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Making Distributed Product Teams Work More Efficiently With monday.com
(This is a sponsored article.) The way that product teams work is changing: The software industry is quickly moving to remote work. In the US alone, 43% of employed Americans have spent at least some time working remotely, and that number has steadily increased in recent years. Many successful digital products on the market today were designed and developed by a distributed team. Such teams don’t have an office in the traditional sense. Everyone chooses to work from where they like, both geographically and functionally (in a coworking space, coffee shop, home office, etc.).
While a distributed product team might sound tempting to you, creating an effective design process on such a team requires a lot of effort. Collaboration and communication are two of the most significant challenges distributed teams face. Managing a distributed team requires an understanding of how the individuals on your team operate, as well as requires a digital toolset that makes the team’s operations as efficient as possible. That’s why investing in the right remote tools and technology is so critical for product managers.
If you’re a team manager who is looking to establish a robust design process for a distributed team, then this article for you. You’ll find seven of the most common challenges distributed product teams should overcome and learn how a team-management tool called monday.com (formerly dapulse) can help them with that.
1. Build A Shared Understanding Of A Project’s Goals
When it comes to organizing a work process on a remote team, one of the key goals is to keep the whole team on the same page. Management needs to set goals and make sure everyone on the team understands and accepts them. Building understanding is especially important on remote teams because interaction tend to be more sporadic. Ensure that everyone on the team knows the following:
What are the project’s overall goals? When a team clearly understand’s the product strategy (what they want to build and why), that understanding motivates engagement.
What is expected of them, and how do they fit in the bigger picture? People want to know their role in the process. Even though every team member will be deep in the details when working on a project, understanding the big picture will help them to focus on what’s really important.
What are other people involved in the project doing? Each team member should have visibility on what the other team members are working on.
The more everyone knows, the better they can work as a team.
Visualize The Product Development Process
Helping everyone on the team know what is expected of them and when is possible using monday.com’s feature named the “timeline.” The timeline makes tasks more visual — team members will be able to see when each task is scheduled for, how long it will take and how it fits in the entire project. The tool enables you to see not only what tasks your team members are working on, but also how those tasks are distributed over time. It is great for when some activities depend on others (for example, developers are waiting on mockups from designers).
2. Manage The Team’s Workload
As anyone who has ever worked on a remote team will tell you, remote working is quite different from working face to face. Many project managers find it hard to manage the team’s workload.
Most product teams use project-tracking software to plan and estimate their work. Usually, a team will prepare all of the work in a task list, in which each task has a text description and a time estimate. The biggest downside of this approach is that it’s not very representative. For example, Kanban boards, used by many product teams today, are not very representative — it’s almost impossible from a glance at the board to understand the order in which tasks should be completed, especially when they have dependencies.
Track Everything Your Team Is Working On
Interaction cost (i.e. the cognitive or physical effort required to complete an action) plays a vital role in the user experience of a product. The more effort required to complete an operation, the less usable the interface becomes for the end user. If the project manager has to switch to different products to see the team’s progress, that will create unnecessary friction and hinder the team from working efficiently.
monday.com assembles and displays progress data in a logical and understandable way. The tool has a feature called a board. The board is where all team members can track everything the team is working on. The main advantage of the board is that it enables product managers to monitor the team’s progress in real time and instantly see who is working on what and see where things stand.
Communicate Current Status
Each team needs a mechanism that makes it easy to understand what’s going on at a glance.
One way to solve this problem is to use color coding for different elements. Color coding speeds up visual search because it allows users to quickly filter a particular object (or objects) by knowing the color associated with it. monday.com uses color coding to indicate the current status of a task. For example, it’s easy to see where things have gotten stuck just by looking at the board and finding all tasks colored in red.
Create, Modify And Assign Tasks In A Few Clicks
Adding tasks in a project-management tool doesn’t sound very exciting. Generally, the more time it takes, the less happy the product manager will be.
monday.com simplifies the process of data input. Managers can quickly add rows to the board — monday.com calls them pulses. Pulses can be tasks, projects, missions, to-do items, etc. Creating a pulse requires just a few clicks.
After you create a pulse, simply assign it to a team member.
