Prezi’s presentation software lets users present and collaborate with each other in real time. I sat down with Peter Zimon, Lead Product Designer, and David Gauquelin, Director of Design, to discuss the design team structure, design culture, innovation, and what’s up next for Prezi’s design team.
How are teams set up at Prezi?
We’re growing rapidly, so we try to organize the company into small, agile, and fairly autonomous teams. We have a “matrix” organization, with cross-functional teams consisting of a product manager, a designer, a tech lead, a UX researcher, and developers. Each team owns a specific part of the product experience, and they’re set up to move quickly, without relying on time-consuming administrative or bureaucratic processes. Imagine 10 to 15 little startups working together to create the greater experience of Prezi.
With the design team, things get interesting, because every designer potentially belongs to 2 teams:
- Their product or cross-functional team
- The greater design team
This creates an interesting tension because every designer has two leads:
- A product manager, who’s responsible for delivery, strategy, market fit, meeting deadlines, and product implementation
- A lead designer, who’s responsible for maintaining the quality, respecting the design guidelines, and representing the vision of the design team
So every designer acts as the bridge between 2 teams.
Could you talk a bit about the design culture at Prezi?
We don’t like the idea of the design team being closed off in a bunker, hiding early ideas, and presenting things only when we think they’re perfect. We try to open and socialize the design process, to get feedback from developers, product managers, and UX researchers early on.
We believe that creative ideas and interesting solutions can come from anywhere, so we ask everyone for feedback. It would be a shame for us to have a designer who isn’t listening to everyone.
Additionally, we always think in pairs when we talk about designers at Prezi. A UX researcher and a designer create the overall experience in collaboration.
Why did you end up going with that pair structure?
It just evolved from our open design culture, I think.
There’s a clear distinction between the two roles. UX researchers represent the people we make the product for, and the designers represent the actual solutions. But, of course, the line isn’t that hard.
It’s important to us that our product designers be able to think through every stage of formulating a design solution, from how to solve a problem in terms of usability, to the flow structure, to information architecture, to the design principles, all the way to the visual delivery.
We believe that sharing ideas works much better as a collaboration, a dialogue, instead of a monologue.
Many new terms have been forged over the last 5–10 years, like “interaction designer,” “UX designer,” “UI designer,” and “visual designer.” We don’t really differentiate between the person thinking about the user experience and the person delivering the visual aspect. We don’t have designers using wireframes someone else made.
I think the UX researcher and the product designer pair inside a cross-functional team is really quite strong. It makes our design process a very strong dialogue.
What’s the biggest challenge you have with your team structure?
I think the challenge, in one sentence, is how to deliver great, consistent design within a giant, remote-working environment.
We have design teams in Budapest and San Francisco. They work together to keep the brand and product consistent. I’m really proud that the design team is one team, thinks as one team, and that everyone is hyper-aware of our core design principles.
Also, trying to stay true to this idea of autonomy and cross-functional teams, where designers can move fast without design directors have to approve every little thing, while making sure our product doesn’t look like Frankenstein.
Do you have a story that could illustrate how you get inspired?
Last year, we were working on Prezi templates, to help users get started. I was in San Francisco, and there was an exhibition about Tyrus Wong in the Walt Disney Family museum. Tyrus Wong painted the backgrounds for Bambi, which was kind of revolutionary, because he had a strong grounding in the tradition of Chinese watercolor paintings.
He did all of the backgrounds very abstractly and very neutrally—they set the mood rather than acting as concrete “backgrounds.”
This concept really inspired us when we designed the new templates. We created a series of templates with very light and atmospheric backgrounds, allowing the content in the foreground to be much more visible. We call these the Bambi templates.
Is there a design challenge you’re working on you could share?
One of the key challenges we’re facing is how to make our tool more approachable without losing Prezi’s unique nature.
We’re trying to lower the barrier to entry. We know Prezi is an entirely new presentation format—a new medium with a lot of disruptive potential. This is our biggest advantage, but also our biggest disadvantage, because the people we think can benefit from it don’t necessarily have the time to learn a new tool, but presentations are still very important for them.
That’s why we’re working on a lot of features that try to strike the right balance innovation and approachability.
Prezi is both SaaS and desktop app. How do you break through that desktop-only or SaaS-only mentality?
