Alastair Simpson (Head of Design for Confluence, Stride, and Platform) shared the lessons learned in the past few years as he helped grow the UX organization at Atlassian.
Working for clients in both Australia and East Asia, Alastair first noticed that design teams seemed to be a separated service to product teams, much the same way that consultants were a separated service to the client.
In both scenarios, there was a gap between the two, where one party held more authority over the other. With consulting, this is reasonable; after all, consultation is a paid outside service. But for design to be separate from product management and engineering seemed counter-intuitive.
Wasn’t there a better way?
When Alastair began interviewing with Atlassian, he learned of a “new” model… at least new at the time.
Atlassian’s triad model helps design, product management, and engineering worked together on equal footing. Rather than the product team having authority over design, or design having authority over the product team, the only guiding factor was the user experience. And so, the triad model became the foundation of the “experience-led” process.
This is echoed by a direct quote from Atlassian’s Head of Design Jürgen Spangl, “If the experience is not right, you should stop the release.”
This mentality wasn’t easy to integrate at first. It required evolving the company culture to place more value on design and user experience. This isn’t about giving designers a bigger “seat at the table,” but about spreading the experience-first thinking throughout the entire company, among all employees.
Naturally, changing an entire company culture is not easy. Atlassian accomplished it over the years through trial-and-error, learning lessons the hard way to discover what works and what doesn’t.
Specifically, Alastair lists “5 hard lessons” he and Atlassian learned along the way. He shares these lessons in the video above, so your company can get a knowledgeable head start in building the perfect team dynamics.
“You can have the best design team in the world, but if your organisation doesn’t truly value design, it doesn’t matter.”
~Alastair Simpson, Atlassian
Atlassian didn’t hire their first designer until 2008, and from 2008 to 2012 the design org grew to only 6 people. This was at a time when the company was booming, with both product development and engineering teams experiencing double-digit growth.
At that time, the industry was more focused on product and engineering, and design answered to these areas. Design’s value was almost negligible, and innocently confused with other disciplines. .
Enter Jürgen Spangl who joined the company in 2011. Jürgen reorganized the company infrastructure so that design was seen as “more than just pushing pixels around.”
As Alastair explains, one of the first changes Jürgen lead was creating a design system (Atlassian Design Guidelines, known as “ADG”) to improve design cohesion and product development efficiency.
Atlassian Design Guidelines made a lot of sense. From a design perspective it was smoother, from a product perspective it was consistent, from an engineering perspective it was less redundant coding to be done. But most important, it benefitted the customer — familiar and comprehensive interfaces reduced the cognitive load and minimized distractions. It wasn’t so much a design decision as it was an experience decision.
What made this decision so monumental was partially that the customers didn’t request it. No one mentioned standardized drop-down menus or interface visuals in the customer feedback. So, going back and changing these elements to be normal was taking engineering resources away from building new features that the customers actually asked for.
As you can imagine, folks were skeptical at first and Jürgen essentially “bet his job on this,” as Alastair puts it. Regardless, the founders trusted him and backed him. The gamble paid off because the customer feedback was overwhelmingly positive to ADG.
The customers weren’t the only ones who benefitted. Product releases were faster and more consistent. Thanks to reusable components, teams could go from whiteboard sketches to working designs more quickly. ADG was tangible proof that experience-led design worked.
So, by contrast to hiring 6 designers between 2008 and 2012, Atlassian hired over 100 new designers between 2012 and 2016.
Design was no longer a service to product and engineering, but an equal partner.
“Pain is temporary. Suck is forever.”
~Jason Dreamer, Pixar
Making changes is hard. Receiving feedback and criticism is hard. Unearthing and fixing foundational errors is hard. But a bad user experience is worse.
To improve and evolve their design mindset, Atlassian integrated a process they call “design sparring.” As Alastair explains, this isn’t sparring in the sense of a competition, but the proper sense: a learning exercise. Atlassian’s design sparring incorporates peer reviews and honest feedback to help designers learn and thereby improve the final product.
Design sparring at Atlassian promotes 4 key ideals:
- Design-led. Designers facilitate their own design sparring sessions.
- Structured. Sessions are recorded and documented for quick reference later.
- Inclusive. Product managers, engineers, QA reps, and customer advocates all attend to offer their expertise.
- Regular. Sessions occur periodically, at least every two weeks.
Echoing the previous lesson, many of the teams outside of design were unclear on the role of design. These inclusive sessions allowed designers to involve the rest of the company in the value of their craft.
Atlassian designers created the above visual to illustrate in no uncertain terms the design process along these 3 core steps. By sharing this visual aid on the internal server, all employees had a comprehensive guide to the design process and where they fit in.
Design is always a collaborative exercise, and there really is no “design only” stage. The better other departments understand design, the better the final product.
In additional to the lessons above, the rest of the webinar covers:
- What is “radical candor” and why it holds the key to productive company communication.
- How to give constructive criticism in a respectful way.
- The Atlassian method of self review and performance review via the Skills Matrix.
- The Shuhari framework and how it translates into a 90-day plan for keeping designers on track.
- What is “design detention” and how it can solve a lot of common design problems.
- The progression of Atlassian’s Design Week tradition over the years.
- How to differentiate the separate disciplines that are often incorrectly lumped together as “UX.”
- How to break down UX metrics into a structured scorecard to streamline organization.
- How accountability works in the triad model, and getting all teams to pull in the same direction.
- Q&A session with Alastair answering questions from webinar attendees.