With this week’s focus on how Skytap “does” design, we sat down with our principal UX architect to learn more about where the inspiration comes from to continuously not just keep up with, but exceed both business and customer demands across numerous platforms.
Noel: Just to start off, if you’ll take a minute to introduce yourself, what your role is at Skytap, and what you’re currently working on – that would be great.
Roderick: I’m Roderick Sauskojus, and I lead the UX team as the Principal UX architect at Skytap. Some of our current projects include Environment details, working on the Android mobile app, notifications and multi-VM imports to name a few…
Noel: Awesome! So, how do you approach Skytap’s overall product design? By that I mean, where does that first stage or initial inspiration for a design change often come from? Is it usually an internal ask, or does it often come from customer feedback and proven ways that our customers are using Skytap?
Roderick: Inspiration for product features and improvements comes from a variety of sources. Our primary source is through direct customer interaction and feedback. Skytap has a culture that encourages customer engagement and a desire to include our customers in the design process. We can do this because we have the support and encouragement from the entire team to reach out and engage with our customers whenever it makes sense. Customer interactions can range from simple conversations to more formal surveys and of course usability testing, which can be delivered in varying degrees of formality.
Another strong source of inspiration comes from the people who work here. All of us at Skytap are responsible for the user experience of the product. UX isn’t a role that should be limited to a select few but is the responsibility of the entire organization. We all take a great deal of pride in our work and the commitment to user experience has become a big part of our company culture.
Noel: So, what are some of the ways that you collect design and usability feedback from Skytap’s customers, and what’s the most effective way for our customers to offer their feedback and opinions?
Roderick: There is no such thing as too much customer feedback, so in that respect, we can always do more. I mentioned usability testing; this is a tool we utilize to test concepts and validate a design direction before we commit to writing code. We reach out to our customers regularly and invite them to participate in different types of usability sessions—pre and post-implementation. The post-implementation testing is really focused on validation as a follow up to help us understand if we met our goals, and if not, how we can improve. I’m amazed at how willing and excited our customers are to participate in these sessions, and I think it’s a testament to the people and the product that our customers are so engaged with Skytap.
In addition to individual interactions we also facilitate a couple CABs (Customer Advisory Boards) each year. These are use case focused sessions (often multi-day) that have been huge sources of inspiration, feedback and another way to stay connected with our customers. One of the most informative parts of the CABs are the customer-to-customer interactions that take place. We often learn more about customer pains and opportunities by listening to our customers speak to each other than we do by speaking with them directly. I know it sounds strange but something magical happens when you gather users together to talk about your product. The idea sounds a little unsettling and uncomfortable at first but it’s actually a really great experience. At the end of the day it’s all about learning and improving.
Noel: I absolutely agree; the CAB meetings are fantastic, and I couldn’t recommend them enough to Skytap’s customers who have yet to attend one. Let’s talk about the new Skytap mobile app for a bit! Obviously the ever-rising popularity and demand for mobile app access is reason enough to be able to offer one to our customers, but from a design perspective, what did we need to get right before releasing our app?
Roderick: First and foremost, we need to understand the problem we are attempting to solve. Mobile is “cool” but that’s not a good reason do develop an app. It’s tempting to jump in and start recreating Skytap in all of its glory for a mobile device but that’s likely a huge waste of time and effort. Why are people trying to consume Skytap from their mobile devices? What are they trying to do and when?
I think there is a tendency as a product designer to think your users spend a ton of time in the product, working and completing tasks on a daily basis. Time spent in product varies by role but the reality is that people use products like Skytap to make their lives easier so they can spend less time doing complex or highly technical tasks which then helps to free up their time for other things. I think one of the big value propositions of Skytap is the power of efficiency over complexity.
We narrowed our focus to pinpoint specific use cases and tasks where accessing Skytap from your phone made the most sense. Our initial app is focused specifically on helping administrators manage certain aspects of their Skytap account. This includes visibility into account usage as well as resource management. Our iOS app is available today from the app store and we have an Android app nearing beta release soon. (Update: Our Android app is now available for download!)
Noel: I read a recent article by Jeff Sussna, “Design As Operations, Operations As Design” that was, for one, an awesome read, and two, it really made me wonder what all goes into design at Skytap. Whether it’s the dashboard that users see, the new mobile app, or anything else customer-facing. In the article, Sussna explores Thomas Wendt’s concept of “phenomenological design” and explains that, “the designer does not entirely control the object’s destiny. That destiny is co-created by the designer and the user.”
I’ve never thought about design this way, and I wanted to get your take on this concept. The idea that a product can be designed with not just the option to use it in multiple ways, but perhaps even the intention of it being used in new, surprising ways is really cool.
Roderick: The theory seems to be in line with other product design methodologies. Regardless of design intent, a person will use a tool the best way they see fit to help solve the problem at hand. Have you ever tried to use a wrench as a hammer when a hammer wasn’t handy? I think all of us have adapted the tools we have at our disposal to fit our needs if the “right” tool isn’t present or available. Sometimes the ad-hoc solution is good enough but in other cases we may need to try and understand what the real problem is to see if we can provide a better tool to solve the underlying problem. Much of what we do as product designers is to evaluate the pain and then try and understand the true underlying cause. That wrench might be just what we need in a pinch but it might not be the long-term solution to solve all of our hammering types of tasks.
Noel: That makes sense. Sussna goes on to describe “continuous design” – meaning that “design is never done.” I really like where he says:
We can’t fully evaluate, or even understand, the meaning of a design until it’s being used in real environments by real people. In other words, the only place you can complete the testing of your design, or understand what needs to be designed next, is in production.
I think Sussna is spot on here. It’s like when we talk about the fact that software generates zero revenue until its released and put into users’ hands. If you’re relying on user feedback as a heavy source of inspiration for your next design—they have to have access to the product.
Roderick: Absolutely right. Design is never done and that is why methodologies like agile and lean UX have such a huge following. These approaches to development and UX allow for more flexibility and learning to take place, which has the desired effect of releasing more often with an increased ability to enact informed change along the way. Design is never done; it’s only on hold until you decide to examine it again.
One way which we are making improvements at Skytap is by providing more “beta” experiences to our customers. This is especially true with some of the larger features we have in the works. The ability to experience a new feature or improvement with the customers’ own content and process enables them to provide us higher quality and more specific feedback. Beta releases require more planning and lead-time but they allow us to get more feedback earlier which definitely helps improve the product.
Noel: Do you ever feel a certain level of attachment or pride for certain Skytap releases/versions when they head out the door, or like the conversation above, does that really come once they’re out there, and are proving to be very popular amongst our customers?
Roderick: Releasing new features or improvements is always an exciting time for me, but I agree that the real thrill is seeing the proof that what we released is impacting our users in a positive way. I get tremendous satisfaction when we receive unsolicited feedback from users that tell us how we have helped them solve a problem or improve the efficiency/quality of the time they spend in Skytap.
Victories also present themselves through increased efficiencies in workflows, solicited customer feedback or a dramatic decline in support calls. It’s really great to see that kind of material impact on the product. These are the kinds of things that really get me excited. It’s also important to take a little time to look back and retrospect on the process. This is a great way to see what went right or wrong and how we can improve next time. After that, it’s on to the next iteration, new feature, or product improvement.