May 02, 2017

Engineering Great Design Process

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Contactually is a company all about people and relationships. We love our customers — and hope they love us too! For this reason and many others, strong usability and user experience design are critically important to the success of our business.

I recently joined Contactually to lead the user experience (UX) team, after having held similar roles in companies such as AddThis, Oracle, and America Online. In this blog post I’ll share some strategies that our designers, product managers, and developers use to successfully collaborate and build great experiences together.

Establish Design Standards


Design resources such as style guidelines, design pattern libraries, and corresponding front-end component libraries aren’t just about consistency. These tools work together to help teams design, build, and iterate faster.

At Contactually we make style guidelines and brand assets available to the larger organization using Frontify, and are in the process of converting the Contactually web application to React, using Semantic UI and Storybook, a UI component development environment for React. React is a component-based Javascript library for building interfaces, and will allow us to reuse interface components across the Contactually platform.

Tools such as these help us create more consistent, customer-friendly experiences more quickly — a big win for a small team.

Storybook interface for React Components

Balance Building, Iterating, and Fixing

Product design and development roadmaps always require trade-offs. There are new features to be explored, existing features to test and iterate, customer questions and concerns to address, and bugs to fix.

As an agile design and development team, we plan sprints by distributing a percentage of “points” — which correspond to available developer time — to each of those priorities. We collaborate closely with our Customer Success and Support teams to include feedback from our customers in that prioritization process.

This allows us to balance introducing exciting new features with improving the ones we have, and help ensure that our customers are delighted with Contactually.

Utilize a Flexible Design Process

Designers often express concern about Agile development process and how to incorporate good UX practice into two-week “sprints.” Sometimes it’s appropriate to try to do so, but sometimes it’s not.

Design work comes in many shapes and sizes. Sometimes we work on simple elements like a form, and sometimes we need to design a more elaborate feature or explore a complex problem.

When a design task is simple enough to fit into a sprint, we’ll collaborate with product managers and developers to arrive a solution and move on.

If we scope out a problem and need more time to design and prototype, we’ll “sprint ahead” for two weeks, collaborating with product managers and developers in order to arrive at a design ready for development and testing in the following sprint.

Finally, if a problem is complex enough that it requires more extensive research and prototyping, we might remove it completely from the sprint process until it is better understood, perhaps through prototyping and user testing. This is sometimes called a “design spike”. Then, the solution can be scoped and scheduled into development sprints later.

Design “spikes” — Source: Smashing Magazine

Foster Cross-team Collaboration

Collaboration is critical to the success of processes such as Agile development and Lean UX. In order to arrive at the right experience for the right customer as quickly as possible, designers, product managers and engineers have to work together. At Contactually, we employ several simple strategies for promoting collaboration.

We explore new ideas or sprint objectives together, up front, before design or development begins. We sit together as a team, to take advantage of opportunities for quick consultation and decision making.

We use Slack to discuss projects transparently, so anyone who is interested can follow along, and JIRA for organizing and tracking work. Live dashboards are projected around the office to track our sprints, business goals, customer feedback and even “thank-you’s” to fellow team members for being awesome to one another – one of our core values as a company.

Embrace Customer Feedback and Data Insights

Last but never least, customer feedback, research and product metrics play an essential role in creating great products. From informing hypotheses as to what to design and build, to providing usage metrics to measure, our customers have to be at the center of everything we do.

Here are just a few of the strategies we employ at Contactually:

  • User research interviews and facilitated testing sessions over Google Hangouts
  • Regular webinars to not only educate customers but also solicit questions and feedback
  • Deep analysis of customer usage of the platform with tools like Looker, Full Story, MixPanel, and Google Analytics

Putting It Together

Great product experiences require collaborative teams that are actively listening and responding to their customers. I’ve outlined five strategies that we use here at Contactually:

  • Establishing design standards and implementing a component-based interface schema
  • Carefully balancing the priorities of new features versus iterating on recently released components and fixing bugs
  • Utilizing a flexible design process that scales to fit the problem being solved while still integrating with an Agile development process
  • Fostering collaboration between designers, developers, and product managers
  • Embracing customer feedback and data insights to better inform the ongoing product roadmap

Have questions or comments? Hit me up on Twitter.

For millions of professionals, relationships are the backbone of a viable business. Whether you’re working with clients, prospects, or potential investors, Contactually helps you build stronger relationships with the people who can make you successful.

Contactually is looking for experienced software engineers who are passionate about solving complex problems with code. We’ve taken a novel approach to building business software — focus on the end user — and it’s been working! Our users love us. Come help us build a product that makes contact management easy and rescue 10,000s of people from the jaws of clunky, outdated software.

Engineering Great Design Process was originally published in Contactually Product and Engineering on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.