Tailor The Platform To Your Needs
There’s no such thing as a universal design process. Every project is different and requires its own design process. A product-management tool should be very adaptive to change; the product team should be able to customize the process according to their needs, without having to put much effort into customization.
monday.com is extremely customizable and lets the user configure almost any option. You can customize monday.com to manage any workflow or process, to address any challenge and to manage basically anything.
When it comes to creating a board, you don’t need to start from scratch. A multitude of templates allow you to start quickly. For example, the “Team Tasks” template would be very useful for product teams.
After selecting a template for your needs, you can customize it by manipulating different sections. Product teams often need to combine task into groups, whereby each group represents a milestone (for example, “Release 1”, “Release 2”, etc.). Doing this in monday.com is relatively simple. As a board owner, you can have as many groups as you want.
But it doesn’t stop there. You can use the checklist feature to break down tasks even further. For example, each task can be broken down into smaller to-do steps. This feature is handy when a few activities need to get done before the task can be completed — for example, if a product specification needs to be approved by a few designers before it can be handed over to the development team. The checklist sits within a pulse, in the “Updates” section, and can help create a structure for each pulse.
Plan The Team’s Workload Visually
Designers, developers and managers often work with compressed timeframes and simultaneous projects. A team must be able to respond quickly to feedback on their product from stakeholders and users. Following the build-measure-learn cycle, a product team should be really flexible; it should be ready to implement feedback from testing sessions and adjust the design process according to the new information. The same level of flexibility should be in all products the team uses.
Using monday.com’s timeline, it’s possible to make corrections and improve the team’s efficiency. The visual editor makes the process of managing tasks easy. The product manager can see where each project is at each point, and can see and focus on areas of struggle, quickly and effectively.
The timeline makes it possible to see each team member’s capacity over a set period of time (say, the next few weeks), seeing where they have room to take on more work and where they need to delegate tasks to others.
3. Create Effective Internal Communications
Communication plays a critical role in the design process. When it comes to product design, it’s essential for all team members to be on the same page. Unlike colocated teams, a distributed team won’t have an opportunity to arrange regular face-to-face meetings. When you take out face-to-face interaction, you can’t expect things to just work the same way. Poorly established communication patterns can lead to some team members feeling like they’re working in a vacuum.
Tools matter more in remote work because they are the foundation for communication. The goal is to make sure everyone on the team feels connected.
Centralize All Communication
In today’s world, we communicate with a variety of tools: from traditional email to online messengers such as Skype, WhatsApp, Slack and Facebook Messenger. Having to switch from a task-management tool to another tool for communication can be stressful. Worse, some information can get lost during the transition (for example, an email inbox can fill up to the point that a team member can overlook a critical email).
Product teams can use monday.com as a single communication platform for their workplace. And it would be a much better solution because it allows for communication in the context of each task. With monday.com, you no longer need to use email for internal communication. When a team member clicks on a pulse on any board, a box opens to the right of the screen, showing the “updates”. Simply mention a person’s username (“@johndoe”), and send your message. The great thing is that the chat thread stays with that task, so finding a conversation after a while is relatively easy.
Cut Down On Meetings And Optimize Required Meetings
Meetings are an essential part of the communication process. When it comes to reviewing plans and brainstorming on design decisions, there’s no substitute for a meeting. But for a distributed team, the number of potential hours available for real-time meetings can be limited, so it’s essential to make the best use of that time. A distributed team should continually try to reduce their number of meetings and maximize the effectiveness of the time that team members have together.
Take a weekly kickoff meeting as an example. This meeting happens on a Monday, and team members come together to discuss plans for the week. For many teams, such meetings are rarely productive. Quite often, the information shared in a weekly kickoff meeting becomes outdated shortly after the meeting, and team members need to reprioritize tasks.
monday.com saves the team vast amounts of time in meetings. Instead of discussing the plan for the week, the product manager can break down complex tasks into weekly achievable goals. This will help team members plan the week based on what they need to get done.
Share Valuable Resources With The Entire Team, Not Individual Members
Imagine you’ve found a really valuable resource and want to share it with your peers. You tweet about it and send a link to a group chat. You get feedback like, “Awesome resource! Thanks!” from some people in the chat. Shortly after, most of your peers forget about the resource, especially if they can’t use it in the work they’re doing right now. Sad, right? We can do better.
