By Nathaniel Hundt, Principal Product Manager, Integration Platform Product Management, Workday
When I was a teenager, I doodled par-five golf holes in the margins of my biology textbook. With painstaking detail, I would work on bunker positioning and green slope. I drew arrows to indicate the ideal ball placement from shot to shot. I was hooked on the game and imagined a future in the industry as a course architect.
Years later, as a product manager at Workday, I found myself needing to summon my loosely-developed artistic skills in unexpected ways. I was discussing my first feature assignment, the ability to create skill profiles for talent management, with my manager, Michael, when he stopped me in mid-conversation. He slid a black dry-erase marker across the table in my direction. “Help me understand what you’re thinking,” he asked, pointing to the empty white board.
I was versed in written composition from my days as an English major and literary magazine editor in college. Slide decks and spreadsheets were presentation formats I had mastered as a business school student and former corporate development analyst. But I hadn’t ever drawn professionally. I hadn’t ever been asked to sketch in front of someone else. Channeling what must have been my inner Matisse (weeks earlier, I had visited the cut-out exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art), I steadied my shaky hand and managed to draw an irregular rectangle intended to represent a desktop interface. I added a smaller box within the outline and began to describe the decision a user might face.
Since that first whiteboarding session, I’ve come to fully appreciate the power of pictures in the workplace. In the Workday Products organization, we draw for each other to communicate our ideas, assess candidate abilities, and paint a vision for the future.
Drawing up the plays
Nowadays, when I walk around a Workday office floor, I can track progress and collaboration by following the trail of day-old drawings covering whiteboards and windows. Throughout the day, small groups form, clustered around individuals wielding markers, articulating process flows with boxes and arrows. When a developer pulls up a story, there is most often a corresponding mockup to help guide a visual learner.
As a product manager, I now try to express concepts in a multitude of ways. Sketching, I have found, is fundamental to effective communication. As a medium, pictures cross both language and technical barriers. I realize now, it was natural that Michael wanted to see my thoughts drawn on the board.
Candidates are asked to tell us a story
A year later, I started interviewing Workday product manager candidates. We revamped our process to include a design-thinking session: a panel presents a candidate with a scenario and asks for possible solutions. We are not evaluating the answer, but rather the way a candidate thinks. We do so, however, by asking the candidate to both draw and speak aloud.
As we provide new information and ask qualifying questions, we evaluate how well candidates synthesize feedback and think on their feet. We look for rapid iteration upon mental models and adjustment of designs on the fly. We seek candidates who can articulate an efficient end-user flow. We’re observing how clearly the candidate tells a story, using annotations to complement designs.
Most of all, we’re imagining ourselves, months later, in a small group meeting with the candidate. We ask ourselves: is this someone with whom we’d like to learn about a concept or idea? We’re evaluating whether the candidate could paint a mental picture in our minds such that we could almost touch or feel the solution before anything is coded. Would the candidate help us understand the opportunity in a new way?
Stories help us imagine the future
This summer, I visited the Detroit Institute of Arts. In the cavernous, light-filled Rivera Court, I was surrounded by four mammoth mural-filled walls. The murals featured hundreds of automotive assembly line workers going through their days, minding machines, participating in training sessions, and inspecting output. However, the artist Diego Rivera himself once said, “Every good composition is above all a work of abstraction.” The portraits themselves serve as an homage to industry and science, juxtaposing innovation and progress with social inequality and life’s struggles.
Indeed, when I work with our product designers, who partner with development teams, the work we co-create is an abstraction. The purpose of each design, regardless of fidelity, is to convey an idea and pursue an insight learned from user research and testing. There are many fidelities possible, from low-fi persona sketches, to scenarios and situational storyboards, to high-fidelity, clickable interactions. Yet each is a prototype, for it expresses an idea that solves a problem we’ve uncovered. That idea may be universal, such as navigation, or narrow, such as a required prompt. Regardless, my design colleague, Nor, likes to remind me that a “prototype can kill a thousand meetings.”
By demonstrating the flow or potential user journey, we give stakeholders something to interact with, lowering the barrier to entry for sharing tangible feedback and actionable opinions. Early in my product management career, I worried that a design was not “real enough” to share with a prospective user, let alone an internal stakeholder, if it wasn’t pixel perfect, with all the right colors, latest design patterns, and field labels.
Now I realize that feedback is valuable regardless of the design stage. We share personas early in order to verify that we’ve appropriately understood pain points and opportunities, and captured the right set of favorite apps or bots — the details matter! Starting to build without an agreed-upon foundation of knowledge and understanding of what we are solving can be an exercise in futility.
Using simple iPad or hand-drawn storyboards, we can validate that a scenario is realistic. When we administer usability tests on these designs, we’re able to decipher whether potential users feel that we’ve done our job. The benchmark? The protagonist should feel at least three times better if their problem is solved. We’re even working on an internal kit that will democratize storytelling by giving product managers and designers a common set of pliable characters, props, actions, and scenes.
Using collaborative tools, like Zeplin and Invision, we share high-fidelity, click-through prototypes with team members in a dynamic medium that starts to feel even more real. These tools allow us to easily identify a functional or experience gap that needs to be filled before development kicks off.
Write the next chapter yourself
Recently, we have invited the community to take Workday further through the Workday Cloud Platform. To do so, we’ve shared not only our Workday Canvas Design System, which contains reusable layouts, palettes, and patterns, but also our design thinking Playbook. If you borrow a play or two, you can get started with user research and prototyping well before building. This will save you time in the long run. By usability testing your solutions early and often, you’ll be more likely to deliver a feature that hits the mark.
If you’re like me, you may have doodled once or twice. If it’s been a while, I encourage you to bring pictures back into your life — they will enhance your ability to communicate, critique, and create. I’ve built a career in enterprise technology instead of golf course architecture, but every time I sketch I feel like a kid again. I hope you find the same sense of possibility when you start to draw!
If you or someone you know wants to be part of this story in real life, Workday is currently hiring for individuals to help develop the next wave of products.