Design Ops Lead Chris Stevens talking about the importance of adding structure and process to Design, how that supports our offerings like Design Sprints and Discovery, and what all of this looks like when your entire team is remote.

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About Labs Live

Labs Live is a stream hosted by Detroit Labs’ very own Dan Ward and Tobi Adebisi, where they bring on guests from the Labs team and our clients to talk about the latest in technology, software design and development, and whatever else comes to mind. Labs Live streams live on LinkedIn and YouTube each month.

Transcript:

Dan:

All right, welcome back to Labs Live. We are excited for another show. We’ve been broadcasting pretty much every week, one 1:00 on Wednesdays. So we’ve kept a pretty standard schedule with Friday being our Friday 15 kind of lighthearted fun show. Today we’re excited because we’re joined by Chris Stevens, design ops lead at Detroit Labs. And we’re going to bring them in here in a second. He’s backstage waiting. Toby will announce him. It will be a very exciting moment. He won’t play the keyboard, we promise. A little bit of housekeeping: make sure that you follow us on all the different social channels and make sure you “like” the content, subscribe, all those things so you know when we have another stream. We’ve been pretty consistent. Wednesday, Friday, 1:00 PM. Easy to remember, easy for us. Hopefully easy for others to remember.

 

If you have questions during the stream, whether it be on LinkedIn or whether it be on YouTube, post them, we’re paying attention. Chris says he loves questions on the fly live without any preparation. So he was really excited to do that. He talked about it for quite a while, so that’s really great.

Dave:

Stump the Stevens.

Dan:

What’s that?

Dave:

Stump the Stevens.

Dan:

Oh, clever, Dave.

Dave:

I’ll come up with an overlay real quick.

Dan:

There you go. That’s what that’s like right there. With that said, we’re going to bring in Chris. You want to intro Chris, Toby?

Tobi:

Yes. We’re bringing in Chris Stevens. 

Chris:

Where’s the keyboard? I thought there’d be music.

Dan:

No, apparently not. I think we used up all that at the beginning. So Toby’s going to learn some new songs for the next time we have it and it’ll be fantastic. So Chris, welcome to the show. Thank you for joining us. Today we’re talking about, Dave you said it’s leveling up design? That’s what you named it?

Dave:

I did. I did, leveling up.

Dan:

You took my name of structure and process of design and made it better. One might say you leveled it up. So bravo. Chris, so you’re new to Detroit Labs. Do we measure in months?

Chris:

We can measure in months, sure.

Dan:

How long has it been?

Chris:

My official start was in January. So…

Dan:

A lot of in-person time with everybody. That’s really great.

Chris:

Oh yeah, yes.

Dan:

So as you enter a company that’s growing, and definitely the design team is rapidly growing, as you enter a company like that, what’s your first step? You’re coming into an ecosystem that already exists from a design standpoint. It’s adding more people. You’re the new person coming in. And especially only, I would say four or five months. Only a couple months in person. What’s that first step look like?

Chris:

That very first step is really trying to more plug in with the team that you’re going to be working with and having them help educate you on and acclimate you to the environment, how things are working, making time to one, speak with the team as a whole, and then as individuals to get kind of the lay of the land.

 

The big thing is getting some of that rapport built up so you can actually start hearing, what is it like, what are they seeing? What are some, one of the big questions to ask is: if you could do anything or change anything, what would that be? What are you looking for? And being able to really get a lot of that input and the information before looking at, “Okay, what are our next steps? What should we do with the team? How can we make this grow?” There’s certainly just different structures to put in place, but you never want to come in and say, “Hey, we’re going to do X, Y, and Z” without really having that input, find out what is going to gel and work with that team.

Dan:

You said structure. Do you think structure and creativity can coexist? I think in a lot of ways, we’re always told growing up that if you’re creative, you’re allowed to pretty much do whatever you want. And then structure, I think we’re also accustomed to that being reeling you in or putting you in a box, but can they coexist?

