What is the value of planning? In design, we understand some form of planning ahead is important, but the return on investment remains foggy.
At Okta, the design team has recently added clarity with the launch of a UX sprint planning process. While requiring some additional upfront legwork, we’ve seen this new framework create one crucial by-product that anyone can appreciate: focus.
Everyone has experienced brief moments of focus. Yet that slippery sucker comes and goes quickly, ever elusive with the infinite distractions of our modern world. For designers at Okta, focus feels especially challenging because the team supports hundreds of engineers, several different product areas, and a large global organization. As a result, we’re responsible for several different teams at the same time, with each team run by a different product manager.
It’s exciting for each designer to be integral to many different parts of the business at the same time, but without proper support and structure it comes at a major cost.
“Sprints help teams and stakeholders clarify priorities.”
Setting the stage
All companies and roles are different, unique in product and organizational structure. Some design teams pair a single product designer to a single area of the product, while others like us support several areas of the product at the same time. Our engineering team runs an Agile development process that has worked extremely well over the years. However, this process doesn’t perfectly translate to our UX team needs, as we have a unique set of processes and challenges.
Okta’s UX Architect Shawn Gupta summarized it beautifully: “Working across multiple teams is like having multiple teachers giving out homework assignments, only the teachers don’t have much insight into the other homework assignments given and often all the assignments have the same due date.”
Feeling this firsthand, I made it my mission to help the team—and we’ve recently landed on a solution we call UX sprint planning. This new team-wide process solves the challenge of compiling all tasks for multiple product areas, resulting in one prioritized work list. The goal is for each designer to regain focus on the design problem at hand, rather than on the overhead of juggling all the projects at the same time.
UX sprint planning
At a glance, a UX sprint plan is a flexible framework designed to choreograph all design work over a 2-week period across all areas of our product. Every other week, the design team meets for an hour-long UX sprint planning meeting to lay out, estimate, and track progress on all projects for the next 2 weeks.
Instead of focusing on moving faster, we want the team to move smarter and regain focus. Here’s how it works:
Before the meeting
Designers connect with assigned product manager(s) to discuss upcoming needs for the 2-week sprint duration, mapped directly to the product roadmap. This is critical because we want to fit right into the existing workflow for product teams. PMs and designers work together to not only flesh out the request but prioritize tasks.
Finally, the designer creates one ticket per request in JIRA (Okta’s tracking tool of choice) and places them into the backlog. Each ticket contains the following:
- Title: name of task, clear and easy to understand
- Summary: description of item, providing context around the problem
- Team/Epic: label which product team this is for
- PM: name of the product manager collaborator
- Story Points: estimate of how long (in days) it will take you to complete. Time ranges from .25 of a day (shortest) to 3 (longest), and anything larger is cut into smaller projects
- Wiki link: link to any specs or other documentation
During the meeting
As a full design team, we meet bi-weekly to review all tickets for the given sprint. During the meeting, everyone explains and moves their tickets into priority order, giving the full team a clear idea about what they’re working on, how busy they are, and even a heads up if/when there’s a dependency.
By the end, we have a clear, concise, and prioritized 2-week plan for everyone on the team.
After the meeting
Each team member sends an email to his or her PM(s) with all items listed in prioritized order and a link to the full UX sprint plan. This is a critical step that ensures cross-team transparency, adds clarity, and ensures alignment.
Occasionally, new projects or last-minute requests come in mid-sprint. To accommodate, design and product work together to re-prioritize the sprint plan, making clear which item(s) get pushed to the following sprint.
It’s important to remember that every designer has a finite amount of time to work each sprint, and the UX sprint plan serves as a common frame of reference for everyone to work from. Clarity and alignment across the board, for every bit of work.
Implementation, outcomes, and reception
While we were confident this new process would help, we wanted to be sure it would deliver immediate value to everyone and not be too disruptive. To validate this hypothesis, we launched a mini user test with a couple designers trying it out for a few weeks. After making some minor tweaks after the test, we decided to roll it out across the entire team.
As of today the Okta design team has completed 3 UX sprint plans, and we’re seeing some immediate positive results.
Key takeaways include:
- Make sure all areas of the product are covered
- Make sure that we are not biting off more than we can chew
- Load balancing to ensure no designer has too much or too little to focus on
“After sprint planning, I immediately feel more in control of my workload and properly balanced.” –Jared Forney, Product Designer and UX Researcher
- Clear order of work
- Items at the bottom of the list are flagged “at risk” ahead of time
Because I have to be realistic about what I can accomplish in a given time period, sprints help me and other stakeholders clarify our priorities.” –Taylor Laubach, Senior UX Designer
- We work together with PMs to create a plan that fits into their timeline, strengthening our relationships and avoiding miscommunication
“Product managers appreciate getting updates on my capacity for a sprint, instead of having to guess my workload on any given week.” –Alex Dahl, Senior UX Designer
- As a manager, a referenceable snapshot of direct reports’ current priorities helps better support and unblock them
- Design team knows what everyone else is working on
- Improves accuracy at estimating time per task, allowing product to plan and hit realistic deadlines
“It’s critical that I have lead time so that we can deliver quality research and stay at a consistent, high volume. Planning gives me the heads up I need.” –Morgan Eisler, Lead UX Researcher
- Snapshot of design time per area of product
- Visibility into designer estimation accuracy and throughput
- The sprint plan sets a target, and the more we estimate in planning the better we will get, the more accurate the estimates, the better the product roadmap timelines, etc.
Product development is extremely challenging. It involves a ton of moving parts that constantly shift as the team prioritizes and re-prioritizes. The single perfect planning process does not exist and there is no magic cure-all solution. All teams are different, and the best fit may actually be a combination of tools/methods/processes.
With UX sprint planning, we’ve incorporated something that works really well for our team and company right now. It may not work forever, but if we remain diligent to constantly iterate and refine the process, I’m confident it will continue to help the team focus and do great design work.
I’m extremely lucky to work at a place like Okta that has supportive leadership and an open-minded culture, where teams are empowered to organize themselves in the way that works best for them.
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John is a Senior Design Manager at Okta. Previously he managed the design team at LendingHome where they are reinventing the online mortgage experience. He’s also a big time Bay Area sports fan, casual artist, and dad of 2 living in Marin County.