Opening Keynote: Process and Ambiguity
Director of User Experience, Shopify
From the DesignOps Summit website:
Operations teams obsess about making the complex simple. We love smart defaults, systems, and process and are always looking for ways to help teams work better. As we focus on common operational deliverables, it’s easy to underinvest in the messy human challenges that are impossible to avoid as we scale user experience practices and teams. How might we be consistent and rigorous, while still leaving room for flexibility and divergent thinking? How might we be impact focused, while also accepting that not everything of value can be measured? How might we embrace process and ambiguity? This talk will explore the daunting task of showing up as efficient operational machines while also leaning into the creative, unpredictable, and human realities of our roles, and why it’s important for us to be able to do both.
Amy is conflicted about the subject of this talk. She is here to convince us where our work is actually challenging our teams, causing them to be less engaged and less impacful in their work.
Process unravels ambiguity. She would choose process over ambituity every single time, and she wears that like a badge of honor.
Amy led launch of Polaris (Shopify’s design system), and since then she has been buildng the platform, which enables clients to build their own solutions. Late last year she was asked to create a new team around User Experience Operations, and she thought it would be a piece of cake. The team is over 350 designers, developers, content strategists, and UX developers, distributed across Ottowa, Toronto, Waterloo, Montreal, and other smaller offices in NYC, Berlin, and elsewhere.
She had a lot of productive discontent about how to best support a team at scale. She has really had to rethink things – bus she still loves certainty, but now she sees opportunity in ambigious, undefined areas in a way that she didn’t before.
There is a giant floating garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean between California and Hawaii. It is 79K tons of plastic, much more than was originally thought before it was measured. It accumulates, festers, and kills the fish and plants. It doesn’t belong to any country, so no-one is responsible for it; the oceans belong to everyone and no-one.
In 1968, Garrett Hardin coined the term Tragedy of the Commons. In short, he believed that humans will act out of self-interest. His solution was ownership and regulation – if someone is in charge of the commons, rules and systems will help protect things.
Process is often a dirty word in tech. They had to talk about rocess to do content governance without using the ‘p-word’. They use the term ‘smart defaults’ instead of processes. 🙂 That resistance makes it hard to create systems for how teams should work with them and measure the impact of our work. We all have the experience of being pulled in at the last minute to content edit a mock – it’s not a fun place to be.
It gets even more challenging as the company grows, because even the more tactical things don’t just work at scale. Those things are the connective tissue within the team, and they may be part of the Commons. We have to find an owner for these unowned things – process and ownership will make things better. At least that’s what she thought a year ago.
So, with the the Operations team, she started mapping out those Commons at Shopify. Most companies don’t invest until the team is already big enough and cracks are starting to show, and Shopify was no exception.
As an outcome of that discovery, she decided they were going to do everything. Here is what they were going to tackle:
Many of these were happening sporadically across the UX team. At Shopify they are a UX Operations team, not just a Design Operations team. There are four disciplines they believe are critical – Design, Research, Content Strategy, and UX Development. She wanted to be inclusive and support all of these disciplines.
At the outset, she believed that her new team would have to own all these areas. She was going to clean up the commons, but she started to see that really good things happen in these common and ambigous spaces, and by trying to take over she wasn’t taking advantage of all the smart people in the UX team.
Amy began to see that Garrett Hardin’s theories weren’t flexible enough, nor did they account for the wonderful messiness of human beings. Elinor Ostrom won the Nobel Prize for Economics – the only female to have won before this year. Ostrom studied the Commons, and came to the conclusion that communities may do better in looking after their Commons. She also showed how Hardin’s theories had been used to take lands from indigeous people. In one small example, after the harvest, farmers invite sheep herders to have their flock clear the field. The sheep help prepare the land for a new season, and their waste helps fertizlize for the enxt year.
With Orstrom’s work in mind, Amy began to be more thoughtful about which areas required UX Operations to lean in with support and resources, and where their help wasn’t really needed. She also focused on letting go of processes where risk was low.
Here is a simplified version of Ostrom’s Institutional Analysis and Development (AID) framework:
On the far left are questions about external context – like what is happening in the broader environment, the compositon of the group. The middle section is about what people are doing together. Finally, the far righ looks at situation and context.
