The business of design: Jurgen Spangl (Atlassian)

For the fifth of our business of design series we talked with Jurgen Spangl, Senior Design Manager at Atlassian.

In the interview Jurgen speaks of the challenges of bringing a design-centric approach to a software company, the pragmatic path he’s had to take and the successes he’s achieved.

As someone with a great diversity of experience working as a designer within agencies, leading his own agency and within a variety of in-house design teams, it was interesting to hear his reflections.

Can you tell me about your role and your team and how you fit into the organisation?

I am the Senior Design Manager at Atlassian. My team is currently 14 based in Sydney and San Francisco. The team is mostly designers, but also the front end architect and front end library lead. The team members are all embedded within different product teams and they all sit with their product teams. We sit within the company’s Engineering discipline.


So you’re a design team sitting within an engineering part of the business within a software company. What kind of challenges and opportunities does that present?

I was brought on with the objective of building an awesome design team and getting the company to be more design driven, in addition to engineering driven. Over the last year we’ve grown the design team by 300%. My learning is what you deliver and how you influence people is what really counts. Position can help you on this, but Atlassian is not a place where position helps as much as it might in larger corporates.

We are a do-ocracy. You are measured by what you do and what you deliver, not by what you say and what you plan to do. That can be a challenge for designers, but a very good challenge.


I am hearing a lot about the need for pragmatism and the value of collaboration rather than evangalism. Do those two themes resonate with you?

Definitely pragmatism is key, but you need to choose when you will put your foot down. I said to someone the other day that I would stop the launch of something over some compromise. In exceptional cases you need to make the tough calls otherwise you don’t get traction. You may be considered the bad guy, but it sometimes needs to happen to ensure a great experience.

Collaboration is crucial, but evangalism often needed. For example, we are working on a product design language. Three months in many people still couldn’t grasp what we aim to achieve with it or why it is important. For things like that you need to get out there and evangelise what design is and the importance of it.


What kind of challenges are you applying design to?

Originally designers here were considered as mostly visual UI designers. We are now on a journey to change that perception to a more holistic approach. We are getting into end-to-end experience design for our products and services, and strategic design thinking. But we have to build up credibility first and show the value of a more holistic design approach.

When I started I had to think whether to fix the processes first, or to deliver something and take a hit on the process. I had the choice, I decided to deliver things first and get hit by the lack of process. As expected, we’re now having difficulty scaling to meet the demand we’ve created within the company. But I would do it in this order again, perhaps a bit more balanced. Another challenge is finding the right people. Great people are instrumental for scaling a team.


What aspects of design are proving easiest and most difficult to establish within the company?

The biggest challenge is people’s mindset and culture. I was really questioned when I hired the first UX designer who wasn’t a Photoshop person. But the company has quickly seen the value in what they do. Now I am inundated with requests for them.

The other big challenge is that you can’t design in a silo. It needs to be a cross-functional exercise. So I find myself challenging the existing software development processes. Which isn’t easy in a successful software company. I find I am constantly working on the edges of my mandate, but that is where I have the biggest impact.


So you’re building credibility and traction over time, staging a campaign rather than expecting everything to happen immediately?

Yes. Everyone always wants to deliver the most kick-ass awesome products all the time, so managing expectations is important. On the other hand I’m still amazed how quickly things get implemented in this company.


How do you manage the scaling of the impact of your team?

My goal is that everyone should become more design aware, but know when to ask for specialist design help. Samantha shared some of this at UX Australia (Developers will design: Let’s make them amazing at it).


Can you share some specific success stories you’ve had?

Design is now pretty high up on the company strategy. We have proved we can deliver and have the trust of the organisation. We are working on a new product design language across our key products. So we have design guidelines that we’ve shared with our developer community. We have shipped our first product Bitbucket with the new design language, big experience improvements and new features a few weeks ago. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive. We also shared our approach and lessons learned with the company during the project.


So this will go out to our 20,000 customers and millions of users in the coming months. It is an evolution rather than a revolution. Atlassian already has a strong brand. It isn’t a branding exercise, it is about building on what we have. Creating a harmonious experience across our products.


I have always been a big fan of the BBC’s Global Experience Language, were things like that an influence?

Yes. We tried to learn from them as much as possible. We questioned whether to drip feed things or go for a big bang. We looked at and learned from what Google did recently with the navigation bar and their redesign.

The feedback we’ve had so far has been very positive, but we will only really know when people experience it in their day-to-day life.

People just get used to how things work, for good and bad. It is a bit like changing MS Word. Even if what you’re doing is an improvement, change could be worse than not fixing it.


I imagine you’ll encounter some negative reaction to the changes, are you doing anything to ready the organisation to the type of noise it might hear?

The company is already pretty good on this because we’ve experienced this type of thing in the past. When we launched the new Confluence editor there was quite some backlash. We are aware of a potential backlash and we’re experimenting with different approaches to handle it. We also focus on getting more metrics in place to better inform our decisions.


One of the things Atlassian is known for are “Ship It” days, how is the design team fitting into those activities?

We are still trying to find our way there. We are playing with how “Ship It” is defined. The basic rules are to ship something within 24 hours, and by ship it we talk about shipping it to customers.

We designers have taken the focus on developing prototypes rather than shippable solutions. We are looking at combining Ship It with design jams and explore things that are bigger than things that can be shipped in a single day.

In one of the last Ship It my team worked on an idea to consolidate all the navigation across our products. It was a concept rather than a product, but it made it to the finals. Awesome stuff comes out of Ship It. What usually wins is something that addresses customer pain points and provides a great user experience. You need a holistic approach to win.


Is there anything you’d recommend to someone aspiring to make design work within an organisation?

The advice I give is to stick to a few core principles that you live by and keep repeating them and hammering them in to build up a habit. Things like, ‘make work visible’ and ‘always ask why’.

From a book perspective it depends on your environment. If I’m suggesting a book for influencing senior stakeholders I’d go for a design thinking book to warm up the mindset, eg The Design of Business: Why Design Thinking is the Next Competitive Advantage.

From a team perspective, especially for an environment like this one, Agile Experience Design: A Digital Designer’s Guide to Agile, Lean, and Continuous is very good. Krug’s second book, Rocket Surgery Made Easy is very hands on and a very quick read to get people setup to run usability tests and keep fixing the basics. And I am waiting for Jeff Gothelf’s book on Lean UX: Applying Lean Principles to Improve User Experience.