Jun 10, 2013

New MailChimp: Collaboration by Design

Design is a byproduct of many things: training, experience, objectives, audience, and more. It’s also influenced by where we work and those we encounter. We’re susceptible to influence—it’s how we continue to grow, how our rough experiments gain shape, and how our talents mature.

As 2012 drew to a close, we started to build a new design studio for MailChimp’s user experience, marketing, and DesignLab teams. Each group has a well defined domain: UX works on apps; marketing works on MailChimp.com; and DesignLab is the avant-garde, exploring new ways to push the boundaries of design. Though each team has a unique mandate and team leader, the lines between us have always been fuzzy. Our skills are complementary, and we’ve found we do our best work when we’re working together, saying “we” instead of “me.”

These are truths we’ve always known, but it wasn’t until we created a unified design studio that we realized just how dependent we are on one another. It turns out, redesigning our studio directly influenced our work on New MailChimp. A collaborative space helped us create more collaborative tools for our customers.

Creating collaborative spaces

Last summer I visited the Stanford d.school to give a guest lecture in Enrique Allen’s d.media class. Students were busy working on prototypes, gathering feedback, and iterating in the spirit of a startup.

During my lecture, chairs and couches scattered around the room supported an attentive audience. Afterwards, the furniture was rolled to the perimeter of the room, and small tables were rolled in for collaborative conversations about student work. I was struck by how the dynamic of the room and behavior of its occupants changed quickly and effortlessly.

As the class wrapped up, Scott Doorley, co-instructor of the course, gave me a copy of his book Make Space, which shares the methods for creating collaborative spaces. It turns out the flexibility of the classroom was no accident. Scott told me they’d been experimenting with ideas to both improve the learning experience in their program and teach students how to think more creatively through the design of spaces. He took me on a tour of the school, showing me spaces for ideation, productivity, and quiet reflection.

The experience changed the way I think about workspaces. The artifacts of creative thinking were plastered all over the walls and scattered throughout rooms. It was clear that ideation and collaboration were engrained in student work, not only through the design of the curriculum, but also because of the design of work spaces. The timing of my visit couldn’t have been better, because back home in Atlanta, our creative director Ron and marketing director Mark were hatching plans for a new, more unified design studio—just in time for us to get to work on New MailChimp.

Designing the MailChimp studio

Ron was already doing some research of his own, visiting startups and design spaces in the Southeast to collect ideas that might influence our studio plans. After much debate, we arrived at a core set of principles that shaped the design of our studio, and in turn how we collaborate.

1. Commingle and cross-pollinate 

Because collaboration was our central motivation for creating the new studio, we carefully considered the seating chart. Between our teams we have design researchers, writers, graphic designers, photographers, illustrators, developers, and interaction designers. It’s a diverse set of skills and personalities that make up this creative soup.

We put everyone in a wide-open space. Rather than segregate the teams, we mixed people up. We looked for complementary skills and personalities then positioned accordingly. We put analytics people next to design researchers, UX front-end devs next to Marketing devs, and designers next to writers. Commingling cross-disciplinary people encourages us all to look at projects from different perspectives. Regardless of what we each do day in and day out, it’s all connected and it’s all equally important. This turned out to be invaluable during our redesign process. It started conversations that wouldn’t have happened with our old studio layout, which led to design and copy improvements throughout the new app.

2. Facilitate movement

Sitting still for hours on end not only atrophies muscles, it softens minds. We left desks open throughout the studio to let people move closer to the folks they need to collaborate with on their current project, or just to get a change of scenery. Open desks also provide a landing place for smart designers who pass through Atlanta and need a place to be productive. James VictoreDan BenjaminBrad Frost, and many more have dropped by our studio and claimed a spot for a few hours. We love the energy and ideas guests bring to the studio—it keeps us inspired.

Couches and standing tables in various parts of the studio let people work in different places rather than remaining tethered to a desk. They also make great spaces for people to work side-by-side and have design discussions.

As we work on big projects, like New MailChimp, we’ve even moved entire teams to new spaces. The UX front-end developers and UI designers have temporarily moved into a space next to the Engineering and Mobile Lab teams so they can closely coordinate and build new mobile and web apps. This arrangement made sense when small groups needed to buckle down and focus on the new design. Open spaces make this sort of dynamic, collaborative experience easy. Drop in a few desks, move your laptop and monitor, and get to work. When we launch New MailChimp, we’ll reconvene to get started on the next project.

3. Ideas everywhere

Ron visited The Iron Yard and CoWork in Greenville, South Carolina, and loved the polygal walls that both defined spaces and served as giant whiteboards. Polygal is a corrugated plastic that lets light through and works just like a whiteboard surface too. We borrowed that idea when we built our studio. When the tools are always at hand, people are more apt to draw out their ideas together for all to see. It’s a great way to encourage collaboration.

We combined the polygal idea with one we discovered at the Stanford d.school. The rolling racks you find near the dressing rooms at The Gap can easily be retrofitted to hold a sheet of polygal, creating a rolling whiteboard. We roll them in to define space for creative exploration, then move them into studio when it’s time to build out our ideas. If you visited the studio right now, you’d find giant walls and whiteboards showing workflows, assets, and design ideas for both the new app and website. Now that we’re in the final stages of the process, most meetings and impromptu conversations happen in front of those whiteboards.

4. Create convergence

To the side of the design studio we have a common space for eating lunch and chatting where we all converge throughout the day. The heart of this space is a fancy coffee bar where we craft caffeinated indulgences on a LaMarzocco Linea. Great coffee draws not only the designer crowd, but the entire company. We see engineers, accountants, support staff, and everyone in between at the espresso machine pulling shots, which provides occasion to ask what colleagues are up to.

Convergence points like this keep a company connected, as our design researcher Gregg Bernstein wrote in his recent UX Mag article. Conference rooms designed to feel like living rooms encourage lingering conversations that lead to deeper collaboration. We’ve found that expenditures on anything that encourages convergence quickly pay for themselves. We even hung our user personas on the wall in the coffee area, to encourage people across disciplines to think and talk about our customers and their needs. People from around the office are interested and invested in the new design—the project isn’t limited to the UX and design teams.

5. Create retreats

There are times when large open spaces with inspiring conversation and music can distract. We furnished a few offices near the design studio with desks and chairs to give people a quiet retreat should they need to have a private conversation or take a phone call. We intentionally kept these rooms spartan so no one takes up residence and disengages from the studio. We want to keep our teams working together in the same space, but adjust their workspace as needed to be as productive as possible.

Even fuzzier teams

It’s not hyperbole to say our new design studio has changed the way we work. Walls divide minds as much as space. When the UX, DesignLab and marketing teams were in divided spaces, we worked more independently, collaborating only sometimes. These days, the lines are so fuzzy that visitors would have a hard time differentiating between teams.

Cross-disciplinary discussion is a daily occurrence now. Writers talk to interaction designers, photographers talk to design researchers. We’re all talking to each other and making our best work because of it. Research, words, pixels, and code blend effortlessly in open, collaborative environments. We’ve always known that making the best digital products requires a deep synthesis of skills, but now we’re living it.

And best of all, designing our new space helped us understand the value of collaboration, and it shed some light on things that were missing from our app. After talking to our customers, researching the way they work, and reconsidering our own workflow, we realized that we weren’t facilitating collaboration enough inside the app. So we added collaboration tools like comments inside the editor, real-time feedback, and multi-user accounts to better meet our customers’ needs.

A version of this post originally appeared in the MailChimp UX newsletter. You can subscribe right here.