Over 20 million people use Pocket to discover, save, consume, and share the content they care most about. The San Francisco-based company’s dedication to putting out a product that solves users’ needs is one of the many reasons we’re proud to have Pocket as an InVision customer.
I sat down with Nikki Will, Head of Design at Pocket, to talk about collaboration, keeping up with ever-changing web and mobile standards, and how you know your product is a success.
How’s the design team set up at Pocket?
We’re a small company that’s very design- and product-oriented. All 20 of us have a hand in the product design process—from our analytics lead to the engineering team.
Besides me, there are 2 other product designers. We have different strengths and come from different backgrounds, which helps create a well-rounded team. We purposely structured it with generalists—we need to be able to work on everything.
“InVision makes conversations with engineers and stakeholders go a lot smoother—it leads us to explore more design directions faster.”
Our CEO Nate Weiner acts as Head of Product, and because he’s so design- and product-focused—and because he has an engineering background—the emphasis on building a great product is at the heart of everything we do. We’re still a small company, so we haven’t gotten to the point where we need the team to break into smaller teams permanently. We’re all working together on one big mission.
Within the design team itself, what’s the structure of your product process?
Up until a few months ago, we had more of a waterfall structure, but lately we’ve adopted more of an agile sprint process. It’s been going well, but like anything we do, we’re continuing to evolve to make things work for us.
Why’d you decide to move away from a waterfall structure?
We talked to other product teams and thought it might improve our efficiency and communication. So far, we like it.
What’s the design culture at Pocket like?
Design is at the core of the company—it’s always been one of the most important parts of how we frame each part of the business, and we approach problems from a design mentality. Everyone here is user-focused and has a strong understanding of design thinking. There’s lots of collaboration, too.
Though we have an informal design process, we stress the importance of going wide in design explorations, learning quickly, and iterating.
What’s the most powerful part of your design process?
Cross-functional communication. We include people across all other functions—support, marketing, partnerships, engineering, etc.—in our conversations, brainstorming sessions, and design sprints. That leads to more awareness about what’s going on across the company, as well as more sharing and insights from different perspectives. That’s so valuable to the design process.
What values do you want to see reflected in the design at Pocket?
Our design solutions should solve real user needs. It’s great to understand what users suggest and what features they’d like, but we make sure we understand the root problem users are experiencing.
For example, users have asked for the ability to have folders as a feature inside Pocket. But when we looked into that, we found that they actually just wanted a place to put their videos. So we created a feature that sorts videos automatically for them.
One of our mantras is “nothing is impossible.” So when we’re thinking about how to implement something or how to build something, we start with the assumption that we can build anything. From there, we focus on identifying the best way to solve a problem, and then we figure out how to build it.“One of our mantras at Pocket is ‘nothing is impossible.'”
What’s a typical day at Pocket like for you?
Every morning, we start the day with a standup. After that, we might have meetings to review work, brainstorm, or talk about new projects. Our design work might involve things like sketching, wireframing, designing in Sketch, prototyping, and getting user feedback.
The 3 of us have weekly design meetings to discuss more design-based topics and processes, as well.
Can you explain your design process?
We usually start by identifying the problems or areas of improvement we want to focus on. It’s important that we define our objective and goals so that we’re aligned on what we’re solving for. After that comes research to get a better understanding of what other solutions have been out there and what might be common as we approach the problem. Often, we’ll hold a company-wide brainstorming session.
Google Ventures, one of our investors, has helped us instill a design sprint methodology that’s now deeply rooted in our culture. The Design Sprint is a 5-day process that takes you through concepting, design, prototyping, and testing ideas with users. We’ve done a number of sprints and regularly utilize some of the techniques in our brainstorming sessions.
From there, we’ll start sketching or wireframing ideas that we’ll then share with the broader for feedback. We’ll often turn mockups into clickable prototypes to get more feedback, and we continue to iterate and design. Sometimes we’ll move those to working prototypes as well, which we find is an easier way to see things working until we land on an MVP we feel good about.
After that, we hand off the design to development and work with the engineers to implement it. And, of course, we continue to iterate.
Do you have any advice for making handoffs between teams less painful?