Chris:

I would say absolutely. I think it’s actually very necessary. I’ve had roles before where you could have maybe somebody from Biz Dev or a client saying, “Oh no, the sky’s the limit.” And it’s like, “There is going to be a limit.” There’s going to be timing. There’s going to be budget. There’s going to be technology limitations. So having some of that structure in place to know, like I said, timing, budget, technology, being able to have some of that structure in place helps let you hone in on your creativity, knowing this is what I can do within this space.

Chris:

The other piece of structure is having some templatization of here’s our process documents. Here’s a few things that instead of us having to waste any time to put… That’s my dog. Having to put anything together…

Dan:

We like having him on.

Chris:

As soon as I start talking, he knows, “Hey, I should probably get in there or something.”

Dan:

Absolutely. Full-on size of a horse. We love it.

Chris:

Yes. Having some of the process documentation or things in place, it helps take away some of the busy work or that structured to set up a project. So you can focus on the big picture and not some of the minutia that you need to put together at the beginning of projects. So I think that structure actually does give more freedom to focus on what is important on your role.

Dave:

Yeah. It also seems like it creates a framework for new team members as well, right?

Chris:

Oh, absolutely. I think then, onboarding new team members, there’s a structure in place, a process in place. You can kind of learn that foundation. And then also with labs, being able to jump between projects or to help support somebody on a project, there’s sort of that structure in place that you’re familiar with instead of learning, “Oh, every team does something a little bit different.” It’s, “No there’s consistencies on the structure and the foundational elements.” So it’s easy to jump in between projects then.

Dan:

What about things like estimates and time tracking? These are things that normally developers are very used to. Is that something that lives as part of the creative process or is that a hard thing to start to adapt?

Chris:

I would say it is instead of a challenge, I’d say it’s an opportunity for people to grow within their roles. I think what I’ve found is people are uncomfortable with estimating, but that’s one of the things I like to work with, with individuals is how do you estimate the work that you’re going to do? So it’s just giving you structure and boundaries around. “Okay, I know I have this task. It should take me…” I like to think in hours. I know lots of people want to break it into different things, but being able to break it into hours or days, this is what I need to do and this is the amount of time I need to do it because it really empowers the individual to know, “What am I going to do? And how long is it going to take?” Instead of taking out a bunch of tasks, not having that insight into how long it’s going to take, and then you’re overwhelmed during the week.

Chris:

I think some people see… The thing I like about being able to estimate is it’s really empowering the individual and their tasks, what they’re going to do and when they’re going to get it done by.

Tobi:

Can you share a little bit? I know there was a time I had a conversation where I was with Dennis and they mentioned the idea of time-boxing, and that’s not necessarily an estimate. You have a time box to say, “I’m going to run this amount of activities in two weeks or four weeks.” And then at the end of that, we can move into, “How is that different from your regular estimate, or did it take me two weeks?”

Chris:

So for time boxing, I think we use that along around a lot of the things that could be completely open-ended: research, or user testing, or interviewing. You can go down rabbit holes with any of those.

 

Our team has gotten really good at being able to say, “We’re going to time box our interview and research, we’re going to do that over two week periods.” So we know we have a start and an end and instead of going way too far down the road and getting caught up in minutia, we can really focus on, “Hey, I got two weeks to do this and here’s what I’m going to do within those two weeks.” For some of those things that you can really just run wild with being able to say, “I’m going to time box this” is very critical and it’s a little bit different than, “I have a specific task and that specific task is going to take me X amount of days to get done or hours to get done.”

Dan:

So we’ve transitioned to remote work as everyone has. Has a lot of this structure that… I hate to keep saying “structure and process.” I feel like we’ve probably said it 19 times, just in the first 15 minutes here.

Chris:

You can use “framework.”

Dan:

All right, has this framework allowed the transition to remote work easier, more natural?

Chris:

I would say yes. So one thing that’s great about the lab’s design team is a lot of them are very used to being able to work remotely. So that was definitely a blessing when we were moving into full remote, but then also starting to put together a specific process for different things.

