Design Chats

Priceline’s Laura Hahn on trust, design fidelity, and matchmaking

4 min read
Kristin Hillery
  •  Jul 23, 2018
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Priceline recently celebrated its 20th anniversary, and their Head of Design, Laura Hahn, is psyched. She’s working to build the right things in the right way, with an emphasis on communication. She believes in the power of trust and respect, and sings the praises of matchmaking—but maybe not in the way you’d expect.

What’s a typical day at Priceline like for you?

I reserve the early part of the week for more independent work: synthesizing ideas, drafting large documents, polishing presentations, and the like.

The middle of the week tends to be a marathon of meetings with different teams, often presenting or discussing the work I’ve done early on.

On Fridays, I meet one-on-one with each member of my team. I find those individual meetings useful for sourcing new ideas, problems, and initiatives. Then I take the weekend, when I have a bit more distance and perspective, to ruminate on possible solutions.

“Healthy team cultures center around respect, communication, and trust.”

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How is your design team set up?

Half of our designers are dedicated to our core products (Hotels, Flights, Rental Cars, Packages), and the other half serve across those verticals. The product-specific designers are tasked with developing a deep knowledge of their space, honing requirements, facilitating working sessions, shipping new features, and ensuring high-quality experiences. The centralized designers weave through all the products, focusing on specialized functions including customer research, branding, content strategy, and the design system.

The team gathers to define cross-platform patterns and create global standards. One interesting project they’re pursuing is an overhaul of our messaging throughout the customer journey. They’ve audited all our paths to pull out examples of how we’re speaking directly to customers, and what we’re saying.

Now they’re working to establish coherent styles and structures across banners, toasts, badges, and other messaging components.

Next, they’ll work to ensure that our diction and voice are consistent throughout the conversation we’re having with customers—in ad placements, loading states, emails, etc.

“We use InVision to share everything from user flows to high-fidelity mocks.”

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How do you think you create a great team culture?

It’s probably cliche, but I think healthy team cultures center around respect, communication, and trust.Twitter Logo Those three elements build on each other, and form a reinforcing loop.

Information is currency at many organizations, so I’ve found that the best way to show my team (and my counterparts) respect is to communicate frequently and openly, and share knowledge from other parts of the organization they might not be privy to.

I solicit feedback on burgeoning goals, new data, and works-in-progress very early—at that stage, everything feels more like a conversation than a concrete direction. Sketching half-baked ideas on a whiteboard is an invitation for my team to interpret the concept, ask questions, challenge assumptions, and provide their own perspective and vision. My team not only feels heard, but they can actually see their input recorded right there on the board.

I think that sort of interaction builds trust because I’m taking ideas seriously, valuing other people’s contributions, and communicating that we’re in this together.

I also started bringing in guest speakers from outside the organization to share different ideas and perspectives. I begged a few friends and former colleagues to join our weekly meeting for an hour and give a presentation, teach a new method, or talk about lessons learned. That has morphed into an all-office happy hour where internal folks can give lightning talks followed by an external keynote speaker.

It’s been wonderful seeing the team give voice to their experiences in front of a larger audience, and the feedback from the audience has been great! I think it helps validate their expertise and elevates the design practice in the broader organization.

“I’ve found that the best way to show my team respect is to communicate frequently and openly.”

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Building a team is a design project. How can leaders better design their teams?

I try to meet with every single person one-on-one each week to provide and solicit continuous feedback. I want them to always be aware of what they’re doing well and what they can improve.

Related: How to design a design team

And I want to remain apprised of support gaps, dropped communications, and my own blind spots.

Let’s talk about design systems. Why are they important? What does Priceline’s look like?

Design systems, or design languages, are a great way to offload a lot of low-level decision making and encourage scalable design. They relieve cognitive burden around basic styles and universal patterns so that designers can solve more complex problems.

Design systems can also reinforce best practices, reminding designers (and developers) to focus on reusability, maintainability, accessibility, and responsiveness. Priceline One is still in its infancy, but includes base styles and components.

“Design systems are a great way to offload a lot of low-level decision making and encourage scalable design.”

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“We’ve integrated our design system with InVision DSM for quick reference,” explains Laura.

We’re working to create more robust usage documentation around higher-order compositions, and to describe the relationship between content, presentation, and user interaction across a number of contexts.

How can we all give better feedback?

Generally, focusing on the why (design process) rather than the what (design execution) leads to fewer bruised egos, more productive discussions, and better results.

