Owning the unknown
How we deal with constant change as a design team.
We are an international team of 20 UX designers working on a highly technical software intelligence platform. Due to Dynatrace’s success and rapid growth, our work environment, processes, and challenges shift constantly and at a staggering pace. Here’s how we cope with it … and stay sane at the same time.
At the end of last year, we were a grumbling and groaning team of designers, that was overloaded with topics and context switches. We were blindly swinging from sprint to sprint, designing on request, and trying to meet everyone’s needs. This year, we switched to an OKR-inspired goal-focused strategy. Today, every designer can zoom in on one single goal at a time per sprint. Enthusiasm for what we need to solve has reached new highs. On top of that, we feel a massive increase in speed on the topics that we identified as the most important for the company.
This is only the most recent change we’ve made over the years since establishing the UX team. I think it is fair to say that Dynatrace is a highly dynamic work environment. The company's constant need and will to improve makes it a challenging, interesting, and fun workplace … that continually calls for change.
The problem: Let’s be honest — change is hard
…and we’ve all felt it. As designers, it’s simply too easy to fall in love with our workflow designs, that we meticulously nurture to perfection, until we realize one Monday morning that requirements have changed. Or what about our cherished design tool, that we cuddle up to because we know all the shortcuts and are mind-blowingly fast, but it actually doesn’t help us collaborate with our colleagues? Leaving it behind stings, doesn’t it?
If these relatively small changes already hurt, how do we cope with change on a much larger scope and over a long time frame? How do we handle this constant drive to change from inside and outside of the design team?
To figure that out, I believe we have to look back at what we’ve changed in the recent past:
- To deliver solutions with more user focus, we changed from one central team doing everything, to many: now we have at least one team per lab in Detroit, Barcelona, Gdansk, and Linz specializing in the topics and requirements of each of those locations.
- Instead of enforcing one strict planning and review model common to all teams, each team can choose and adopt an approach that suits their needs.
- To become more user-focused, we split the role of the UX Designer (i.e. the mystical unicorn) into two areas of responsibility. The UX Embedded designer is caring for user-facing solutions from within development teams, and the UX Core Designer supports all development teams with the design system, platform, and reusable groundwork.
- We reviewed, adapted, and even partly left behind our sky-high and cherished look-and-feel quality goals for the sake of actually solving our user’s needs. There’s a tick of perfectionism in all of us, and sometimes we have to repel it a tiny bit to not get stuck in the details.
- We went from Illustrator to Sketch and Invision to a combination of all of the above plus Figma, Axure, and <insert-random-design-tool-name-here>. Why? Because we want to be able to work with the tool that gets the job done.
- To increase focus and become more flexible, we went from static teams to highly adaptable value creation teams, which we put together based on goal, interest, and skills.
- To further support all of development with UX know-how and spread design thinking, we established a cross-role cross-team UX guild, that has opened our eyes in many ways. Our guild consists of people from all teams, roles, and departments and we come together once a month to talk about user experience and design.
Although there’s more, let me stop here. I think you get the gist. It’s been a lot. As a designer, if you have nothing to hold on to, that rapid-fire of changes can feel like you’re sitting in an industry-level blender while somebody on the outside is constantly pushing the big button. Vvvrrmm, vvvrrrrmmm, vvvvvvvrrrrrrrrrrmmmm.
So what’s keeping us from going insane? There is one ingredient that by choice is a constant. It is the heartbeat that every designer in our team cares for and makes sure that it keeps going.
The solution: Our culture is our most precious possession
I believe that our team culture, which gives everyone a chance to be heard, vent, and breathe, is what allows us to push forward this fast. Let’s look back at the things that have NOT changed:
- We are a diverse team: we are a group of designers with different skills, different interests, different backgrounds, different cultures. Psychology, game development, arts, music, industrial design, dance, research, writing, cosplay, sports, … just to name a few. Although each and every one of us is an individual character, we all share the love for great products, as well as a tendency towards geekery and fun. This versatile set of skills makes it easy to adapt to change.
- Every single person is valued and heard: with stand-ups, scheduled 1:1s (typically over lunch), retrospectives (on really large whiteboards), and an elaborate coffee culture, we’ve established an open communication environment that encourages everybody to have a voice. We identify, talk about, and solve problems systematically in an honest, direct, but appreciative manner.
- We learn together every day: we are scheduling time in our calendars that allow everyone to broaden their horizons, learn new things, and share that knowledge with the team. For example, every morning one of us presents a Software Intelligence or UX Design related blog post to the rest of the team, which allows everybody to quickly gain insights into relevant topics.
- We embark on team events in a round-robin fashion: every month one of us organizes a team event, with varying agendas between drinks, dinner, escape rooms, cooking classes, and mural painting lessons, to name just a few. This strengthens the bonds within our team and allows us to get to know each other on the important out-of-office (personal) level.
- We are in this together: this is not just design, but spans throughout the whole company. We help each other out and support each other when necessary.
These aspects of our culture make it possible for us to change everything else quickly and efficiently and become a pro-active player in an ever-changing environment. Basically, it allows us to climb out of the blender and push the button ourselves if we think it makes sense.
Conclusion and next steps
If everything else is in flux, we rely on our culture to guide us through the changes we need and want to go through. As long as we keep it in good health, which must not be taken lightly but requires constant attention, I’m confident we can handle whatever is thrown at us and what we want to do ourselves.
Although we can’t know what the future holds, at least these are things on our own agenda: we’ll grow our UX Guild further, create a new design language and system, and derive new concepts for our product design that will bring our users closer to their answers than ever before. For that, we will enrich our skillset with specialists in the fields of UX Research, UX Writing, Data Visualisation, Motion Design, Interface, and Illustration Design. I’m excited to find out how new personalities and skillsets will shape our team, our company, and the solutions we build.