Instead of sending a link to a group chat, share all resources you find on a separate board. monday.com has a template named “Design Inspiration & Resources”. The great thing about this approach is that it’ll be much easier for team members to find a particular resource when they actually need it.
Organize Better Planning And Brainstorming Sessions
Task prioritization is a typical activity in agile project management. Team members get together, discuss tasks and vote on what to implement in the next sprint.
monday.com incorporates voting. Team members can use the voting column when they want to decide on something together as a team. Simply add a voting column to a board, and team members will be able to cast their vote in one click.
Notify Team Members In Real Time
Fear of missing out (FOMO) is a common problem on distributed teams. When working remotely, team members might be afraid to miss an important piece of information. As a result, they spend a lot of time in communication tools, checking mail and messengers. This can get really distracting. Team members should spend less time in communication tools and more time in tools they use to design (tools for prototyping and development). It’s all too easy to waste the day reading messages and replying.
A communication tool should serve vital information just when team members need it; it should have an effective mechanism of notification. monday.com notifies users via desktop and mobile in real time. The platform has an app for iOS and Android. The app allows team members to stay connected on their phone or tablet and to respond quickly from anywhere. It’s also possible to customize notification rules. For example, you can manage which activity triggers an email.
Create A Work Schedule For Your Team
If your team is distributed across the globe and you need to arrange a meeting, you have to be sure that it won’t happen at awkward hours (such as in the middle of the night). It would be great to see the team members’ working hours.
The work schedule board is a cornerstone of your business operations. Team members in each time zone can commit to the times that work for them. This helps product managers schedule meetings at times that work for everybody.
4. Involve Users In The Design Process
Most commercially successful products were created with a strong focus on the target audience. Designers know that if they want to release a successful product, they need to introduce real users to the design process. User involvement is most efficient and influential in the early stages of product development, because the cost of making changes increases as the system develops. Generally, the earlier you create a strong feedback loop, the better the final product will be.
Share Designs With Users And Gather A Valuable Feedback
The feedback that a product team gets from users is extremely valuable. It can validate that the design team is moving in the right direction.
On monday.com, users can create a board and choose whom to share it with. For example, if you are working with a client, you can set up a board for their project and invite them to work as a guest. The board could include key features you want to work on. As soon as you share the board, the client will get a notification and then can open the board, review the plan and request modifications.
5. Find All Required Information Easily
Documentation is another challenge. Distributed teams don’t have a physically shared space where they can share product documentation. Information might be stored in many different places: email, cloud drives, local computers, etc. It could lead to team members missing an important piece of information and being unaware of it. This leads to fragmented knowledge.
Centralize All Documents
Having all documents in one place is critical to success. monday.com syncs all information in a single accessible hub. All team members can store all relevant discussions in a searchable database. The platform provides an option to upload different types of files simply by dragging and dropping. The next time a designer needs to share a product’s specifications, all they need to do is upload a file to the platform.
Search Anything And Everything
Anyone who has ever worked with a knowledge base will tell you how critical search functionality is. Without proper search, your chance of finding information decreases significantly.
monday.com allows you to quickly find anything your team has ever worked on, including images, updates, projects and assignments. Your work becomes a rich knowledge base.
For example, when you need to find the latest version of a product’s specification, all you need to do is click the search box, select the “Files” tab and enter the project’s name as a search query.
6. Make The Collaboration Tool A Natural Part Of The Team
The platform you choose for team management should feel like second nature. Technology should work for you and your team, not the other way around.
Minimize The Time Required To Learn A Tool
When you introduce a new tool in the design process, one goal should be to have total agreement to work using this tool. This agreement is not always easy to come by because team members are usually skeptical about the next “magical tool that will solve all of their problems”. What’s worse is that they have to spend extra time learning how to use it. Nobody wants to learn new software.
One of the most significant advantages of monday.com is its intuitiveness. Regardless of whether you’ve used a similar app before, monday.com can be picked up with no training. Team members will be able to understand how to use the tool without preparation.
When companies select a collaboration tool, they often think of it as an investment. They want a tool that will scale with the business.
monday.com is suitable for any sized team, from two freelancers working together to thousands collaborating across the globe. The tool scales with you, from simplicity to complexity, with total ease. Also, as your business expands, monday.com makes it painless to shift to a premium version (Standard, Pro or Enterprise) and get more of the platform’s premium features.
