Building the Activity Stream. Part 1: Product Design

We recently launched our new Activity Stream. What began as a small idea turned into quite the large engineering undertaking. The results are astonishing, but it was a lot of hard work. In this part we’ll share how the design took shape.

 

Whiteboard and paper drawings

Each larger project at Small Improvements begins with a rough written draft, and a kickoff meeting that involves PM, developers, designers and a customer-team person. User stories are extracted, prioritised and then broken down into manageable MVP plus one or two “expansion releases” so it’s clear they are not part of the original release. Then the product design work starts (and if needed, we’ll conduct  some code exploration too to rule out major obstacles)

We use whiteboards and paper drawings to try out ideas, discuss and iterate quickly. Here are some of the many initial ideas for how to represent complex concepts like our cycles in a changelog:

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Wireframes

Lots of future problems can be avoided by coming up with good quality wireframes. So after the paper scribbles were done, we went to paint proper wireframes. Here are two examples of how we described the overall architecture of the activity stream, then followed by an actual sample wireframe.

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We don’t take wireframes too seriously of course. Wireframes are a plan, not a committment to the future product, and everything is still up for change.

Also, quite often the real challenge lies in the user flow, not just in screen design. Some flows can be simulated at the whiteboard or by moving paper pieces around, but we typically move to InVision quickly. Using a web-based tool allows us to create actual clickable prototypes, and get insight from other (possibly remote) staff easily.

 

Mockups

A high fidelity image can raise unrealistic expectations (“oh look we’re almost done”) or draw attention to the wrong details (“why are there 20px margin, shouldn’t it be 30px?”). But on the other hand, the more realistic our mockups look like, the more and better feedback we get from outside the core team.

It’s not about pixel perfection at this stage, everything can still get adjusted. But it is about making things feel “real” sooner than later, so that staff feel encouraged to give feedback about the flows, and so that early access customers feel they are actually commenting on something we are serious about. So we quite like our high fidelity mockups!

 

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(The above is just a screenshot, but we typically make mockups clickable so it’s clearer what action takes you where)

Code level prototypes

We prefer to not write lots of “real” code before there has been some agreement on the flows between screens. Yes we’re agile, and yes we can make changes down the track. But starting to code user flows without first sketching them has failed us too often.

So once we start coding the frontend, we have a somewhat good grasp of a feature, and this makes coding quicker, and styling is also more fun when you don’t have to fear everything changes totally next week.

As designers we love to get down and dirty at the UI level too. But it’s not scaleable to be positioning every button ourselves. We invest time teaching design principles to frontend developers, and make everyone follows our living style guide, so we can focus on the advanced stuff, not on placing basic buttons.

 

User testing

Once a feature has been developed to alpha stage, it’s time for user testing. We aim for conducting some some 5 to 10 “successful” user tests for larger features or changes. If user tests show there are major problems in our designs, then we reset the counter, keep adjusting the design, and schedule further user tests.

We prefer a combination of tests. On one hand we like watching experienced customers explore their existing content with new features enabled. On the other hand we like scenario-driven tests where we present users with concrete tasks, using a synthetic demo content setup (so people aren’t afraid to break things). Both have their place, but usertesting is such a complex beast that we’ll blog about it separately. 🙂

 

Launch

When the tests confirm that a feature works, it is time for the polishing phase, and we’ll gradually enable features to our beta program customers. After another round of feedback, answering questions and polishing, it’s time for a wider rollout to clients who didn’t sign up for the beta. Now proper documentation needs to be written, blogged, and announced in-app using Intercom or home-made hints.

And then it’s time to roll out for real and celebrate!

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Hack It, Ship It!

Small Improvements conducts Hackathons every few months which usually involves two days of hacking on an experimental project. Hacking doesn’t imply that it’s a “developers-only” affair either; other departments at Small Improvements like Customer Success and Marketing also get a chance to get experimental too. Hackathons usually give us a chance to really get creative about novel concepts and ideas for the product and company. It is about coming together as people to grow as a team – something that we at Small Improvements value as an important part of internal culture.

From Hackathon to Ship It Week

Being creative with innovative ideas is great, but how would we actually Ship It? We introduced the Ship It Week as new concept to extend our occasional Hackathons from 2 days of hacking to 5 days more serious hacking! In the first two days we had our regular experimental Hackathon, but afterwards had to decide which projects were feasible to “ship” until the end of the week. In the context of a feature in the Small Improvements feature, ship would mean: going live for customers!

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More than just slinging code

I like to think of myself as a coder of convenience. I often tell myself this work is just a means to an end – I am only coding till I can afford to spend the rest of my days lying in a hammock, drinking out of a coconut. But that’s not really true. If it were, I would be pursuing elite consulting gigs, or jumping from start-up to start-up on the hunt for unicorn stock options. Instead, after 15 years in the industry, I am working at a small, customer-focused company that turns a respectable profit building unpretentious B2B software.

The other day the owner, Per, asked me why I chose to apply for a job at Small Improvements. There were several reasons – not least of which was actually being able to talk about this sort of thing with my CEO – but I think my main motivation was because I wanted to help people again.

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Creating a SI Style Guide

After a significant project involving making Small Improvements responsive, we came up with some UI ‘rules’ that we in the design team or (‘UI Taskforce’) agreed upon. The longer we worked on this refactoring and ‘cleaning up’ of the app’s style, the more we realised the importance of (finally) having a Style Guide.

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The UI Taskforce! Adrienne, Kristof, Kolja and Timur. (I took the photo).

At Small Improvements, we often have the front end developers implementing UIs faster than we (the design team) can keep up, so it’s important that they can access this guide.

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SI Process Hacks – The Internal Product Changelog

Development is hard. But communication is even harder – especially across departments and continents. Our SI Process Hacks series will highlight a few simple hacks  we wish we had known right from the start!

The problem

We deploy many times a day –  bugfixes, feature improvements, new options, changes in user flows etc. As a developer, you know when you committed, and you can see your commit go live in real-time:

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But as the developer on another subteam, or especially as a non-developer, git-hashes are not really your preferred way of looking at things. It’s tricky to know when what change goes live on what day. Knowledge of changes is crucial, you don’t want to demo the product to a potential client and get caught off guard by that new button on a core screen.

We tried using Slack to keep people in the loop, we considered using a special Trello board, or including even tiny changes into our Release Notes. But everything was just complicated and never quite flexible either.

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Introducing Development Team Leads

The challenge: Scaling

Our dev team has reached a quite impressive size these days! Unfortunately I just don’t scale to this size. I can’t possibly conduct 1:1s, listen to feedback, give feedback and help people grow in a flat team of 12 people. While I don’t code anymore these days, and have assigned most project management tasks to Feature Coordinators, lots of new responsibilities of a growing company are now on my plate. I just have to lean on others so that every dev team member gets the attention they deserve.

That’s why we introduced the concept of Team Lead two weeks ago.

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Introducing Feature Coordinators

Our company bootstrapped from one developer (me) into a team of 12 developers. The transition was not always easy: More people means more dev power, but also more communication and alignment needs.

When we reached a team size of 10 in July, we decided to split them team into 3 fairly independent subteams. Last month was the time to get a more serious about managing those teams’ deliverables. We introduced a rotating role called “Feature Coordinator”. In short it’s a rotating form of project management – but it’s also a bit more than that!

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