I try to slowly wade into giving feedback, starting with open-ended questions about project goals and constraints, then probing more into thought process. If a designer doesn’t have a good sense for the business objectives and technical limitations, it’s not worth evaluating the deliverable itself. There’s no way to judge what’s “good” or not, so the exploration and feedback should be around the requirement-gathering process.

“When giving feedback, focus on the ‘why’ rather than the ‘what.'”

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If a designer does have a handle on the requirements, but the execution is off, then feedback should center on the decisions they made and the existing patterns they pulled from.

I rely heavily on usability heuristics to guide those conversations. Is there a good affordance for that interaction? How will a user know that process is pending? How will a user get back to the previous view? That line of questioning tends to quickly reveal oversights around content hierarchy, state handling, page transitions, etc.

How does your team use InVision?

We use InVision to share everything from user flows to high-fidelity mocks.

The team creates a lot of prototypes for sprint work. But on more complex projects, that format doesn’t capture all the different ways a user might encounter this experience: navigating from an unrelated referral site, triggering validation errors, experiencing a sudden content change, etc. In those cases, it’s helpful to use Freehand to present architectural schematics, and keep smaller flows in the context of the larger system.

The team has also uses Freehand to gather examples of feature implementations from across the application; to record sketches and early deliverables for a project; to asynchronously vote on the best stock imagery for a page; and to collaboratively generate a bunch of disparate use cases for a single component.

We’ve also integrated our design system with DSM for quick reference.

“Our design team uses Freehand to record sketches and early deliverables for projects.”

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Where do you see design headed, and how can designers prepare for that?

Experience design is evolving rapidly, but I generally see it following three paths:

Building the right thing. The first path leads towards product management, focusing on the end customer and their relationship to the business across myriad touchpoints. I see that role requiring a great user research and design thinking toolkit, but also an understanding of data analytics, behavioral economics, and market dynamics. These are the designers who will be prepared for AR, VR, voice, gesture, and all sorts of new types of interfaces.

Building the thing right. The second path leads towards engineering, optimizing product development from concept to launch. I see this role necessitating solid visual and brand design skills, but also expertise in application architecture, front-end frameworks, and abstraction layers. These are the folks who will be primed to build the design systems, APIs, SDKs, and other tools for future development practices.

Building the right organization. The third path leads towards operations and human resources, emphasizing skill-building and cross-functional coordination. I see this role leveraging service design and facilitation, as well as training curricula, incentivization schemes, and organizational dynamics. These are the designers who will manage and grow the next generation of product teams.

All of these map to existing roles in many companies, and I think that’s the point. Preserving design as a standalone capability isn’t nearly as effective as infusing an entire organization with user-centric design approaches—and helping to recognize who all the different “users” are.

What’s your best advice for young designers?

Take a job in the service industry. Working as a waiter, bartender, or barista is a great design education. You learn about teamwork, efficiency, sales tactics, process optimization, client relations, and the real costs of doing business. It’s a great way to immerse yourself in the study of people (both customers and colleagues) and their behaviors, and often begets humility (and a thick skin).

The fidelity of your design deliverable should always match the fidelity of the concept you’re trying to convey. Don’t present a pixel-perfect mock when a sketch would do just as well—people will focus on the wrong things.

Identify and engage with all of your stakeholders. The important person you forget to consult is the one who will scuttle your efforts at the last minute.

“Think of your interactions with your colleagues as crediting and debiting an account.”

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Become an expert matchmaker. Keep an eye out for communication gaps, overlapping projects, or shared interests and connect the relevant people. Even if you can’t help someone reach their goals personally, putting them in touch with someone who can lend support will build your relationship and reputation. This is true both within your organization and your professional network.

Think of your interactions with your colleagues as crediting and debiting an account. Every deadline met, question answered, help offered, and problem solved builds credit, but every deliverable delayed, response neglected, task declined, and issue unresolved debits your account (with compound interest).

Keep your portfolio up-to-date, and always have the conversation. You never know when the next big opportunity will come along, so be prepared. I know the general advice is that you shouldn’t say yes to coffee and “brain-picking” and all that, but I don’t think it’s ever a mistake to have a conversation. Whether it results in a job opportunity or the seed of a new idea, investing time face-to-face with people always pays dividends.

Stay curious: Design isn’t everything. Don’t get stuck in the design echochamber. Read articles from unrelated fields, listen to dissenting viewpoints, explore foreign cultures (even if they’re in your own town), and engage with a diverse group of people.

Photography by Kholood Eid.

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