Based in Charlottesville, Virginia, WillowTree creates mobile and television-integrated apps for brands like Wyndham, Zappos, and Time Warner. We recently sat down with Blake Sirach, WillowTree’s Chief Experience Officer, to find out more about how his team works.
How is your team set up?
The user experience practice at WillowTree consists of around 20 people, with each person specializing within strategy, design, or analytics.
Our strategy team helps clients develop a product from a seedling of an idea, or from a set of business challenges they may be facing. We have a wide swath of tools in our utility belt to drive business, market, and (most importantly) user-centered research to inform the ideation process. Our strategists stay involved through the design process to validate designs with usability tests.
Designers are set up to design all interactions: IA, visual design, motion design, and prototyping for our products. The team is comprised of designers to focus on the interactive and visual experience, and content strategists to drive content decisions and copywriting efforts. Designers are cross-platform, meaning we don’t sub-specialize to iOS, Android, web, or TV.
Our analytics team determines how to measure and optimize (e.g. A/B testing) an experience through launch to ensure our UX team is getting the data they need to evolve the product over time. The team is made up of analytics architects.
“Push for the feedback you need.”
How does your team communicate with each other? And how do you communicate with people on different teams?
We value face-to-face collaboration over all other forms, but we have Slack, issue trackers, Google Hangouts, and email to help fill in the cracks and ensure we can always get in touch with our remote clients. The magic of a gelled product team working together to solve problems in the same physical space is unparalleled.
As an agency, we’ve optimized our physical space for in-person collaboration. For example, if you’re on the Regal Cinemas project, you’ll be located near the Regal project space, which belongs to that team for the duration of the project. Designers are within steps of the engineers and project manager without the downsides of a wide-open office. The arrangement also ensures designers and strategists on different projects can work in the same space so they get expert design feedback from one another on the regular.
We don’t do any cross-site projects between our Charlottesville, VA and Durham, NC offices—keeping our teams together is just better for enabling creativity and collaboration.
Does your team trust each other? How have you built that up?
Trust holds our company together and guarantees we can make awesome products for our clients. We don’t have a layer of creative directors on the team like many agencies—the lead designer on each project is responsible for the creative outcome of that project. She is also responsible for ensuring the designs are getting the right kinds of feedback throughout the process—from other leads, strategists, exec team, users, etc. That level of ownership gives everyone on the team a ton of responsibility, which creates a network of trust among our rather flat organization.
Your team designs for TV. Can you talk a bit about that?
We like to think about design for interactive TV through 3 lenses: context, input, and ergonomics.
For users, most mobile and web apps require an elevated attention span, termed as a lean-forward experience. Some of the best interactive TV products embody a lean-back experience, or one that allows users to sink back into their couch and escape without requiring numerous interactions before accomplishing something, like play-back video, make a purchase, etc.
“Be an advocate, not a hero.”
Input for TV comes in many different forms. For example, with tvOS apps, users can either leverage the physical remote that comes with the device, or the Remote app for iOS on their iPhone. Either way, the input type is gesture-driven, and designers must consider anticipatory UI, such as a subtle animation, to help users quickly identify where a swipe is going to take them. For example, the tilt effect on an element in tvOS.
Designing for TV requires special attention to the much larger screen size, but that doesn’t mean a designer should just scale an app or web design to a 65-inch display. Average viewing distance (3.5-9 feet depending on size of TV) is critical to understand for designing the layout and typography of TV experiences to ensure optimal usability and legibility.
How do you hand off designs to the engineering team?
Because we co-locate all our design and engineering teams, the handoff process is much less black and white here than it is at other agencies. Our engineers are regularly involved in the design process to discuss and plan implementation tactics for animations, transitions, or layouts. WillowTree engineers make the cut because they care just as much as the UX team about making great UI for people.
How do you use InVision as part of your design process?
InVision is one of the core tools in our UX toolkit. Designers use InVision for design collaboration with clients’ design teams or collating feedback from multiple client stakeholders. Our designers also use InVision to rapidly prototype designs for client presentations or usability testing.
Strategists use InVision to test concept designs (using the Kano model for surveys or via user interviews) across personas to help determine which ideas are going to resonate the most with users.
“Learn to kill your darlings—don’t become married to your designs.”
Where do you see mobile design headed?
In the wake of the bot craze, there’s been a lot of talk of the “death of apps.” While we don’t agree with that provocative claim in the literal sense, there’s truth in it that mobile design as we know it has really been service design for some time. People have elevated expectations about where and how they can access products and content, and that affects how we think about our product designs.
We’re constantly asking ourselves questions like:
- “How would this purchase flow work in a conversational user interface (CUI)?”
- “Does this product make sense for interactive TV? How would the mobile experience interact with the TV experience?”
- “How does deep linking and app indexing via search affect this ecommerce app’s catalog?”
Mobile design isn’t just about making a beautiful app like it was in 2010—it’s about exposing access where it makes sense and making every interaction with the brand beautiful.
“Mobile design is about exposing access where it makes sense.”
What do you think is the most powerful part of your design process?
The most powerful part of our design process is that we make sure our designers have the information they need to make the right product decisions. Designers at WillowTree aren’t just pushing pixels, we’re actively shaping mobile products every day. Uncovering usability errors, learning about a particular persona’s feelings and frustrations, and determining how often the onboarding tutorial is skipped (hint: all the time) enables our designers to match those insights up with their design goals to make the best decisions for the product.
We believe in the build, measure, learn philosophy so strongly we designed our UX practice around it. Strategists turn a question into a proposition, designers define the product, and analytics architects ensure we’re going to have data where and when we need it to evolve the product. It’s the best way to make stuff that people love.
Do you have any advice for designers?
Learn to kill your darlings—don’t become married to your designs. Know when to let go when it’s the right move for the product.
Be an advocate, not a hero. Stand up for your designs and ideas, but do it for the right reasons—not to satisfy an ego.
Practice your design walkthroughs. Record yourself. Learn to tell the story—don’t give a real estate tour. Communicating your designs to stakeholders and your team can sometimes be just as important as the design itself—even if that doesn’t seem fair.
Push for the feedback you need. One of the most common mistakes I see young designers make is to just listen to feedback. Listening is obviously an important part of a feedback cycle, but actively pushing for feedback on certain elements or patterns is just as important.
Practice empathy. Stay close to the folks who will be using your product through usability tests, user interviews, and field ethnographies.