Involve developers early in the design process so they’re aware of what’s being designed—and so there are no surprises when you hand things off.
We typically use Google Docs to write up detailed implementation specs about the designs and link to all source files. We also usually schedule a time to walk through those with the engineers so we can answer any questions.“Involve developers early in the design process so they’re aware of what’s being designed.”
InVision makes conversations with engineers and stakeholders go a lot smoother—it leads us to explore more design directions faster. For example, I can tell if something isn’t translating how I thought it would from the screen on my desktop when I’m designing it. InVision has made that iteration loop go much faster.
How do you think your design process is different from other apps?
Because we have a small team, we’re able to bring a lot of different functions into the conversation on a regular basis. Communication and collaboration are important to us, and getting different perspectives from across the company helps us think more broadly and move faster.
Pocket is also available across multiple platforms, so we have to work on all the major ones. As a result of our integrations, we work closely with just about every major content service, company, and app developer out there. Each of these companies are different, so we’ve gotten tremendous experience working with various types of teams, structures, and communication styles.
You mentioned earlier that when you take feature requests from the community, you try to find what the actual problem is. How do you identify those problems?
We try to have the user explain what they’re struggling with instead of just telling us a solution. Users have great suggestions but don’t necessarily always know what the best solution is. So we retroactively try to think back about their intent, what they were trying to do, and how we could help them do that better or easier.“Have the user explain what they’re struggling with—they shouldn’t just give a solution.”
How do you guys make design decisions at Pocket?
As designers, we’re constantly making design decisions throughout each day as we work through a project. A lot of little decisions happen naturally throughout the design process. We meet regularly and review designs with the team and the CEO/Head of Product, and we’ll use that time to either make a decision on a design or generate more questions to resolve in our next exploration. We usually try to test things quickly and early on to gain more insights about impact.
Before we can make any decisions, we’ll generally have some sort of data or user research about whether we should continue down this path, or whether that’s a good area to explore.“There’s a more tangible interaction you can achieve with InVision that you can’t get with still mockups.”
Really, though, there’s not 1 way we do this. Time and bandwidth constraints can influence design decisions.
What metrics do you watch while you’re making feature decisions or design decisions?
Both quantitative and qualitative data. With quantitative data, we like to look at the effect of engagement, activation, acquisition, and retention. These are strong indicators of our success, and they’re a signal of how good our product is for our users. Additionally, we’ll use qualitative feedback from user testing, support requests, and tweets.
How do you guys use InVision in your design process?
We use InVision to quickly prototype ideas that we share internally during reviews—or even while we’re working individually—just to get a feel for how something might work and interact. There’s definitely a more tangible interaction that you can achieve with InVision that you can’t get with still mockups. InVision is super valuable while you’re designing.
We also use InVision prototypes to get user feedback when we’re exploring different directions. We’ve found that using our prototypes in InVision helps with conversations internally with stakeholders and engineers. It’s easier to discuss what a product or feature might look like in a clickable prototype versus just looking at a static PSD or a Sketch file.
How does your team collaborate?
1 or 2 of the product designers might work on bigger projects together. We have regular check-ins, collaborative work sessions, and brainstorms. We also have regular design reviews so the entire team gets feedback on their work.
Since the 3 of us product designers sit next to each other, we’ll just turn to each other to get feedback as well.
Do you have a formal review process?
We have informal product design reviews twice a week where we share what the designers are working on and get feedback. Other product team members and the CEO/Head of Product are involved in these meetings as well, which really helps cut down on additional meetings with stakeholders.
What tools do you use to document your collaboration?
We use Google Docs to document and outline specs and information regarding a feature handoff. It’s great for adding comments and keeping a dialogue all in one spot. We’ve been exploring a few different tools and processes to help us collaborate with the design team as well as the handoffs to engineers. We’ve started to play around with Zeplin, and it has the potential to really help us streamline handoffs.“InVision is super valuable while you’re designing.”
We’ve also been using RedPen—it’s been a great way to share concepts and get feedback directly on a specific design.
We use Slack to communicate, Dropbox to share files, and Jira for tracking.
When does the design team get involved in new features?
