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Making Distributed Product Teams Work More Efficiently With monday.com




Making Distributed Product Teams Work More Efficiently With monday.com

Nick Babich



(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).


The timeline enables team members to see a high-level roadmap.


The timeline enables team members to see a high-level roadmap. (Large preview)

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.


Using a Kanban board might make it hard to see how tasks should be distributed in time.


Using a Kanban board might make it hard to see how tasks should be distributed in time. (Image source) (Large preview)

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.


monday.com gives you a clear sense of what needs to get done and who is responsible for what. The board provides in-depth insight into a project and its tasks.


monday.com gives you a clear sense of what needs to get done and who is responsible for what. The board provides in-depth insight into a project and its tasks. (Large preview)

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.


Status updates can be color coded.


Status updates can be color coded. (Large preview)

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.


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.


(Large preview)

After you create a pulse, simply assign it to a team member.


Assign teammates to particular tasks or projects.


Assign teammates to particular tasks or projects. (Large preview)

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.


Finding the right template for your activity is really simple because all templates are visualized.


Finding the right template for your activity is really simple because all templates are visualized. (Large preview)

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.


Easy to organize tasks. You can have as many groups as you want.


Easy to organize tasks. You can have as many groups as you want. (Large preview)

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.

The checklist sits within a pulse, in the “Updates” section. This feature can help create a structure for each pulse.
The checklist sits within a pulse, in the “Updates” section. This feature can help create a structure for each pulse. (Large preview)

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.

Change the time range in the timeline. The time range is updated in real time.
Change the time range in the timeline. The time range is updated in real time. (Large preview)

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.


Create a weekly task board.


Create a weekly task board. (Large preview)

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.


Instead of sending a link to a group chat, share all resources you find on a separate board.


(Large preview)

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.


Vote for ideas during brainstorming and planning sessions.


Vote for ideas during brainstorming and planning sessions. (Large preview)

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.


Mention people or entire teams.


(Large preview)

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.


The work schedule board shows when team members will be online and available for chat.


The work schedule board shows when team members will be online and available for chat. (Large preview)

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.


Upload all assets by dragging and dropping.


Upload all assets by dragging and dropping. (Large preview)

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.


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.


(Large preview)

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.


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.


(Large preview)

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.


monday.com provides basic onboarding to help users get started.


monday.com provides basic onboarding to help users get started. (Large preview)

Scalable

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.


Monday also comes with an open API architecture, which lets developers build their own integrations.


(Large preview)

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.


Monday has a few features that help create a sense of acknowledgment.


(Large preview)

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.

You can liven up comments with GIFs. Monday lets you pick from thousands of GIFs when responding to teammates, which will add a bit of personality to your comments.
(Large preview)

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.

Monday has a confetti feature
(Large preview)

Conclusion

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:

  • Prioritize transparency.
    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.

Smashing Editorial
(ms, ra, il, al)


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Making Distributed Product Teams Work More Efficiently With monday.com

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Full-day workshop • June 28th
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Working Together: How Designers And Developers Can Communicate To Create Better Projects




Working Together: How Designers And Developers Can Communicate To Create Better Projects

Rachel Andrew



Among the most popular suggestions on Smashing Magazine’s Content User Suggestions board is the need of learning more about the interaction and communication between designers and developers. There are probably several articles worth of very specific things that could be covered here, but I thought I would kick things off with a general post rounding up some experiences on the subject.

Given the wide range of skills held by the line-up at our upcoming SmashingConf Toronto — a fully live, no-slides-allowed event, I decided to solicit some feedback. I’ve wrapped those up with my own experience of 20 years working alongside designers and other developers. I hope you will add your own experiences in the comments.

Some tips work best when you can be in the same room as your team, and others are helpful for the remote worker or freelancer. What shines through all of the advice, however, is the need to respect each other, and the fact that everyone is working to try and create the best outcome for the project.

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For many years, my own web development company operated as an outsourced web development provider for design agencies. This involved doing everything from front-end development to implementing e-commerce and custom content management solutions. Our direct client was the designer or design agency who had brought us on board to help with the development aspect of the work, however, in an ideal situation, we would be part of the team working to deliver a great end result to the end client.

Sometimes this relationship worked well. We would feel a valued part of the team, our ideas and experience would count, we would work with the designers to come up with the best solution within budgetary, time, and other constraints.