We see a lot of value in being both SaaS and desktop, and we don’t really make a distinction between online and offline. I think these boundaries aren’t really relevant anymore. We instead think about what context, situation, and device you’re using, as well as what your goals are. We try to be focused on the situation, the context, and the service required in that specific context. Then we design the product to meet the goals of that specific context. Prezi exists on all platforms, and it may be challenging for us, but the model of “service in context” fits us, rather than “SaaS” or “native.”
How do you innovate on a product when its users have strong preconceived notions of what it should be?
One of the key things about Prezi is that it’s a new medium. So, when you see a Prezi, you know it’s a Prezi. It’s a totally different experience than a PowerPoint presentation.
Apart from that, it’s thinking about designing presentations for a specific context. For example, the presentation experience itself—should the presentation be a one-man show? Or should it be a real-time collaboration? (We’ve worked on that same question! –Ed.)
We believe that sharing ideas works much better as a collaboration, a dialogue, instead of a monologue.
How do you hire innovative people?
One of the unique parts of our hiring process is that we ask candidates to work with us for an entire week—before we hire them. We define a task for them to complete, and we collaborate with them frequently during the assessment week. It gives us a lot of insight into how the candidate works.
It also gives the candidate a chance to really experience how we work, and decide if we’re a good match for them or not.
These assessment weeks aren’t specific to the design team alone. No one gets a job offer before actually coming and working with us, for real, on real projects with real deadlines.
We still want to be true to that—it’s a founding tradition of Prezi. We’ve had to lower the bar a bit, but I think it is a really incredible thing, because it gives so much more information about how the person works in context than a set of interviews.
If any designer out there is interested in a trip to Hungary, get in touch!
Can you tell me a little bit about your user base, and how you’ve seen it change since you launched?
Prezi has been a hit with teachers and students. We also see more people in small and medium businesses, sometimes even in large enterprise companies, who are now using Prezi.
How do you think design impacted this change in user base?
The changes in our users are coming about because our UI design became much more standardized and much less crazy. We used to have interface elements that were completely inconsistent with people’s expectations for a presentation design tool—trying to explaining these features to a guy who has 20 minutes to build a presentation was really hard. We are getting more and more business-compatible.
Was the standardization of your design a big benefit to your growing user base?
The standardization was actually really beneficial, and I led this effort, but it wasn’t easy internally. People were really attached to some of the atypical UI design elements we had in Prezi, and were unhappy when we killed them off.
For example, we had something we called “the Zebra” internally. It was a big, totally crazy piece of UI that floated on top of every piece of content you selected, and it would let you scale and rotate stuff. When we killed this, I had staff members coming to me, saying, “What are you doing? You’re killing Prezi’s spirit!”
To combat this, I made a lot of presentations at and with Prezi to say that the true value is about the result that you can create with it, not fancy UI. It is our goal to standardize the interface, so people can focus on the content and create an amazing Prezi. We shouldn’t be creative for the sake of being creative in our UI, we should be creative in getting people using our product.
We don’t want people to remember Prezi for a crazy “innovative” UI. Ultimately, if they don’t notice the UI because it’s so based on what they know and habits they’ve already established, and they already feel comfortable using, and this results in the user making an amazing new presentation—we’re happy.
We shouldn’t be creative for the sake of being creative in our UI, we should be creative in getting people using our product.
Do you have any insights for other designers tasked with reimagining a ubiquitous product?
Try to focus on the outcome for the user. This is really, really important. Don’t be innovative for the sake of being innovative with the product design and UI. Be innovative where it matters, and where it affects your users. Focus on making their outcomes better.
Additionally, never underestimate the power of habit, even bad habits. Whatever smart, meaningful, pertinent ideas we designers might have, we’re asking people to change their behavior. We’re asking them to think differently about how they build a presentation. It’s a big undertaking for people, even if they are really motivated, and they really like the product.
Changing habits takes longer than learning completely new ideas. It’s really about trying to bring people along slowly. We have to be patient. It’s about empathy. It’s about considering that people have to adopt these tools, change their workflows and thinking patterns, regardless of how cool it is.
What do you think the most powerful part of what your design process is?
We accept that no design is ever done or perfect. Our designers have the humility to say that nothing is ever done or finished and things can always be made better.
This is what drives us—always iterating, step by step, sometimes taking a bigger step, but always considering everything we do as just a step towards something better.
What are the most important values that you try to see reflected in design changes, or future releases at Prezi?
It’s this idea of humility, both in how we design the product and how we act as designers. I think it’s really about understanding that design is not the point. Service is.
Prezi is built around people sharing ideas. We embrace this with our design.“Every designer acts as the bridge between 2 teams.”