It helps to look outside of our practices for inspiration, Amy created a simplified version of IAD, so she can look more objectively at where UX Operations shoudl engage, and also how to get others to contribute.
Here is her modified version of the framework:
A closer look at Culture
We want people to feel connected, supported, and valued. The team wanted to focus on culture. Some work was already underway at Shopify, so they had to step back and see where they were needed. How are cultures being created across these spaces and gaps? Consistent anchor points kept people feeling connected – like Slack channels about values. There were also other artifacts like a UX Handbook. There were also team lunches and knowledge sharing. So, in looking at Action, it was highly distributed, and therefore resilient.
She added feelings / sentiment to the framework. The individual cotributors felt empowered to act, and they seemed excited and motivated to organize events. But there were places that they were feeling stuck – like identifying interesting things to share across the company, how to fund team events, and more. There was some risk that inconsistency would give the impression that some groups were more committed to culture than others.
Through their discovery, they felt comfortable that the most important parts of this work were already in place. So, organic activities were supplemented by centrally coordinated activities – quarterly Town Halls, and an annual Summit of workshops and talks. As you can see from the framework below, most areas are in green, with just a few in yellow:
Shopify’s content team gets together every two weeks to talk about wins, lessons learned. Sometimes they invite teams from other companies – like Dropbox, Netflix, Hubspot, and more. The program is mostly run by individual contributors, and they like it, including building a relationships in content strategy at other companies.
They are spending a smaller amount of time for people to create these small mments of connection. The things they’ve contributed include creations of a playbook, knowledge sharing across groups, and a small budget.
A closer look at Tools
In contrast, there were some challenges with the tools landscape. We’re talking about the same large distributed team, but one notable difference is that there were no guidelines to make good deicions – and expectations were unclear. People were making siloed choices and worrying they were doing the wrong thing.
The tools were making it more difficult to collaborate. The state at the time also als hard to analyze – approaches were distinct, decentralized, and it was hard to know cost. So it was difficult to measure the impact of different changes they might make. They only had shared understanding about shared tools with a site license. People had the tools but it seemed harder, riskier, and more costly than was necessary. One individual on their team has been working with IT Security, and helped them get from 2-3 different tools to a single one, and sunsetting the legacy tools.
When they migrated to a single tool, they focused on operational tactics. But it didn’t consider people’s feelings and how they were impacted by the change. There is never really a good time to stop using new tool and start using another. IT can be painful for very real reasons – they may be worried about their status on their team. So, Operations may make a team more efficient, but fail to build trust.
Here is the state of the tools landscape at the outset:
Looking at the emotional experience of the actors, they have learned three big things:
- Stay close to your frontline – they exist to support the broader UX team, but that can’t be done if we’re not close to their realities.
- Value qualitative success metrics – in addition to the quantitative ones. They collected things like sentiment – the metrics are messier, but it’s important to remember that we are building for people and not machines.
- Share operating principles – helps people understand the rationale, and let people contribute to making trade-offs with you.
For example, with tools:
- Make trade-offs – not every tool will solve 100% of their problems
- Prioritze active collaboration – we want people to be able to make things together. So we may choose a less advanced feature set over easy learning curve.
- Embrace constant learning – these tool decisions are not forever. We are commiteted to providing education and support. That only works if they remain open minded about continuuing t learn new tools.
Ambigous problems are hard, which means we can’t do as much. But making those human problems the focus gives us better outcomes in the long run.
Look beyond operations for inspiration. Evaluate frameworks, resources, approaches to tackle the evolving landscape you’re working in.
Make space for champions. By prioritizing, you are going to have to say no to some compelling things. By being explicit, you make room for others to step up.
Create human-centered operational plans. Note everything that matters can be measured with numbers. Develop processes that are resilient, and reflect what people feel, not just what they say they need.
She genuinely struggles with the desire to create process and order, but that is the thing she most has had to re-think, especially how to make room for more promising, nuanced ideas. Tackling these challenging topics – especially when they are ambigous – can make us better manager, and a better person.