In many cases, however, no attempt was made to form a team. The design agency would throw a picture of a website as a PDF file over the fence to us, then move on to work on their next project. There was little room for collaboration, and often the designer who had created the files was busy on some other work when we came back with questions.

It was an unsatisfactory way to work for everyone. We would be frustrated because we did not have a chance to help ensure that what was designed was possible to be built in a performant and accessible way, within the time and budget agreed on. The designer of the project would be frustrated: Why were these developers asking so many questions? Can they not just build the website as I have designed? Why are the fonts not the size I wanted?

The Waterfall versus Agile argument might be raised here. The situation where a PDF is thrown over the fence is often cited as an example of how bad a Waterfall approach is. Still, working in a fully Agile way is often not possible for teams made of freelancers or separate parties doing different parts of the work. Therefore, in reading these suggestions, look at them through the lens of the projects you work on. However, try not to completely discount something as unworkable because you can’t use the full process. There are often things we can take without needing to fully adopt one methodology or another.

Setting Up A Project For Success

I came to realize that very often the success of failure of the collaboration started before we even won the project, with the way in which we proposed the working relationship. We had to explain upfront that experience had taught us that the approach of us being handed a PDF, quoting and returning a website did not give the best results.

Projects that were successful had a far more iterative approach. It might not be possible to have us work alongside the designers or in a more Agile way. However, having a number of rounds of design and development with time for feedback from each side went a long way to prevent the frustrations of a method where work was completed by each side independently.

Creating Working Relationships

Having longer-term relationships with an agency, spanning a number of projects worked well. We got to know the designers, learned how they worked, could anticipate their questions and ensure that we answered them upfront. We were able to share development knowledge, the things that made a design easier or harder to implement which would, therefore, have an impact on time and budget. They were able to communicate better with us in order to explain why a certain design element was vital, even if it was going to add complexity.

For many freelance designers and developers, and also for those people who work for a distributed company, communication can become mostly text-based. This can make it particularly hard to build relationships. There might be a lot of communication — by email, in Slack, or through messages on a project management platform such as Basecamp. However, all of these methods leave us without the visual cues we might pick up from in-person meetings. An email we see as to the point may come across to the reader as if we are angry. The quick-fire nature of tools such as Slack might leave us committing in writing something which we would not say to that person while looking into their eyes!

Freelance data scientist Nadieh Bremer will talk to us about visualizing data in Toronto. She has learned that meeting people face to face — or at least having a video call — is important. She told me:

Nadieh Bremer

“As a remote freelancer, I know that to interact well with my clients I really need to have a video call (stress on the video) I need to see their face and facial/body interactions and they need to see mine. For clients that I have within public transport distance, I used to travel there for a first ‘getting to know each other/see if we can do a project’ meeting, which would take loads of time. But I noticed for my clients abroad (that I can’t visit anyway) that a first client call (again, make sure it’s a video-call) works more than good enough.

It’s the perfect way to weed out the clients that need other skills that I can give, those that are looking for a cheap deal, and those where I just felt something wasn’t quite clicking or I’m not enthusiastic about the project after they’ve given me a better explanation. So these days I also ask my clients in the Netherlands, where I live, that might want to do a first meeting to have it online (and once we get on to an actual contract I can come by if it’s beneficial).”

Working In The Open

Working in the open (with the project frequently deployed to a staging server that everyone had access to see), helped to support an iterative approach to development. I found that it was important to support that live version with explanations and notes of what to look at and test and what was still half finished. If I just invited people to look at it without that information we would get lists of fixes to make to unfinished features, which is a waste of time for the person doing the reporting. However, a live staging version, plus notes in a collaboration tool such as Basecamp meant that we could deploy sections and post asking for feedback on specific things. This helped to keep everyone up to date and part of the project even if — as was often the case for designers in an agency — they had a number of other projects to work on.

There are collaboration tools to help designers to share their work too. Asking for recommendations on Twitter gave me suggestions for Zeplin, Invision, Figma, and Adobe XD. Showing work in progress to a developer can help them to catch things that might be tricky before they are signed off by the client. By sharing the goal behind a particular design feature within the team, a way forward can be devised that meets the goal without blowing the budget.


