Shift Happens! How to Scale in the Face of Uncertainty

May 27, 2022

The following article is based on a recent interview conducted by Lou Rosenfeld, Publisher of Rosenfeld Media from his podcast, the Rosenfeld Review.  In this episode, Lou speaks with conference curators of the upcoming Design at Scale conference, responsible for development of the program.  Lada Gorlenko is Senior Director of Research and Kit Unger is VP of Product Design, both with MURAL.  The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

I’m Lou Rosenfeld, and I am thrilled to have two old friends with me today, Lada Gorlenko and Kit Unger, who are the two main folks curating this year’s Design at Scale a virtual conference, coming up on June 8th through 10th.

We began program development with an open call for presentation proposals (CFP). Lada and Kit then reviewed and selected from a wide range of proposals. We want to learn a bit about this conference and about the types of things Kit and Lada are preparing. I think you’re going to find this year’s themes quite interesting.

So, what do you two have in mind for Design at Scale? Which, by the way, some may remember in the past having a different name, Enterprise Experience, and before that, Enterprise UX

What’s going to be different as you put together the program this year?

[Lada] Last year we renamed the conference Design at Scale. I think this year’s theme is very apt and very fitting the new name, “At Scale”. What we’d like to share and what we’d like to learn about from our audience is the experience around unprecedented change at scale over the last couple of years where so many things went so differently. The overarching theme of this year’s conference is change at scale. All about the things that will not to go back to normal but go forward to normal.

Would it be accurate to say that you’re looking at this point in time as a pivot point, to take stock of this last two years, where there’s been some interesting things happening? 

[Kit] Yes, we’ll be talking about acceleration of work. In 2020, the pandemic accelerated the future of work and collaboration, and it certainly accelerated my company’s growth. When I joined MURAL just a little over a year ago, the design team was around 10 people. We’re now over 70 people. That’s hyper growth to the extreme.

Prior to the pandemic, I was one of those people that felt like everyone on the team had to be co-located for the most part. Once the pandemic happened, we were all forced to work remotely. I saw many benefits. The pandemic sucks. No doubt about it. But there’ve been positive outcomes in how we work because of being forced to work remotely. So that’s one of the things we’re covering – the positive outcomes, what we’ve learned, and ways that people can work better.

So, we’ll hear people’s lessons, stories, even case studies on how remote work has changed, how we work. Does that pertain as well to things like how we design teams, how we hire for hybrid teams, what the care and feeding is of our people, and things along those lines?

[Lada] Absolutely. I think the pandemic has affected things like hiring and onboarding. The research team I’ve hired in the last year, they’re all new people and I’ve never met them in-person. So how do we do that? And how else are teams impacted. Different team dynamics and different team structures, that ultimately lead to different processes. In the last couple of years many people are feeling depressed and anxious. What can we do to change the way we work to address that? Not just work from home, but also what can we do to change the team dynamic, team composition, and how people work? This goes for research too. How do we talk to our customers? How do we observe our customers, when we are no longer able to meet them in the field? 

Why now for all these questions?  

[Lada] Because I think the two-year mark is a really good time for reflection, where we’re no longer in the middle of this new thing, this new pandemic, this new way of working.  We can reflect on what’s happened. Yet, we’re still on the tail end of it. So, we’re not too far removed from things happening. That’s why this year is a perfect time to talk about it.

We won’t be presenting success stories only. We’ll hear from people who have tried things that didn’t work. We want to present honest, authentic conversations about things that didn’t work as much as things that work. Failed attempts are some of the most successful talks we had last year. 

[Lou] Failures that lead to lessons. I think it would be hard for anyone to claim they haven’t been learning from failure these last 2 years. 

Our conversation so far is from the perspective of people who run a substantial organization. One that’s growing quickly. What about independent contributors, people who are doing design and research in the trenches, are they also coming up with some of these hard-fought lessons? Are those lessons part of this program?

