From concept to customer in less than 3 days: Case Study

Alex Britez
9 min readJan 27, 2018

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Once a year the entire sales staff at Macmillan Learning converges at the National Sales Meeting. Our sales staff is comprised of talented individuals that are tasked with pitching the products that we create and interacting with customers that span from Hawaii to New Jersey on an everyday basis. I was given the opportunity to travel to the conference and tap into the hive’s mind to see what they’ve been hearing and thinking about while on the field.

With the help of our department head, we were able to get our team on the invite list, but there were some conditions. We would have 30 minutes and less than 10 of the top generalist would be invited to attend. Although ambitious, I saw this as an opportunity to not only learn, but also demonstrate the speed and agility that our product and design team is capable of. To our advantage we were given an early afternoon slot on day one, which meant we would have almost 3 business days.

The goal

Inspired by the amazing work that Google has done with design sprints, I signed up myself and 2 other UX designers to lead these 12 individuals though ideation activities and move from idea, decision and straight to prototype in less than 3 days in order to present our findings at the closing ceremonies. Not only that, but I made it a point to figure out how to get the entire convention engaged in this group’s work. If I couldn’t get the hundreds of other sales reps to engage, we would have wasted an opportunity to hear from a larger set of perspectives. Granted, this might not be the the traditional HCI approach, but in this case part of the learning opportunity was not only creating a product that our customers wanted, but also listening and understanding how our sales representatives thought about products. Their experience and relationships with our target user should be valued.

Setting the stage

As we worked through the plan for our 30 minute slot, we narrowed down our presentation to one slide. We did this by creating a simple prompt (image bellow) that was meant to help them take a student-centered mindset around the value we could bring them in completing a specific job or task. It was critical to move them past the “everything must be mobile” mindset, and instead think about moments and situations in which mobile affordances could delight our students.

Activity On-boarding (5 minutes)

As the participants entered the room, we quickly split them into groups (approx. 4 per group), and handed them supplies that included:

  • Sharpie
  • Post-it Notes
  • “Idea Sheet” — printed mobile templates

While presenting the one slide, we offered 2 design considerations that they should think about when coming up with solutions.

  • What value did mobile bring to this experience?
  • How much of that value were you able to deliver in 2–3 minutes?

Gathering Ideas (7 minutes)

We kicked off our first activity with a divergent activity that asked them to fill up sticky notes with as many responses to the prompt as they could. In typical design thinking fashion, the goal was around quantity over quality. The UX team walked around encouraging them to produce as much as possible in that small window of time, and not to overthink anything.

Converging (15 minutes)

Once the time was up, the participants had accumulated small piles of sticky notes. We asked each of individual to select their 2 favorite ideas on their own. This left each group with approximately 6–8 ideas in total to discuss as a group. We then split the groups to form 2 sub-groups and select 1 idea they wanted to pursue for the rest of the session. The subgroups were comprised of 2 roles: storyteller and artist.

Armed with a simple idea sheet, the storyteller quickly drafted a small narrative about their ideas and took us through a small student journey using a combination of text, while the artist created simple visual representations to help the reader get a sense of what the student might be looking at.

Amazingly, the group ended up generating 6 solid ideas and journeys in less than 30 minutes!

Decision Time at Scale

Although we successfully completed our initial task of generating ideas, it would have been a blown opportunity to not take advantage of having hundreds of bright and thoughtful sales staff that would be moving from session to session as the days progressed. This posed the design question of…

“How might we get the input for a large amount a people that are in the same space, and not be disruptive to their limited time”

The solution we came up with was straight out of a page from many of the reality talent shows that on TV today. We pitched up 3 large easels in the lobby next to where all the food, coffee, and demo areas were set up. To get the most amount of votes, we left voting open until after breakfast the following day.

An unexpected opportunity that presented itself from the lobby display and SMS solution, was an ability to float around each of the boards as small pockets of conversations and critiques organically formed. With notebook in hand, I listened in on some of the interesting conversations that sales people were having about the ideas. Many of the conversations were focused around “How could I sell this?” and “Who could I sell this to”.

As UX designers we are sometimes so focused on the user as the person that is engaging with the product, but forget that delivering business value is also extremely important for delivering successful innovation. These were some powerful moments of the experience.

The Voice of the Hive

The SMS component was an attempt to scale out a dot-voting like activity that we would typically do in a traditional design-making exercise. Having hundred of dots on these boards would be a mess, and the logistics in giving hundreds of people dots that we would later need to count seemed daunting.