 

Right now we are developing, as a team, different templates for different parts of our work, for discovery engagements or for design sprints, or even just at the beginning of a project, having project docs. We’re starting to pull some templates together as a team so we know what to expect at the beginning, what are we putting together in the middle and what are we outputting at the end?

 

So having that structure in place is super helpful for the design team. And one thing that we’re learning is as this is starting to get put together and I’m meeting even with the DL’s, delivery leads, it’s almost like opening up that curtain that designers sometimes are behind and giving some view into, “What are we doing? When are we doing it and what are we outputting?” I think that’s something that’s been great for us as we start putting this process in place.

Dan:

You mentioned design sprints, and I’m going to bring that up because I think it’s something that obviously we’ve been talking about quite a bit. It’s certainly something that Detroit Labs offers and sells. We’ve seen really great success with our clients, but now we’re in a situation where this is a very traditional in-person engagement. Is it possible to have it be successful remote? And I know we talked earlier beforehand about having, you have some tools that we use, if you want to fire that up and I’ll add those to the stream. But we had mentioned earlier that this framework, does it help with going remote, but does it also help with things like design sprints, that again were traditionally in-person?

Chris:

I would say absolutely, you can totally conduct either discovery engagements or even these design sprints remotely. In some ways I think there’s some huge benefits to being able to do this remotely. Now there is something to be said, certainly if it’s in-person you’re with the people, you can do it hands on. There is something about having that human connection, being able to physically do some of these tasks, but what we’re finding with these remote design sprints, it’s something that it allows people to engage in a different way and more one-to-one. One of the things that we’re finding is, so as a facilitator, if I’m working through my screen and we use, one of the tools we use is Miro where it’s almost like a virtual whiteboard. One thing we love about that: they do have very nice templates they already create that we can use.

 

So we’re AJ&Smart certified. One thing that’s nice is that their design community is putting together some really nice remote templates to start using, which is great to have that resource through the community. And that’s one of the things we’re looking at here is, this is broken out into design sprints. It has all the different tasks that you can interact with. And as I was saying, you have this almost a one to connection then with people that are involved with this. So with the design sprint, we have about five people. Instead of being five to seven people in a full room, this is one where, as a participant, I can feel like, “Hey, it’s a one-to-one engagement” because I’m seeing my camera. I’m seeing Chris talk to me and I can feel like that individual attention. I can see people interacting on these boards together, which is super nice. And one thing that’s interesting that we’re finding is you can have a certain level of anonymity?

Dan:

Get that from finding Nemo. Anemone.

Chris:

You can have…

Dan:

We get it though.

Chris:

You can have that, and so as I’m working, you can almost feel less judged if I’m writing something on the board and sticking things up there because I don’t feel like I have eyes on me. It’s something I can interact with from a one-to-one or just by myself on this. So it’s something that we’re seeing huge benefits from. One thing I would caution about is being able to test out the software first and being able to set up a little bit of time with the client, the individuals participating, to get them acclimated to the software. So like Miro, just say, “Hey, we’re going to take 15 minutes at the beginning to allow people to get acclimated and understand how this works” so you’re not having to try to have people figure that out during the tasks and everything.

Dan:

You mentioned AJ&Smart. Dave, I don’t know if you’re going to chime in here, but just a sec here, you mentioned AJ&Smart, and I definitely want to make sure that we give them full credit on this. We went and did their certification for design sprints. After reading the book sprint, went to them, they’re probably the foremost leaders in training for design sprints, putting on design sprints. And it was amazing to see how fast they were getting to market and showing… It was amazing how quick to market they were with all of these resources. And that’s just a wonderful, helpful thing.