[Kit] Definitely. We’ll be looking at both sides of the problem. There are so many issues, like working remotely, and time zone issues. And we’re all finding ways to try to make that work better. For example, we adjust our schedules, we use Loom, we’re getting better at asynchronous ways of working when we can. Hearing other success stories like that will be awesome!

Lada mentioned the loneliness issue, and it’s a real problem for many people. We can’t bond over lunch the way we used to before the pandemic. This is sad, but I’m just thinking about this. My sister passed away right before the pandemic started. The hugs from people at work really helped. So when I see people suffering on my team, it’s rough. Part of the story is how do we create that ever-so-important human connection? 

As someone who’s specifically working with researchers and is a researcher, Lada, are you finding that the act of doing research has been radically affected? Are there a lot of lessons that are coming out of there that will continue once we do go back to working and meeting in-person?

[Lada] Not the act of doing research, because I’ve been working, testing remote and using remote participants for a long, long time. But I do feel we’re moving away from the traditional research practice where researchers do research, to having a research coaching practice. And the research coaches and advisors who are professional researchers, but don’t necessarily do research, are supporting designers and PMs and engineers by teaching, training, coaching, and supporting them to do research. By flipping the research practice to a research coaching practice, we are bringing people together in one place and supporting them.

Research has changed. We’re helping, we’re preparing everything for our UX designers and PMs. That changes the dynamic and that changes how they perceive ownership, and how we perceive the team dynamic. How it all changes and how support in isolation become team work, because we are breaking boundaries of our own discipline.

[Kit] This is going remarkably well, too. That’s a huge success story of something we wouldn’t want to see go back to the way it used to be. There are things that have to be done when scaling a UX design team, regardless of whether you’re working remotely or not. Empowering teams, and operationalizing quality and usability, and scaling research is an example of how we’re optimizing how we work.

[Lou] It’s great to hear that. It makes me very hopeful that this new normal or whatever we want to call it is really going to be better in some new ways. We’re going to have, someday, hopefully not too far off, we’ll have a mix of both in-person and remote practices that really are more powerful together than anything we’ve had in the past.

You mentioned earlier, how you are all using tools like Loom. In fact, you’ve radically improved the way the Rosenfeld Media conference program curation is going in terms of preparation of speakers. Most people don’t realize that when people speak at one of our conferences, they do two or three months of preparation. They participate in speaker cohorts, with people like Lada and Kit, as well as spend time with a speaker coach who helps them. One of the difficult things is doing that across time zones, sometimes with five, six, or seven speakers at once.

Lada and Kit have been using Loom as a way for us to manage this in a more asynchronous way. For rehearsals and for commenting on rehearsals. Loom is a video tool that among other things helps people annotate directly to video. The tools are also changing very quickly. You work at a company that’s a tooling company, obviously, so you’re certainly in tune with this. 

I’m wondering if there will be any focus on tooling at Design at Scale. Is it also about using tools in inventive new ways?

[Kit] Certainly. Being forced to work remotely, we’ve had to think about all those things and how to optimize efficiency. Take MURAL, for example. It’s a visual collaboration tool, which visual collaboration is essential for remote teams, but knowing how to use any tool isn’t enough. In our case, we need everyone in the product design order to be expert at facilitating the right methods at the right time for the right outcomes. So, we want to hear concrete examples on how people are using the tools and what new tools they’re using.

[Lou] Excellent. Lots to think about in terms of what we’ve learned in the last two years. Lots to think about in terms of not only the painful lessons, but the good things as well. They’re all lessons that we’re going to use in the years forward, and how they’re going to be squared with some of the practices that we had pre-COVID when we could meet in-person. I’m looking forward to Design at Scale to learn with you and the people who present that you’ve selected. To see what is design going to look like, basically, in the coming years and how it’s going to change. I think Design at Scale is going to be a great place, a great pivot point among many, I would imagine, where people are going to be coming together and figuring that out.

Design at Scale is taking place June 8-10. This is a virtual conference. Check out the full roster of speakers and the three-day program here.

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