Screenshot of the Zeplin homepage


Zeplin is a collaboration tool for developers and designers

Scope Creep And Change Requests

The thing about working in the open is that people then start to have ideas (which should be a positive thing), however, most timescales and budgets are not infinite! This means you need to learn to deal with scope creep and change requests in a way that maintains a good working relationship.

We would often get requests for things that were trivial to implement with a message saying how sorry they were about this huge change and requests for incredibly time-consuming things with an assumption it would be quick. Someone who is not a specialist has no idea how long anything will take. Why should they? It is important to remember this rather than getting frustrated about the big changes that are being asked for. Have a conversation about the change, explain why it is more complex than it might appear, and try to work out whether this is a vital addition or change, or just a nice idea that someone has had.

If the change is not essential, then it may be enough to log it somewhere as a phase two request, demonstrating that it has been heard and won’t be forgotten. If the big change is still being requested, we would outline the time it would take and give options. This might mean dropping some other feature if a project has a fixed budget and tight deadline. If there was flexibility then we could outline the implications on both costs and end date.

With regard to costs and timescales, we learned early on to pad our project quotes in order that we could absorb some small changes without needing to increase costs or delay completion. This helped with the relationship between the agency and ourselves as they didn’t feel as if they were being constantly nickel and dimed. Small changes were expected as part of the process of development. I also never wrote these up in a quote as contingency, as a client would read that and think they should be able to get the project done without dipping into the contingency. I just added the time to the quote for the overall project. If the project ran smoothly and we didn’t need that time and money, then the client got a smaller bill. No one is ever unhappy about being invoiced for less than they expected!

This approach can work even for people working in-house. Adding some time to your estimates means that you can absorb small changes without needing to extend the timescales. It helps working relationships if you are someone who is able to say yes as often as possible.

This does require that you become adept at estimating timescales. This is a skill you can develop by logging your time to achieve your work, even if you don’t need to log your time for work purposes. While many of the things you design or develop will be unique, and seem impossible to estimate, by consistently logging your time you will generally find that your ballpark estimates become more accurate as you make yourself aware of how long things really take.

Respect

Aaron Draplin will be bringing tales from his career in design to Toronto, and responded with the thought that it comes down to respect for your colleague’s craft:

Aaron Draplin

“It all comes down to respect for your colleague’s craft, and sort of knowing your place and precisely where you fit into the project. When working with a developer, I surrender to them in a creative way, and then, defuse whatever power play they might try to make on me by leading the charges with constructive design advice, lightning-fast email replies and generally keeping the spirit upbeat. It’s an odd offense to play. I’m not down with the adversarial stuff. I’m quick to remind them we are all in the same boat, and, who’s paying their paycheck. And that’s not me. It’s the client. I’ll forever be on their team, you know? We make the stuff for the client. Not just me. Not ‘my team’. We do it together. This simple methodology has always gone a long way for me.”

I love this, it underpins everything that this article discusses. Think back to any working relationship that has gone bad, how many of those involved you feeling as if the other person just didn’t understand your point of view or the things you believe are important? Most reasonable people understand that compromise has to be made, it is when it appears that your point of view is not considered that frustration sets in.

There are sometimes situations where a decision is being made, and your experience tells you it is going to result in a bad outcome for the project, yet you are overruled. On a few occasions, decisions were made that I believed so poor; I asked for the decision and our objection to it be put in writing, in order that we could not be held accountable for any bad outcome in future. This is not something you should feel the need to do often, however, it is quite powerful and sometimes results in the decision being reversed. An example would be of a client who keeps insisting on doing something that would cause an accessibility problem for a section of their potential audience. If explaining the issue does not help, and the client insists on continuing, ask for that decision in writing in order to document your professional advice.

Learning The Language

I recently had the chance to bring my CSS Layout Workshop not to my usual groups of front-end developers but instead to a group of UX designers. Many of the attendees were there not to improve their front-end development skills, but more to understand enough of how modern CSS Layout worked that they could have better conversations with the developers who built their designs. Many of them had also spent years being told that certain things were not possible on the web, but were realizing that the possibilities in CSS were changing through things like CSS Grid. They were learning some CSS not necessarily to become proficient in shipping it to production, but so they could share a common language with developers.

