For Colorado-based agency Slice of Lime, great UX begins with listening. They’ve worked with clients such as Sphero, MapQuest, Ingersoll-Rand, and Kidrobot to design powerful and engaging user experiences, and we’re so proud to have them as an InVision customer.
I sat down with Lead UX Designer Chris Alvarez and Senior UX Designer Ben Bowes to discuss working closely with clients, the importance of trust, and how the company got its name.
How’s the design team set up at Slice of Lime?
Ben: Our team is primarily made up of UX designers, and all of us have different backgrounds. We have 2 creative directors, 3 lead designers, a bunch of senior UX designers, and a handful of mid-level UX designers—and we don’t have a single project manager.“Great UX begins with listening.”
What’s the structure of your team like?
Chris: Since we’re an agency with multiple clients, we assign a pair of UX designers to each project. They typically work directly with the client, almost becoming part of their team. This has been our model for a while—pairs seem to work well for us. When one person’s doing an interview, the other takes notes. When one person’s designing, the other’s a voice of feedback and reason. It’s nice to have a person around to bounce ideas off of.
Unlike a lot of agencies, we really only work on one thing at a time. So, once you get assigned to a project, you’re working on that project full-time for three months or whatever the engagement is.
What about that structure do you find to be particularly beneficial to your clients or to your team?
Chris: Slice of Lime trusts everybody they hire, so there’s a lot of autonomy within the teams as well as the paired designers—we can make decisions and get things done without having to deal with much red tape.
That means all projects are different, but it’s not a bad thing—we embrace it. It just takes good planning and lots of communication.
What’s the design culture like?
Ben: We’re always sharing ideas and resources, and since our focus is around UX, a lot of those resources aren’t focused on creative designed, but rather around strategy, research, interviewing techniques, and mental models.
In terms of aesthetics, many of us are illustrators or artists on the side. So we constantly share things we create outside of work, like poster designs for art shows.
Chris: We’re not an enterprise where they might have a design team with their own culture. We’re a design company—our whole culture is design, and what’s cool about that is it’s not like there’s one type of culture. There’s a lot of different types of culture that come into the company from everyone who’s worked here.
As we hire new people and as we grow and mature in our professions, things change and we see, for example, that someone’s doing sculpting now or someone’s running ultra-marathons. It’s cool to see all this grow and evolve and help our creative approach as a company.
Why is it important for companies to think about design in a more holistic way?
Chris: Companies hire us to do design, so they already have an expectation that they’re going to be looking to us as the experts who will bring great design to their company. But because we focus on user experience as a whole—not just visual design—and a start-to-finish experience that might even exist outside a digital space, we have the challenge of articulating the benefit of holistic design to our clients.
Looking at it from the lens of UX versus just UI, which we see as a subset of UX design, it really makes sense for them.
Ben: Design, beyond aesthetics, is a way of analyzing problems and thinking strategically. You’re designing solutions as opposed to just interfaces.
Are there any challenges with your particular team structure?
Ben: Sometimes we’ll have larger teams on projects that go beyond just a pair of designers working on a project. And there’s always complications that come up with that: larger teams mean more communication has to happen. It’s harder to find your place in a bigger team. And it usually feels bumpy for a week or 2, but then after that, things smooth out and you get into a rhythm, and everyone gets on the same page.“Design, beyond aesthetics, is a way of analyzing problems and thinking strategically.”
Chris: I’d say the inverse is true, too. You could be a part of a pair and feel isolated. But everyone in the company is willing to give feedback and help out if you’re feeling stuck. And it’s nice to have that autonomy where you can just pull someone in and then get back to work.
Do you have any insight for other people or professionals who might be facing a similar challenge with their team structure?
Chris: I think the biggest contributor to the success of our teams is trust. We all trust each other to do good work, to be able to make good decisions, to give feedback and take feedback.
And part of that has to do with our company culture. We do a lot of things together as a team outside of projects. My best advice: learn how to intentionally build trust with the people you work with.
Ben: We also like to hold retrospectives every couple of weeks to allow a space for communication. If there are problems coming up, retros are a nice way to get those out in the open before they turn into bigger issues.“Learn how to intentionally build trust with the people you work with.”
Chris: We’ll do retros with our clients, and we’ll also do retros with our our teams. It’s a way of communicating that happens regularly.