Integrate The Platform With Existing Tools
A task-management tool is essential for any team hoping for good results. But the team’s toolbox also needs to support the design process (for prototyping and development) and the collection of design artifacts (for example, on Google Drive or Dropbox). It’s essential that the team-management tool integrates seamlessly with other tools the team uses.
When it comes to integration, monday.com does a lot to be part of the established software ecosystem. It can connect to Dropbox, Zapier, Google Drive and other sharing tools. As a team member, you can attach a mockup file to your updates, sharing it in the context of the tasks it relates to.
monday.com also comes with an open API architecture, which lets developers build their own integrations.
7. Keep The Team Motivated
Having the right atmosphere is extremely important. Team leaders should not only be in tune with each person on the team, but should continually look for ways to increase engagement.
Celebrate Successes With Team Members
It’s natural for people to seek acknowledgment. The need for social approval drives us to look for confirmation from people we know (parents, friends, colleagues). When someone recognizes our results by saying something as simple as “Great job!”, we feel motivated to work towards our goals. It’s essential for team players to get acknowledged, especially when working remotely.
monday.com has a few features that help create a sense of acknowledgment. The first one is the thumb-up feature, which is basically a positive reaction to an activity. Most people are familiar with this from social networks. People are used to measuring the effect of a post by the number of likes they get. monday.com allows you to give a thumb up to your teammates’ work.
Another nice feature are the animated GIFs. You can liven up comments with GIFs. monday.com lets you pick from thousands of GIFs when responding to teammates, which will add a bit of personality to your comments.
Last but not least, monday.com has a confetti feature. As soon as a designer completes their last “in progress” task on a board, they will see an animated confetti effect. This subtle detail adds a bit of delight and motivates team members to have an all-green board.
Establishing an effective process on a distributed team is hard. What works for a colocated team won’t necessarily work for a distributed team, and what works for one distributed team won’t necessarily work for another.
Build a remote-friendly work culture by focusing on following priorities:
Keep important information accessible to everyone.
Stay on top of the team’s activity.
Understand what every member of your team is doing and where the team is in the process at a glance.
Build an effective communication system.
The foundation of distributed teams is communication. Create a healthy system of meetings and habits to keep people communicating.
Lower the barrier to entry.
Choose a team-collaboration tool that will be the least painful for everyone to get on board with. It should be a reference point that brings everything together.
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Better Collaboration By Bringing Designers Into The Code Review Process
Smooth collaboration between developers and designers is something everyone aspires to, but it’s notoriously difficult. But with today’s advanced web, it’s difficult — if not impossible — to build a truly great product without collaborating across disciplines. Because of the range of technologies required to build a product, the product can only truly succeed when all disciplines — developers and designers, content creators, and user experience strategists — are deeply involved from the early stages of the project. When this happens, all ends of what it takes to build a product come naturally together into a unified whole, and a thus great product.
Because of this, no one is really promoting waterfall processes anymore. Nevertheless, involving other people early on, especially people from other disciplines, can feel scary. In the worst case scenario, it leads to “design by committee.”
Moreover, both designers and content strategists often have backgrounds in fields in which a sole creative genius is still the ideal. Having someone else proof your work can feel like a threat to your creativity.
So how can you involve people early on so that you’re avoiding the waterfall, but also making sure that you’re not setting yourself up for design by committee? I found my answer when learning about code reviews.
The Aha! Moment
In July 2017, I founded Confrere together with two developers, and we quickly hired our first engineer (I’m not a developer myself, I’m more of a UX or content designer). Our collaboration was running surprisingly smoothly, so much so that at our retrospectives, the recurring theme was that we all felt that we were “doing it right.”
I sat down with my colleagues to try to pinpoint what exactly it was that we were “doing right” so that we could try to preserve that feeling even as our company grew and our team expanded. We came to the realization that we all appreciated that the whole team was involved early on and that we were being honest and clear in our feedback to each other. Our CTO Dag-Inge added: “It works because we’re doing it as peers. You’re not being berated and just getting a list of faults”.