There are often debates on whether “designers should learn to code.” In reality, I think we all need to learn something of the language, skills, and priorities of the other people on our teams. As Aaron reminded us, we are all on the same team, we are making stuff together. Designers should learn something about code just as developers should also learn something of design. This gives us more of a shared language and understanding.

Seb Lee-Delisle, who will speak on the subject of Hack to the Future in Toronto, agrees:

Seb Lee-Delisle

“I have basically made a career out of being both technical and creative so I strongly feel that the more crossover the better. Obviously what I do now is wonderfully free of the constraints of client work but even so, I do think that if you can blur those edges, it’s gonna be good for you. It’s why I speak at design conferences and encourage designers to play with creative coding, and I speak at tech conferences to persuade coders to improve their visual acuity. Also with creative coding. :) It’s good because not only do I get to work across both disciplines, but also I get to annoy both designers and coders in equal measure.”

I have found that introducing designers to browser DevTools (in particular the layout tools in Firefox and also to various code generators on the web) has been helpful. By being able to test ideas out without writing code, helps a designer who isn’t confident in writing code to have better conversations with their developer colleagues. Playing with tools such as gradient generators, clip-path or animation tools can also help designers see what is possible on the web today.


Screenshot of Animista


Animista has demos of different styles of animation

We are also seeing a number of tools that can help people create websites in a more visual way. Developers can sometimes turn their noses up about the code output of such tools, and it’s true they probably won’t be the best choice for the production code of a large project. However, they can be an excellent way for everyone to prototype ideas, without needing to write code. Those prototypes can then be turned into robust, permanent and scalable versions for production.

An important tip for developers is to refrain from commenting on the code quality of prototypes from members of the team who do not ship production code! Stick to what the prototype is showing as opposed to how it has been built.

A Practical Suggestion To Make Things Visual

Eva-Lotta Lamm will be speaking in Toronto about Sketching and perhaps unsurprisingly passed on practical tips for helping conversation by visualizing the problem to support a conversation.

Eva-Lotta Lamm

Creating a shared picture of a problem or a solution is a simple but powerful tool to create understanding and make sure they everybody is talking about the same thing.

Visualizing a problem can reach from quick sketches on a whiteboard to more complex diagrams, like customer journey diagrams or service blueprints.

But even just spatially distributing words on a surface adds a valuable layer of meaning. Something as simple as arranging post-its on a whiteboard in different ways can help us to see relationships, notice patterns, find gaps and spot outliers or anomalies. If we add simple structural elements (like arrows, connectors, frames, and dividers) and some sketches into the mix, the relationships become even more obvious.

Visualising a problem creates context and builds a structural frame that future information, questions, and ideas can be added to in a ‘systematic’ way.

Visuals are great to support a conversation, especially when the conversation is ‘messy’ and several people involved.

When we visualize a conversation, we create an external memory of the content, that is visible to everybody and that can easily be referred back to. We don’t have to hold everything in our mind. This frees up space in everybody’s mind to think and talk about other things without the fear of forgetting something important. Visuals also give us something concrete to hold on to and to follow along while listening to complex or abstract information.

When we have a visual map, we can point to particular pieces of content — a simple but powerful way to make sure everybody is talking about the same thing. And when referring back to something discussed earlier, the map automatically reminds us of the context and the connections to surrounding topics.

When we sketch out a problem, a solution or an idea the way we see it (literally) changes. Every time we express a thought in a different medium, we are forced to shape it in a specific way, which allows us to observe and analyze it from different angles.

Visualising forces us to make decisions about a problem that words alone don’t. We have to decide where to place each element, decide on its shape, size, its boldness, and color. We have to decide what we sketch and what we write. All these decisions require a deeper understanding of the problem and make important questions surface fairly quickly.

All in all, supporting your collaboration by making it more visual works like a catalyst for faster and better understanding.

Working in this way is obviously easier if your team is working in the same room. For distributed teams and freelancers, there are alternatives to communicate in ways other than words, e.g. by making a quick Screencast to demonstrate an issue, or even sketching and photographing a diagram can be incredibly helpful. There are collaborative tools such as Milanote, Mural, and Niice; such tools can help with the process Eva-Lotta described even if people can’t be in the same room.


