Design Chats

Inside Design: General Assembly

4 min read
Kristin Hillery
  •  Oct 14, 2016
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Just 5 years ago, General Assembly was a co-working space in New York City. Today they offer both online and in-person programs to help students prepare for a career in design, development, marketing, and more. By the end of 2016, they’ll have 25 campuses around the world and over 25,000 graduates. We’re proud to say they’re a part of the InVision community.

We sat down with Bryan Berger, General Assembly’s Product Design Lead, to get his thoughts on consistency, communication, and what makes a design team effective.

Bryan Berger, Product Design Lead at General Assembly.

How is the design team at General Assembly set up?

Our creative team is comprised of copy, brand, acquisition, and product design roles. I lead product design alongside a team of 5 well-rounded, multidisciplinary designers who come from an array of different design backgrounds.

An effective design team is adaptable, flexible, and aligned to a common vision.Twitter Logo We have that here, and it allows us to navigate through tough design challenges while crafting, testing, and shipping value to our customers.

How does your team communicate with each other?

Our team sits together in a part of our office where the usage of whiteboard space to collaborate is plentiful and encouraged. There’s no shortage of digital tools in use at GA that we use to track work, log decisions, and chat, but most often it’s whiteboarding that really helps us get our ideas out and make them real.

“An effective design team is adaptable, flexible, and aligned to a common vision.”

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We have a bi-weekly creative team gathering where we spend an hour with the brand, copy, and product design teams to connect as individuals and colleagues. We’ve structured this time to be lead and curated by one of the creative leads, and we share an agenda before the meeting.

A typical gathering includes one or many of the following: company updates, an activity, a presentation, a creative exercise, and new hire introductions. The best part is that there’s usually some boxed rosé floating around (my favorite) and a box of DOUGH donuts, which nobody can consciously deny.

How do you hand off designs to the engineering team?

We don’t really like the term “hand off” here, because it tends to imply that designers do a bunch of work in isolation from the engineering team. Although we do diverge, we like to involve our engineers early in the project to help define scope and set clear expectations and direction of a project. We often send designs of varying fidelity to our engineering team for their input.

We encourage engineers to pair frequently with designers—it builds trust and familiarity on both sides of the team. To achieve consistency, designers and developers need to speak the same language.Twitter Logo

“Our designs and the conversation around them evolve in InVision throughout our process.”

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What is the design culture like there?

Our design culture is deeply rooted in continual improvement. It’s the basis of General Assembly’s mission, that with dedication anyone can improve and evolve.Twitter Logo The team and I are always questioning our process and design choices with an eye towards improving our own workflow.

We recently kicked off a series of design challenges in which the team randomly picks a product problem, then leads a whiteboard workshop to seek solutions. The challenges spark collaboration throughout the whole team, while building individual confidence.

Another important part of our culture is sharing. We’re always sharing links, resources, articles, screen captures, and works in progress in our Slack channel.

“To achieve consistency, designers and developers need to speak the same language.”

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Design should be familiar and inclusive across a company.Twitter Logo With that in mind, I recently set up a TV in our office that displays sketches, wireframes, and UI explorations to promote design conversation across the greater product team.

How has your role as a designer changed since you’ve been at General Assembly?

When I first started a year ago, the team was set up very differently. Leadership was fragmented and things needed to change. It became obvious that a siloed design team was a team unable to meet their true potential. Recognizing when something isn’t working and getting back to basics is often a good first step towards improvement.

I worked with our creative director at the time to start breaking down product barriers. I began to centralize a lot of knowledge that was floating around into a central repository—this gave the team a collective source of information to contribute and pull from. I started laying the groundwork to build a solid team and hired 3 new product designers.

“With dedication, anyone can improve and evolve.”

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A growing team with new additions always reveals cracks in the processTwitter Logo, and it’s required us to adapt. We’re now at a much better place, and my journey thus far has ultimately shown me what our team is capable of.

My vision for the team is to continue improving while making sure we’re putting people at the center of our business and design choices.

What’s the most powerful part of your design process?

Each of our product designers owns the entire design stack. They carry out their own research and exploration and take specs through to visual design. This is powerful because it allows our designers to naturally become collaborators across a number of different specialized job roles. The level of exposure a designer gets into how our products are created, refined, shipped, sold, and used by our customers is paramount to being effective by having the full picture to work with.

“We use InVision to deliberate any complexity early in the project lifecycle.”

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What are the most important values you try to see reflected in your designs?

Consistency. Right now, we’re undergoing an extensive audit and overhaul of our design pattern library. Our aim is to design for experiences that work together, are cohesive, and work for the people we serve. We’re building a logical and well-documented design language that promotes reusability that’ll allow our team to focus on the concepts, experiences, and user flows that matter the most.

Awareness. The product is the experienceTwitter Logo—and it’s imperative to our team’s success that we understand that. Every touchpoint, digital or physical, is an extension of our service ecosystem and the experience that our customers have with us. By being aware, we ideally allow ourselves to be guided towards providing business and customer value in every design choice.

Are there things you’ve changed or added to the website that have made a huge difference in enrollment?

Over the last 6 months, we’ve really ramped up our A/B testing culture—we’ve seen engagement and purchase decision tests yield successful results. Our marketing and copy teams have also been instrumental in identifying opportunities to test our narrative and approach to storytelling.

How do you use InVision as part of your design process?

We primarily use InVision as an ideation and review platform.Twitter Logo We use Boards to share styles, competitive analysis, brand explorations, and early project concepts.

We use InVision prototypes to share designs internally and externally to stakeholders outside of our product teams.

InVision also plays a big part in how we communicate with our remote engineering teams by allowing us to quickly iterate and resolve any hiccups. We use InVision to share ideas and deliberate any complexity early in the project lifecycle. Our designs and the conversation around them evolve in InVision throughout our process.

We’ve also recently began exploring the new Inspect beta feature for standardizing our specs and asset delivery, which is very exciting.

“InVision allows us to quickly iterate with engineers and resolve any hiccups.”

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What are some of the most important lessons you’ve learned throughout your career?

Share early and often. Especially when you’re starting out and less confident in your skills and approach. It’s easy to get lost perfecting designs, however others are going to teach you far more than you can achieve on your own. Also, as you start doing this, you’ll get quicker at getting to a presentation state.

Never stop challenging yourself and learning new things. It’s really easy to find something that you’re good at and never do anything else, but being uncomfortable is the one of the most effective ways to really grow as a designer and an individual.

“Design should be familiar and inclusive across a company.”

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How do you know when you’ve created a good experience?

Our educational products have a similar challenge. If designs can be distilled into clear goals, it becomes much easier to measure against success. Just as a course might be aimed at learning JavaScript, we try to create as much focus in the designs of our digital products.

One sign that we’ve accomplished this is when users give feedback on minor details—it’s a great sign that the overall goal was achieved.

Read more from the Inside Design series

Photography by Nina Robinson.

Collaborate in real time on a digital whiteboard