The word “peer” is what gave me the aha moment. I realized that those of us working within UX, design, and content have a lot to learn from developers when it comes to collaboration.
Peer reviewing in the form of code reviews is essential to how software gets built. To me, code reviews offer inspiration for improving collaboration within our own fields, but also a model for collaborating across fields and disciplines.
If you’re already familiar with code reviews, feel free to skip the next section.
What Is A Code Review?
A code review can be done in various ways. Today, the most typical form of code review happens in the way of so-called pull requests (using a technology called git). As illustrated below, the pull requests let other people on the team know that a developer has completed code that they wish to merge with the main code base. It also allows the team to review the code: they give feedback on the code before it gets merged, in case it needs improvement.
Pull requests have clearly defined roles: there is an author and a reviewer(s).
As an example, let’s say our senior engineer Ingvild has made a change to Confrere’s sign-up flow. Before it is merged into the main code base and gets shipped, she (the author) creates a pull request to request a review from our CTO Dag-Inge (the reviewer). He won’t make any changes to her code, only add his comments.
It’s up to Ingvild how she wants to act on the feedback she received in the review. She’ll update her pull request with the changes she sees fit.
When the reviewer(s) approve the pull request, Ingvild can then merge her changes with the main code base.
Why Bother Doing Code Review?
If you’ve never done code review, the process above might sound bureaucratic. If you have doubts, here’s a tonofblogposts and academic research about the advantages of code review.
Code reviews set the tone for the entire company that everything we do should be open to scrutiny from others, and that such scrutiny should be a welcome part of your workflow rather than viewed as threatening.
Code review reduces risk. Having someone proof your work, and also knowing someone will proof your work, helps weed out errors and heightens quality. In addition, it ensures consistency and helps every team member familiarize with more of the code base.
When done right, code review also builds a culture for collaboration and openness. Trying to understand and critique other people’s work is an excellent way to learn, and so is getting honest feedback on your work.
Always having at least two people look over the code also curtails ideas of “my” code and “your” code. It’s our code.
Considering these advantages, a review shouldn’t just be for code.
Review Principles For All Disciplines, Not Just Code
With reviews, there is always one author and one or more reviewers. That means you can involve people early on without falling into design by committee.
First, I have to mention two important factors which will affect your team’s ability to do beneficial reviews. You don’t necessarily have to have mastered them, but as a minimum, you should aspire to the following:
Don’t forget to praise the good parts! What’s clever, creative, solid, original, funny, nice, and so on?
These principles weren’t actually written down until after we discussed why our collaboration was working so well. We all felt we were allowed to and expected to ask questions and suggest improvements already, and that our motivations were always about building something great together, and not about criticising another person.
Because we were being clear about what kind of feedback we were giving, and also remembered to praise each other’s good work, doing reviews was a positive force rather than a demotivating one.
To give you an idea of how our team uses review across disciplines and throughout a process, let’s look at how the different members of our team switched between the roles of author and reviewer when we created our sign-up flow.
Whiteboard sessions can be exhausting if there’s no structure to them. To maintain productivity and creativity, we use the author/reviewer structure, even for something as seemingly basic as brainstorming on a whiteboard. In this case, in which we were coming up with the requirements for our sign-up flow, I got to be the author, and the rest of the team gave their feedback and acted as reviewers. Because they also knew they’d be able to review what I came up with in step 2 (plenty more opportunity for adjustments, suggestions, and improvements), we worked swiftly and were able to agree upon the requirements in under 2 hours.
As an author, I created a mockup of the sign-up flow with microcopy. Did the sign-up flow make sense, from both the user and engineering perspective? And how could we improve the flow from a design and frontend perspective? At this stage, it was essential to work in a format in which it would be easy for all disciplines to give feedback (we opted for Google Docs, but it could also have been done with a tool like InvisionApp).
Step 3: Implementing the sign-up flow
Author: Ingvild (engineering)
Reviewer: Ida (UX) and Dag-Inge (engineering).
We had agreed upon the flow, the input fields, and the microcopy, and so it was up to Ingvild to implement it. Thanks to Surge, we can automatically create preview URLs of the changes so that people who can’t read code are able to give feedback at this stage as well.
Step 4: User testing
Author: Ida (UX)
Reviewer: The users.