Screenshot of the Niice website


Niice helps you to collect and discuss ideas

I’m very non-visual and have had to learn how useful these other methods of communication are to the people I work with. I have been guilty on many occasions of forgetting that just because I don’t personally find something useful, it is still helpful to other people. It is certainly a good idea to change how you are trying to communicate an idea if it becomes obvious that you are talking at cross-purposes.

Over To You

As with most things, there are many ways to work together. Even for remote teams, there is a range of tools which can help break down barriers to collaborating in a more visual way. However, no tool is able to fix problems caused by a lack of respect for the work of the rest of the team. A good relationship starts with the ability for all of us to take a step back from our strongly held opinions, listen to our colleagues, and learn to compromise. We can then choose tools and workflows which help to support that understanding that we are all on the same team, all trying to do a great job, and all have important viewpoints and experience to bring to the project.

I would love to hear your own experiences working together in the same room or remotely. What has worked well — or not worked at all! Tools, techniques, and lessons learned are all welcome in the comments. If you would be keen to see tutorials about specific tools or workflows mentioned here, perhaps add a suggestion to our User Suggestions board, too.

Smashing Editorial
(il)


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Working Together: How Designers And Developers Can Communicate To Create Better Projects

3 Assumptions That Can Kill Conversions

It’s dangerous territory to make assumptions, over-generalize, or depend on logic or even so called “best practices” to make decisions about site changes. My team and I launched an e-commerce website a few years ago, and here are four ways we tried to break through common conversion pitfalls in order to ensure we increased our own conversions: Assumption #1 – All Of Your Ideas Are Great Ideas You’ve had these experiences countless times… you had a great idea for the site that was informed and re-enforced by “best practices.” You sold it to the team by explaining how your idea…

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3 Assumptions That Can Kill Conversions

How to blast through silo mentality to create a culture of experimentation

Creating and maintaining a culture of experimentation doesn’t happen in a straightforward, sequential manner. It’s an iterative process. For example,…Read blog postabout:How to blast through silo mentality to create a culture of experimentation

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How to blast through silo mentality to create a culture of experimentation

Sharp Suits & Scrappy Marketing: How Indochino Crafted a Tailor-made Digital Strategy with Unbounce

Similar to how Indochino is revolutionizing menswear with made-to-measure suits, it turns out a custom fit applies to their digital marketing too.

In the past year, the fast-growing apparel brand saw over 50% growth in retail, and opened nine new showrooms across North America. The brand’s marketing team of just 12 people are used to acting fast, but until about a year ago, the team faced a bottleneck threatening their nimbleness and the effectiveness of their PPC ad spend.

As Lisa Craveiro, Director of Acquisition told us, the company’s blog and website CMS templates couldn’t be easily customized to suit their pay-per-click needs. When Lisa’s team needed to publish relevant content (for pointing paid ad traffic to), changes to the site couldn’t be published fast enough.

To ensure return on their ad spend, Lisa and the team rolled out two key tactics:

  • First, they experimented with mock editorial pieces created in Unbounce to better convert Facebook ad traffic.
  • And second, the team built several location-specific landing pages for marketing different showrooms and educating prospects on their unique customer experience.

Over just nine months, Lisa’s team secured 800+ showroom bookings via their new Unbounce landing pages, 40 online transactions of purchased suits, and 750 newsletter signups.

Having over 340,000 visitors directed to a landing page as part of their paid media strategy is just one aspect of how Indochino’s scrappy marketers have been able to grow the brand’s selling appointments 77% year over year. Read on for a peek into their playbook.

A Custom-Fit Ad Approach

Similar to most marketers using Facebook ads, Indochino knew they needed hyper relevant content to point to from ads like these:

Indochino's example Facebook ads

But sending paid traffic to the brand’s blog or site-specific web pages wasn’t a good option as recent as a year ago because the marketing team had little control over the experience.

Lisa Craveiro, Director of Acquisition at Indochino

“Before Unbounce, we didn’t have an informative landing page on the website with a simple, easy navigation path that focused a user’s attention toward our conversion goals. Often existing pages weren’t the most relevant option to land on from a specific ad, or didn’t contain a clear call to action. We needed to quickly build better, high-converting options and Unbounce was perfect for an on-brand look, fast.”