Chris:

Absolutely. And I know one of the other things that we had talked on before, now doing it this way, all the information, all the artifacts are already digitized. It’s easy to transfer this over to any type of documentation we’re going to put together. One of the things that we do when it’s non-remote, and when we do it in person, you’re taking pictures of all these things and then posting them someplace. But this has given me one place where all the information, everything we’re capturing is going to live. So finding remote, actually I think there’s a huge benefit at times. One of the things that you don’t have to worry about is a meeting space where you’re all going to get together. How are you going to get everybody in the same room at the same time? It’s something that allows them to do it from their room and stuff.

Dan:

Funny, we’ve got Dave‘s son’s in the background there, your dog’s in the background here, there’s a full on ruckus going on upstairs right now with this little robot thing. There’s a lot doing…

Tobi:

What a good boy.

Dan:

So before we move on, the end result of remote design sprint is consistent with an in-person design sprint, no?

Chris:

Absolutely, absolutely. You’re getting the same output, the same artifacts. Everything’s exactly the same. And like I said, once you get acclimated to the whole idea that we’re just going to do this through my screen and you can have cameras on. That’s the other thing, you really need to make sure everybody’s… They’ll quickly get comfortable, but having the cameras on, I think everybody’s now starting to get used to being able to do that. And it does not feel so cold, or sterile, or remote, as you would think, once you start getting into it and everything.

Dan:

Dave disappeared. That’s what working from home is right now. So we talked about design sprints. Let’s move on to discovery engagements. And it’s something that is certainly much meatier. I was going to say more meatier, but more meat, neither of those work. So it’s definitely more to it than a design sprint and we’ve been fortunate enough that we have a really great client right now. We won’t say who the client is, but they’re a wonderful client that we’re going through a discovery engagement remote. And how has that been? Actually, maybe we even take a step back. Instead of my terrible description of a discovery phase, maybe you can kind of give us a little description of what that is.

Chris:

Discovery phase is where we’re now… It’s a very focused, very deliberate methodology to dig in deep into, what their challenges are? What are their business goals? And having that deep dive into what their current setting is, with what they’re dealing with and what’s going on, where they want to be, and having… There’s several different, there’s workshops, there’s interviews, there’s all kinds of different tasks that we do to really dig deep, get information and make sure the solution that we’re going to tailor for them is going to meet their business goals, meet their user engagement goals, and really in the end, focus on how the user’s going to work and engage with what we’re producing. So it’s a deeper dive into everything. It’s very methodical and then data-driven for what we’re going to do from a solution or for a design.

Dan:

Similar to design sprints being remote, do you find benefits and challenges with doing a discovery phase remote?

Chris:

A lot of the things that we talked about with design sprints, I think directly applies to what’s working with discovery engagements. On Miro where you have a interactive whiteboard for capturing information. It’s nice that everybody sees it as it’s happening. The one thing is, and same thing with design sprints is it takes a little bit longer to make that one-to-one connection, where if you’re in a room icebreakers, everything else goes quicker because being in there in person I think it’s more fluid. It allows people to bond as people.

 

I would say, that’s probably the one thing that lacks when you do it remotely. We’re finding now that you quickly build up a rapport, I think because people are used to working remotely now that you can quickly get over that hump and build that rapport just in some interactions or when you take a break, being able to just talk about something besides the work to make some of that connection. But I would say that’s one thing that we’re doing is focusing on: how do we make that connection at the very beginning and make people comfortable as we’re going through.

Dan:

That’s awesome. So we talk about design sprints and discovery engagements a lot, actually. If you’ve been tuning into our social content, any of our live streams, that certainly has been brought up quite a bit, and there’s good reason for it because we’re really passionate that in order to build the correct product, you have to do the right discovery and engagement, discovery and understanding and planning upfront in order to be successful in the end.

 

The other reason we keep bringing it up is there, we’re going to be moving past this phase of life at some point. We don’t know when that will be. And I think it’s encouraging that clients are still asking about these because they’re preparing for what does it look like after the current situation that we’re in is over. And it’s really nice to know, and to let people know that these things can happen remote. So it’s not something that you put off for a while. These are things that can happen right now that then can prepare you for once we’re past some of this, whenever that may be, it can prepare you to build that product that you’ve been thinking of, or redo a process if you will, and anything really.