Ben: It’s like therapy.
What do you think is the most powerful part of your design process at Slice of Lime?
Chris: Not being afraid to focus on the strategy. This means spending more time on the initial phase of the project where we’re getting all the answers to our questions and aligning user research with our client’s business goals. This all happens before we start pushing pixels and worrying about content and what things are going to look like.
We intentionally focus on research as the basis for everything we do, and without that I think we wouldn’t have a strong design result. It might look great, but it might not work well. So we start with research.
Ben: We always keep in mind the end user and the task they’re trying to accomplish or the problem they’re trying to solve. And throughout the project we’ll hold several validation sessions where we sit down with users and test out a rough prototype. We constantly make adjustments and iterate on that—it gives us a lot of insight to be able to make the best design decisions as we move through the project.
What’s a typical day like at Slice of Lime?
Chris: There isn’t a typical day. Most of us work out of either the Denver or Boulder office, and often people travel between the 2. We spend time in our clients’ offices as well, doing research planning alongside them or putting on workshops, or even talking with some of their customers and potential customers at their workplaces or even in their own homes.
Depending on the phase of a project, we might be working on a number of things, but strategy’s always upfront. We have floor-to-ceiling whiteboards in our offices—we spend entire days whiteboarding.
As we get more fidelity, clarity, feedback, and data to work with, we start moving towards the computers to actually start working on designs.
Ben: I love being able to jump over to the Denver office or come up to the Boulder office. And working onsite with our local clients is great—you’re able to learn so much about different businesses just by spending time in so many of them.
Can you run me through your design process?
Chris: Our clients and their goals vary. I’m on a project right now that’s very conceptual. So, part of our process is to figure out how to ground this concept and make it something that their users will understand and actually be able to use. Plus, it needs to differentiate the company in the market.
Other projects are more about iterating on existing products. But our process is the same in either case: we’ll kick off a project with a client by spending a full day or 2 with them to learn all we can, set up expectations, and start to plan around user research and deliverables.
Our next step is usually to go talk to people—current users of the product, or people who’ve never used the product before—and start learning from them to gain insight into the way they think and the decisions they make.
There’s a synthesis phase where we take all of that data and try to come away with some clarity and direction about where to go with the design.
From there, our process is fairly typical—we’ll start low fidelity with whiteboarding before moving up to a mid-fidelity wireframe. But we’ll often skip that and go right into high-fidelity design.
Many of our clients, especially the more corporate larger enterprise clients, ask for that because they have to sell these works to their stakeholders and other people in the company.
Ben: In some cases, we’ll start doing some prototyping with InVision. But since we have some front-end capabilities, we’ll start building actual coded prototypes to demo how a certain feature or interaction will work.
Beyond that, we work in a build, measure, learn pattern. Depending on where the client’s at when they engage with us, sometimes we’ll need to get in and start building right away. Often the client might already have a product, and in that case we’ll look at analytics from their product, talk to their users, and figure out where the problems are, what the major pain points are, and how we can address those.
Other times, we’ll jump into a project during the learning phase where the client might have an idea, but they aren’t sure if it’s a good market fit, who their market is, or who their users are. We’ll conduct research so we can make recommendations.
Do you have any insight for handing off designs?
Chris: We don’t have a go-to template for handing off designs—it’s part of just understanding what the customer needs. So if we’re working directly with their development team, they might need something that illustrates interaction design so they can start developing.
Otherwise, if it’s a higher level concept, they might just need something that’s more about illustrating the concept itself. InVision’s great for that, at least in terms of getting something that feels real and tangible.
Ben: For us, it’s like a knowledge transfer. I’ve been on some projects where we spent an entire day with a team going through the whole project, all the research and different screens, and how we got to those places.
As we’re working with our clients, we have some key stakeholders there with us throughout the process. We typically meet with our clients at least twice a week for a couple of hours, so the folks who are with us during the project become our champions on the client side.
How does the design process at Slice of Lime differ from other agencies?
Chris: At traditional agencies, there are lots of things on the menu that get sold to clients. But we just serve up an amazing user experience. There’s a lot of complexity and decisions to be made with UX, and we have to figure out and prioritize what we’re delivering in the end. The end result isn’t a brand or prototype—it’s a number of things that go towards making a user experience the client can implement and run with.