To get this done, I decided to code an SMS solution custom to fit our needs and context. The goals of this SMS solution were not only to gather votes (each person got 3 votes per cellphone number), but also to give the voter an opportunity to express why they voted, and also build upon the idea in some way.

Technologies that were used to accomplish this at lightning speed were.

  • Twilio: SMS messaging API that enabled me to get a number and use their API to listen to incoming text messages and send responses using NodeJS.
  • Firebase: Real-time database API that I could quickly store votes and associated notes.
  • Highcharts: Front-end javascript library that I coded to listen for update in the database and provide the UX team with a real-time view of the results.

Prototyping setup

Over dinner, we narrowed down the possible winners to 2 clear favorites that were only a handful of votes apart from each other. This allowed the team to be proactive and set the stage for day 2, which would involve re-envisioning the underlying intentions that the winners were targeting with their original sketches.

The notes section of the SMS voting proved to be a huge success, and super integral in helping us build on the ideas that the original team came up with. With nearly 200 unique voters, more than 50% of those votes came with context on what they liked about the idea on how they could be even better. There was a lot for us to work with!

I really like the idea of making it easy for students to see grades and due dates. Students we’ve talked with often request time management tools —Sales Conference attendee

Getting a head start on what the winners might be, we put together an ad-hoc design system to work by pulling potentially relevant assets to work from. Creating a simple collection of assets to pull from reduced the distraction of coming up with designs for basic UI and of coming up with icons as we collaborated on a prototype.

And the winner is

On day 2, as breakfast came to a close, we packed up the easels and got to work on the winning designs. The UX team gathered in a small area next to warm fire and started to pull together the pieces from the ideation session as well as the notes sent via SMS by voters. Looking at the tight battle that the top 2 favorites underwent, we decided that both were related enough that we could merge them to create a more complete idea.

Brian Hochhalter & Christian Wise creating paper-based interface journeys

As time passed, we eventually had a testable paper-based journey flow that we felt comfortable with. This allowed us to gather some quick feedback from a few stakeholders. We took that feedback, and by late morning we were off working on a realistic interactive prototype. To help with speed, I had already set up an ad-hoc design system as shareable Sketch assets, as well as some common UI elements like lists and buttons.

Around dinner time on day 2 we invited the winners to join us for some drinks and take a sneak peek at our progress. They were floored by the speed and level of fidelity that we were able to produce in such a short period of time. Quite honestly, I think we were all floored by our progress.

Time to test

The next morning, after a few last-minute tweaks to the flows, we were ready to test. Initially the idea was to try and locate some college students at the hotel we were staying at, and get some feedback right there. A lot of the staff that worked at the hotel were college aged, so it seemed like a good idea. However, we got a lead that there was a large university 20 minutes away, so we were confident that we would find places nearby where students might congregate.

With 2 cell phones loaded with our prototype and a handful of gift cards, we set off around town in search of students that would be willing to test our products and offer feedback.

Our testing was pretty light-weight and focused on getting us a good read on what aspects from this prototype we might want to look into in the future.

During our testing we used Lookback.io, one of my favorite products for recording in-person user tests. With it we are able to capture the interaction, see where they are clicking, audio, as well as have synced video in case there are facial expressions that would help us unpack any emotion during analysis.

Lookback.io recording of Chemistry Student navigating prototype

Conclusion

In the end this less than 3-day experience resulted in multiple questions and opportunities for our team to think about. We learned a lot about thinking through mobile affordance and current mobile use. Since then, we have kicked-off a dedicated study on understanding mobile moments from a student journey-driven perspective. We pulled out chunks of screens and flows as inputs to related research that will likely make its way into tools in some form. We took a critical look at our content to see how well we are prepared to have students engage with it on a smaller screen and for smaller chunks of time that result from constant access and its consequence of fostering interruptibility.

This experience also spoke magnitudes on what a team is able to achieve under immense uncertainty and time constraints. Scarcity of time sometime has a positive effect on a team’s ability to get a job done quickly with no time for over-analyzing and second-guessing yourself. With proper planning, tools, and a positive attitude, a team can be hyper productive. Design Systems are maturing and collaboration tools are only getting better to make these types of projects more and more possible.

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Alex Britez

Designer, Developer, Dad & maker of things that teach stuff. Sr Designer at Microsoft VS Code & MakeCode & Adjunct Instructor @ NYU’s Digital Media for Learning