And so Indochino began using Unbounce in a fairly unconventional way. Alongside a designer, the team created mock editorial articles for their Facebook ads to point to. These articles — fashioned to look like blog posts — contained calls to action to “schedule an appointment” in a showroom, but also to “see the suits” for those preferring to browse.

Here’s an example of one of the editorial pieces created with the builder:

Example Mock Article from Indochino

With over 64,000 visitors via their ads, this ‘mock’ article converts at 17.40% with thousands of people clicking through to see showroom locations, go to the website, or see sample suits.

These articles (built in just a few hours) not only provide an especially relevant destination for anyone arriving from a Facebook ad, but they also allow Indochino’s marketers to communicate different value props quickly based on different ad messages.

For example, the brand knows the showroom experience is very valuable and that many men become lifelong customers based on their unique experience being fitted.
Here’s an article Indochino’s marketers whipped up for communicating exactly what to expect in your showroom experience:

Indochino example 2

This listicle style piece converts at 29.63%. The CTA prompts visitors to book an appointment.

The team continues to create mock editorial like this and is always looking to optimize as they go. As Lisa tells us:

“We’re often trying out several value props with these types of mock articles, testing different variations of copy and trying to understand via data which article or angle resonates best with different audiences. They’re a quick way to tell if you’re on the right track with your ad’s messaging.”

Seamless online and offline

On the topic of nine new showrooms launched in North America this year, as Indochino found, once you introduce a new product line, or— in this case—a new retail location, you can’t always update your website right away with location-specific content.

So instead of relying on developers to help update their site with pages specific to each new showroom launch, Indochino turned to landing pages. They created several location-specific pages to explain their fitting process and speak directly to potential customers in a given area.

Here’s an example featuring details on DC’s showroom:

Indochino's DC showroom landing page example

This page, where you can book an appointment or ‘see the suits’, converts at 19.38%.

The team also has a dedicated page for Chicago:

Chicago landing page example

These location-specific pages allow Indochino to get really granular with the targeting of their ads, and the message prospects see upon click through. There’s strong message match from ad to landing page, and visitors see specifics to their location which helps fulfil the promise of the ads.

Want to run location-specific ad to landing page combos like Indochino? Try Dynamic Text Replacement. This Unbounce feature swaps out select keywords or text on your landing page with the exact terms someone has searched, like their location. See a preview of how this works here.

Extending the made-to-measure experience

Beyond highly relevant Facebook ads and location-specific content, Indochino also uses landing pages for lead generation; often for contests and partnering with wedding vendors like The Knot and others.

Here’s a lead gen page Indochino created for a Postmedia National contest:

lead gen landing page example from Indochino

Converting at 15.14%, Lisa said campaigns like this contest allow their marketers to be especially nimble:

“Often marketers can land a great partnership, like we’ve been lucky to do with The Knot and Postmedia, but if you can’t generate relevant landing pages specific to the campaign quickly, you limit the momentum of the partnership along with creative opportunities. With contest pages like this, we can be up and running in a couple of days and immediately see from ad to landing page how we’re performing. It’s helpful for understanding which partnerships we should run again.”

The PPC landing page advantage

On a whole, taking control of the experience after someone clicks an Indochino ad has proven very valuable for this fast-growing menswear brand. By serving up especially relevant content, they’ve seen their paid Facebook posts perform especially well.

You could say, Unbounce was a perfect fit ;)

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Sharp Suits & Scrappy Marketing: How Indochino Crafted a Tailor-made Digital Strategy with Unbounce

A Comprehensive Guide To UX Research

(This is a sponsored article.) Before embarking upon the design phase of any project, it’s critical to undertake some research so that the decisions you make are undertaken from an informed position. In this third article of my series for Adobe XD, I’ll be focusing on the importance of undertaking user research.
Your job title might not be “design researcher”, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t at the very least inform yourself of your users and their needs by undertaking at least some initial scoping research before you embark upon a project.

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A Comprehensive Guide To UX Research

Using Design Workouts To Build World-Class Design Teams

What do the makers of the most successful products in the world, whether digital or physical, have in common? I bet they put design and user experience at the center of everything they do. These companies recognize that the smallest detail can make or break a product. The best design ideas, though, are made not in isolation, but by strong, well-rounded teams. So, how do you cultivate a strong design team?

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Using Design Workouts To Build World-Class Design Teams