Chris:

Right, and the majority of the discovery engagement, a lot of it, even if we’re not in the situation we are right now, when you start doing interviews or user testing, prototype testing, a lot of that is conducted remotely anyways. I think the one thing that maybe some clients… You just have to get over the hurdle is, “Hey, maybe that kickoff or that initial workshop engagement is going to be remote.” And as I said, we’re finding more and more clients are just getting more comfortable with, “Okay. Yeah, this is how we do it. We’re doing it over Skype or whatever we’re going to work off of.” And then again, having that little bit of teaching them of the engagement tools at the very beginning, that can almost be an icebreaker alone. You let people ask questions, engage, see how these things work, walk them through, and then they’re comfortable. Now you can really start getting into that engagement piece.

Tobi:

That could be done. The benefits of like this remote process, doing design sprints and discovery. For you, what has been some highlights? If you could say, “These are the things I’ve enjoyed more remotely when everything’s rushed.”

Chris:

One thing, it is funny and we’re seeing it here as we’re conducting this and I have a dog coming over, Claus has some noise in the background. I think it’s almost easier to see individuals, especially our clients as human and have some of that real life come in there. And I think that instantly is helping people break down some of the barriers and, “Hey, we’re real people let’s work on this together.”

 

One of the other added benefits that we’re finding with using these remote white boards is you can see people adding things in real time, not, “Hey, let’s have one person go up to a board and take notes” and stuff like that. You can we’ll even do it where it’s say, “Okay, for the next five minutes, everybody put up sticky notes of what you think may be a challenge is or what you think success looks like.” So everybody can do that all at the same time and you can see it as it’s popping up and maybe that helps you think of something as you’re working on it. And then we can, as a team, back up and say, okay, let’s all look at this together. So having that real time interaction where everybody can participate at the same time, whereas in-person, I think that creates noise, here it gives more visibility.

Dan:

Awesome. We’re at 25 minutes now. It’s amazing how fast that goes by, isn’t it? We’ll start to wrap up, we appreciate you joining us today, talking about, as Dave put it, leveling up design, but also talking about design sprints, discovery engagements, how they’re still really great to go through, even though it’s nontraditional and we’re finding a lot of really positive things out of it, not just challenges. It’s good to hear the positive things.

Dan:

There’s a couple of really great comments that are on YouTube that we do have to pull up. They’re showstoppers.

Chris:

Is this the Stump the Steven thing?

Dan:

Well, maybe. So Steven said, “Hi, Toby.” That’s critical. We wanted to make sure we added that to the stream. Steven would also like to know if he counts as one of the Stevens. Even when we didn’t answer Steven, he then responded back with this.

Dave:

We love you, Steven.

Dan:

These are the hard-hitting questions that are coming in via YouTube and we appreciate that. It’s interesting, I’m looking at the LinkedIn stream here and the YouTube profile picture does not come through on the LinkedIn stream. It’s fascinating. Anyways, that was very unimportant, but it just caught my eye over here.

Tobi:

from Steven.

Dan:

What? Thanks.

Dan:

All right, Chris, thanks for joining us. Keep in mind, you can see this content after, it’ll be on our LinkedIn page. It’ll also be over on our YouTube channel, share with friends, comment on it. We like getting feedback. We’ll be back live Friday, for Friday 15. Again, that’s our show where we talk to team members about nothing important whatsoever, but we learn more about our team members and that’s great. And who knows, maybe at some point we open it up to external guests and maybe Toby’s friends will, it’ll always be Toby’s friends who joined by the way.

Tobi:

That will be really fun.

Dan:

It will only be your friends.

Tobi:

We have the best zoom calls, so yes.

Dan:

Perfect. All right. Thanks for tuning in. And everyone have a good day.

Tobi:

Bye everyone.