Yes, we consider user testing a form of review. We brought our newly built sign-up flow face-to-face with actual users. This step gave us a ton of insight, and the most significant changes in our sign-up flow came as a result.
Step 5: Design
Author: Eivind (design)
Reviewers: Ingvild (engineering) and Ida (UX).
When design suddenly shows up here in step 5, it might look a lot like a waterfall process. However, our designer Eivind had already been involved as a reviewer since step 2. He gave a bunch of useful feedback at that stage and was also able to start thinking about how we could improve the design of the sign-up flow beyond the existing modules in our design system. At this step, Eivind could also help solve some of the issues that we identified in the user testing.
Step 6: Implementation
Author: Ingvild (engineering)
Reviewer: Eivind (design), Ida (UX) and Dag-Inge (engineering).
And then we’re back to implementing.
Why review works
In summary, there’s always just one author, thus avoiding design by committee. By involving a range of disciplines as reviewers early on, we avoid having a waterfall process.
People can flag their concerns early and also start thinking about how they can contribute later on. The clearly defined roles keep the process on track.
Regular Review Walkthroughs
Taking inspiration from code walkthroughs, we also do regular review walkthroughs with different foci, guided by the following principles:
The walkthrough is done together.
One person is in charge of reviewing and documenting.
The idea is to identify issues, not necessarily to solve them.
Choose a format that gives as much context as possible, so that it’s easy to act upon the findings later (e.g. InvisionApp for visual reviews, Google Docs for text, and so on).
We’ve done review walkthroughs for things such as accessibility audits, reviewing feature requests, auditing the implementation of the design, and doing heuristic usability evaluations.
When we do our quarterly accessibility reviews, our accessibility consultant Joakim first goes through the interface and documents and prioritizes the issues he’s found in a shared Google Sheet. Joakim then walks us through the most important issues he’s identified.
Meeting face-to-face (or at least on video) to go through the issues helps create an environment for learning rather than a feeling of being supervised or micromanaged.
If you find yourself always being tied up with something that’s due for release, or fixing whatever is at the top of your inbox, reviews can help remedy that. If you set aside regular half days for reviewing work you’ve already done, you can identify issues before they become urgent. It can also help you refocus and make sure you’re priorities are keeping along the right lines. Your team should maybe not begin building that new feature before you’re confident that the existing features are living up to your standards.
User Testing Is A Form Of Review
An important motivation for code reviews is to reduce risk. By doing it every single time you introduce a change or add something new to your product, and not just when you suspect something is maybe not up to par, you diminish the chance of shipping bugs or subpar features. I believe we should look at user testing from the same perspective.
You see, if you want to reduce the risk of shipping with major usability issues, user testing has to be part of your process. Just having your UX designers review the interface isn’t enough. Several studies have found that even usability experts fail in identifying every actual usability problems. On average, 1 in 3 issues identified by experts were false alarms — they weren’t issues for users in practice. But worse, 1 in 2 issues that users did in fact have, were overlooked by the experts.
Skipping user testing is just as big a risk as skipping code review.
Does Review Mean Death To Creativity?
People working within design, user experience, and content often have educational backgrounds from art schools or maybe literature, in which the sole creator or creative artistic genius is hailed as the ideal. If you go back in history, this used to be the case for developers as well. Over time, this has changed by necessity as web development has grown more complex.
If you cling to the idea of creativity coming from somewhere deep within yourself, the idea of review might feel threatening or scary. Someone meddling in your half-finished work? Ouch. But if you think about creativity as something that can spring from many sources, including dialogue, collaboration, or any form of inspiration (whether from the outside or from someplace within you), then a review is only an asset and an opportunity.
As long as we’re building something for the web, there’s no way around collaborating with other people, be it within our own field or others. And a good idea will survive review.
Did you know that poor web design can hurt conversions and sales? An unattractive site deserves a website redesign. No matter what your company size or industry is, though, it’s crucial that you take a strategic approach to your website redesign. Know what isn’t working, what does currently work, and what goals you wish to achieve. Otherwise, how will you take advantage of your existing web traffic? Worse, what happens if your web design is causing people to avoid visiting your site at all? Let’s look at some of my favorite techniques for creating a website redesign strategy and implementing…