes. We sketched quickly and did not dwell too long on any one idea. We generated as many ideas as possible and then shared each idea with our group members.
  • We collaborated. After pitching separate ideas, we then evolved them by blending our sketches.
  • We debriefed. We agreed that the opportunity to ideate, sketch, and wireframe in groups was extremely beneficial. We challenged each others’ thinking, and ultimately our solutions were stronger and better thought out.

6. Make something!

Finally, we spent an afternoon at the Tech shop. We learned how to use a laser cutter and etched our unique designs onto phone holders. Designers are makers, and having the opportunity to make something to take home was different than what we do on a typical day.

Overall, the design offsite was extremely impactful—it helped us continue to build on the strengths of our design culture, and to set a clear vision for the future.

Here at Udacity, we value design thinking, and a strong design culture. If you care about the same, come join us! We have open roles right now!

Design Director
Frontend Design Developer