Design is involved from the very beginning and all the way through the end. Because we want to solve the right problems, it’s important that the product design team is involved in identifying what to work on.“Designers should make sure their company follows a product design process.”
How do you keep your vision alive through your design?
We’ve always stayed really focused on solving the big problems related to our mission, which is to enable people to catch and consume the most interesting and important content on the web. It’s the lens we look through when evaluating anything for our roadmap.
How do you stay engaged and creative while you’re working on the same brand?
There’s still so much to solve regarding how people discover and consume content, and we’re constantly learning what’s working and what isn’t. Working on the same brand has been so rewarding because we continually learn from our mistakes and improve the product.
Technology moves fast—there’s always something new to think about. Our roadmap is years long. When it comes to content and all of the different devices and apps, there are so many unsolved problems and opportunities.
Can you tell me about your user base and how it’s changed since launch?
Like many products, it started out with an early-adopter, techie crowd. But the audience has become more broad over the years. I’m amazed at the diversity and how people are using Pocket in totally different ways.
How does that affect your design?
It helps us hone in on whose problem we’re trying to solve and how we can improve their experience.
How do you monetize your product without corrupting what you’re trying to do for the world?
We’re still in the early stages of monetizing our product, but like anything we do, we want to make sure we’re solving problems for our users and not just trying to jam in other things that don’t improve the user experience.
Successful monetization is about providing a value exchange, and we’re always focused on creating valuable experiences.
How do you keep up with the constantly changing web standards about web design?
We all try to be active users by trying new products and new software. Besides that, we:
- Follow design community news
- Attend events and meet with fellow designers
- Talk regularly with our engineers to get their perspectives on platform standards and conventions
- Talk to users to understand what they think is and isn’t working
Good design in current web standards can be subjective or even trendy, but solving the right problems is timeless.
“Good design in current web standards can be subjective or even trendy, but solving the right problems is timeless.”
Why did you guys choose the visual design that you did?
I was involved with the rebrand from Read It Later to Pocket, and one of the main objectives was to make the brand feel approachable and friendly.
At the start of the rebrand process, we laid out the top 10 brand attributes we felt Pocket should emote. That was the best part on launch day—seeing people actually use the words and attributes we used when talking about Pocket was great validation and so humbling.
We wanted the UI to feel simple and for the chrome to be recessive. With our product, it’s all about content, so we didn’t want the excess UI to feel heavy—just simple and approachable.
How do you think that differentiating your UX and your visual design will help you compete in the future?
Users are so inundated with different apps and services vying for their attention, so your product has to be user-friendly and solve a real need. We’ve found that the visual design of a product helps set it apart and can help garner an emotional reaction from users. Adding elements of delight goes a long way.
Do you have any insight for new designers?
Before you do anything, focus on why you’re designing your product or feature. What exactly you’re going to design and how you’re going to do it should come after that. It’s easy to get caught up in the fancy new tools or trends, but you should always keep the core problem at the forefront of your design process.“Before you do anything, focus on why you’re designing your product.”
What role do you think designers should be playing in developing business strategy?
Do you think that business strategy should be a design discipline?
I think it’s important for designers to understand user needs and how to solve problems. At the same time, designers should understand the needs of the business and have a way of balancing the needs of both when they’re designing.
“Using our prototypes in InVision helps with conversations with stakeholders and engineers.”
How can you tell when you’ve created a good experience?
When users have no idea how much complexity is behind a particular feature and it just works for them.
Engagement and retention, too. Retention is a key metric: if people love your product, they’ll keep coming back. We found that when random strangers would come up and tell you about your product and how much they like it—totally unprovoked—it helps validate that as well.
When you start a design project, what’s the very first thing you do?
First, I make sure the team is aligned on the problem and what we’re trying to solve—they should understand the objectives and goals. Then I usually start with user and market research and analysis to look at what trends exist, what data is available, and how services across multiple verticals are solving similar problems. After that, I start sketching.
There’s something so valuable about taking pen and paper to quickly and freely get ideas out of your head.
What’s success on a complete design project for you?
When we feel like we truly solved a problem and it’s been validated through metrics and user feedback.“Design solutions should solve real user needs.”
Photos by Peter Prato.