Do your clients give you input about what they’re looking for in their design?
Ben: Sometimes. But because we do so much research, we’re able to back up our decisions with what we’re hearing from actual users. Once you state the facts and show what you’re hearing from people, it’s no longer a hard sell.
Since we collaborate closely with our client teams, they’re with us throughout the whole process. As we learn things, so do they—and they usually chime in with the same ideas we’re thinking about.
How do you guys make design decisions internally?
Chris: We look at data. We’re usually in alignment because we’ve heard directly from the customer what design approach or decision makes the most sense.
But when things aren’t as clear, that’s why we work in pairs. We’re able to put 2 pairs of eyes on one design file, and they help guide each other along the way.
What kind of metrics do you watch when you’re making design decisions?
Ben: Clients may have certain key performance indicators they want us to hit, so we pay attention to those things. Other major indicators: if we build a prototype and we put it in front of 5 different users and have them walk through several different scenarios, some trends—like no one could get past a certain screen or no one could figure out how a specific thing worked—will always bubble up to the top. So we’re able to see what’s working, whether we’re meeting our goals, and whether people are actually able to use the product.
How do you use InVision as part of your process?
Chris: Thankfully, InVision seems to be evolving as fast as we are in terms of how we’re using it—we love all the new features.
When we’re trying to illustrate a flow, we start with InVision to be able to have something that’s clickable, tangible, and feels real enough to get a sense for how things work or could work. Even in the early stages, we hook together wireframes that aren’t high fidelity but demonstrate how someone might use an application in a set of screens.
InVision is a way to communicate a concept and some type of flow. As we add fidelity, InVision’s great for collaboration with clients and to better understand where they’re getting stuck. Being able to leave comments in InVision helps us organize that feedback and respond to it.“InVision is a way to communicate a concept.”
Ben: InVision’s biggest benefit is being able to hook together robust workflows that I can then put in front of a user and have them click through and see where things are working or not working. It’s not uncommon for us to have an InVision project with 200 screens and have to link all that together so our participants can walk through different workflows within that entire application.
Can you tell me about your review processes?
Ben: We don’t have a formal review process. We collaborate closely with our clients, so we’re always working through ideas and iterating. For example, we’ll spend a Thursday and half of Friday working on a feature, and then on that following Monday, we’ll meet with the client to go over the idea and wireframes. By doing this, we’re able to get their buy in and feedback early and often. We never disappear for a month and come out with a huge prototype they hate.
“InVision’s great for collaboration with clients and to better understand where they’re getting stuck.”
What collaboration tools do you use?
Ben: We use Google all the time for spreadsheets, notes, and documents.
Chris: And Trello. We love being able to mention members on a Trello board and pull them in for feedback.
At what point during a product lifecycle do you normally get brought in?
Chris: It depends on the project, but we’ve worked with a lot of companies of different sizes who are in different stages. Young startups might just have a prototype, and we’ll help them collect user feedback and data that helps influence what that prototype eventually turns into. And then they’re able to go get more funding.
Then there’s companies with established products that have been around for over 15 years—they’re just out of date and need to catch up with some of the new demands from their customers, like gestures and touch screens. They call us in to bring in a new paradigm for interaction design—and to create an overall better user experience.
Ben: For a long time, we had a rigid way of approaching projects. We’d do 2 weeks of research, then 2 weeks of wireframing, etc.
But this didn’t work for a lot of people, so we started to take a much more flexible approach to our projects while still applying some of the same process we were trying to produce in a formal way before.
Chris: We think of our process as a way to apply our approach. That means our process changes depending on the project. We’ve tried a one-week sprint with a few clients, which is a way to compact our normal process into 5 days of rapid iteration. The goal is to emerge with a thorough understanding of all the client’s needs and one idea that’s actually worth pursuing and prototyping.
By the end of day 5, we’re able to put the idea in front of users, collect feedback, and make higher-level decisions. We’re not worried about taking the product to market at the end of the sprint, but so many big decisions get made and lots of great data gets collected. This has worked well for us, but really it’s no different than our normal process.
How do you and your team stay creative while you’re working on a project with a client?
Ben: There’s always side projects going on around the agency that we all participate in. They help provide just enough diversity to take your mind off what you were doing on your main project so you can get refocused and think about something else for a while.
Chris: We’re always sharing GIFs, industry and design articles, and examples for inspiration. We collaborate as a team on Google Hangouts, and we make it a point to also get outside of the office for fresh air since we’re in Denver and Boulder.“Push yourself to be more comfortable throwing things away, and you’ll get more creative results.”
Ben: We have a big, open workspace, so even if you’re focused on one project, you’re typically at least listening to or staying involved in some of the projects going on around you. I’m always asking for people’s opinions, or I’ll ask a fellow UX designer to sit in as a temporary user and walk through what I’m working on.
Do you have any best practices that you can share about being creative with regard to your user experience and design?
Ben: Keep experimenting. Keep trying new things, and you’ll learn what works and what doesn’t work. You’ll be able to put your own twist on it and mold it to your process.
Chris: Designers need to be prepared to throw things away. It happens all the time here: we’ll start working on an idea that feels creative, but in the end it doesn’t make sense. If we can push ourselves to be comfortable throwing things away and taking another pass, we’ll get more creative and more mature results.
Ben: Ever heard the story about the pottery class? Half the class had to work on one pot for the whole year, and the other half had to make as many pots as possible. By the end of the year, the folks who made the most pots wound up with the best pots. It’s a great analogy.
Can you tell me about the Slice of Lime branding and why you and your team ended up there?
Ben: 15 years ago, our co-founders came up with the name Slice of Lime while drinking margaritas at a place across the street from our office. “Web design with a twist,” was the idea.“User experience is becoming branding.”
The logo has a pixelated feel to it because when they first started the company, they were designing some of the first mobile apps for phones that only had green screens and black pixels—that was the closest representation to a slice of lime that they could get to.
What are your thoughts on how differentiating UX from competition will help future companies succeed?
Chris: A good user experience takes a deep understanding of not only your own company and products, but your customers and how they interact with your products.
We’ve had projects where in order to create a better experience, we needed to understand how the users live with the product in their homes or workplaces. One approach to understanding their context is called a diary study where, through video clips, the user basically documents how they interact with a product or service within their daily life.
This deep understanding builds empathy for the individual by looking at their world as a whole. It could be someone telling us how secure they feel after locking their home remotely, or telling us about how when they go jogging, they’re worried about leaving their home unlocked. A lot of empathy’s involved—the user experience is definitely now the differentiator because it’s a holistic approach to how people interact with your product.
Ben: It’s almost as if user experience is becoming branding. There’s that old saying that your brand isn’t what you say it is, it’s what your consumers say it is. The experience people have when interacting with your brand plays a big part in that.
Where in the process do you think designers should be with regard to developing business strategy?
Chris: Designers should be in the mix with everybody else. It feels like design—especially user experience design—is playing a bigger and bigger role within companies. UX designers help deliver the product that your end user engages with, and there are insights you’re going to bring to the table that maybe someone else wouldn’t have.
Still, there should be collaboration between a lot of different roles when it comes to business strategy because there are so many different viewpoints. To just have one department or one person always leading business strategy isn’t the best approach.“Designers should be in the mix with everybody else.”
Ben: Some of the most successful projects I’ve seen us do at Slice of Lime involved people from multiple departments on the client side showing up day after day, all of them participating and all collaborating on the same product or strategy.
How do you start a new project? What is the very first thing you guys do?
Ben: We start by just learning. We learn about that industry, that business. We learn about who their target consumers are. We just try to take in as much information as we can so that when we start designing, we can make educated decisions.
Chris: It’s not just learning about the product or the goals of the project—we want to learn about the people we’ll be working with, how much input they want to give, and how we’ll work together—especially when collaborating remotely. We gain as much understanding as we can early on so it doesn’t surprise us later.
Do you have any insight for newbie designers out in the wild?
Ben: I see many beginners wanting to reinvent the wheel or come up with the next great design pattern. But there are ways to make small improvements on what exists today. What’s more important is asking whether the product you’re building works well and is usable—it doesn’t just look cool.
Chris: New designers need to start out by listening carefully. When I was first starting off as a designer, I wanted to get in and start designing right away, and it was all my own aesthetic and my own gut telling me how to design.
But for a newbie designer to be successful now, especially as companies are differentiating on the UX, it takes a good ear and knowing how to ask questions that open up conversation.“Great UX begins with listening.”
Photos by Alec Tremaine.