Sticky Situations and Unexpected Solutions — Lean UX Outside the Lab

Sean Carmichael

June 8th, 2017

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Sometimes, the world of user experience design requires creative solutions. There are numerous methodologies and an even greater number of myths about where and when they are supposed to be used. Lean UX is one such process that is associated mostly with startups and very early stage projects.

But what if you were to apply Lean UX to an existing site? And what if that site was a multinational industry-leader with millions of users?

In this episode of the UIE Podcast, Austin Knight, Senior UX Designer at Hubspot, discusses how the Hubspot team employed Lean UX to tackle their website’s redesign. Jeff Gothelf, the co-authour of Lean UX and Sense & Respond, joins us to offer his insights on Austin’s efforts.

Recorded: May 2017
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Full Transcript.


Jared Spool: This is the UIE Podcast. I’m Jared Spool.

Solutions have a way of surprising us sometimes, hiding as they often do in plain sight. The right solution challenges us to take a step back. It helps us question our preconceived notions about the problem at hand, and the assumptions we make that limit our choices.

If we look at “real-world” examples, we can find creators who uncovered solutions in places both obvious and unlikely. Take Dr. Spencer Silver. Dr. Silver was a scientist at 3M during the 1960s, working in his lab toward the goal of creating a very strong adhesive. No, this doesn’t end with an X-Men-like discovery.

Dr. Silver would describe what he found as a “solution without a problem.” Rather than a very strong adhesive, he developed a moderately sticky substance that could be re-used. This substance would eventually find a way to solving a problem—as the glue behind the Post-It Note.

The properties of another adhesive—Super Glue— are genuinely not far from an X-Men storyline. Super Glue was created during the World War II era by a chemist at Eastman Kodak who was trying to develop a clear substance to be used for gun-sights on military weapons. In addition to its awesome bonding properties, the glue has other applications that were not immediately known. It would take decades before medics would discover, during the Vietnam War, that Super Glue was surprisingly effective at closing wounds.

Today, we discuss another “off-label” solution that yielded impressive results. The “glue” that holds this story together comes in the form of a project methodology that has a reputation for being most useful in start-up cultures and “green-field” initiatives. But, it’s not the obvious choice to apply to a redesign for an existing site.

Enter Hubspot. They’re leaders of their business sector. They’ve been around for years and their website has been slowly evolving.

Recently, the designers had to redesign the company’s main web site for a new product launch, that was just 2 months away. Faced with the prospect of overhauling 39 core-site pages, the team chose Lean UX as their process — an unusual choice for an existing site. Yet their decision, doubled conversion rates on the site.

Why did they make that choice? And more importantly: how did they pull it off?

Austin Knight: It was like the homepage project on steroids. It had gone into disrepair and we had acquired a lot of design debt.

My Name is Austin Knight. I’m a senior UX designer at Hubspot working on Hubspot.com and the Hubspot Marketing Free product.

Jared: Hubspot was in a predicament. They had a lot of design debt from years of aggressive experimentation. Hubspot is a big site that gets lots of traffic, and yet Austin and his team knew things weren’t working as well as they could.

Austin: We got to this point where our site was performing really, really well, but it didn’t look too good and it didn’t function very well. The elements weren’t working in cohesion with each other.

Jared: They decided to use Lean UX to tackle an enormous, fast track redesign that challenged them to rethink each of the individual page designs in just two and a half months. Their first challenge: The site was a mess.

Austin: The first issue that we brought up was that the site was suffering from design debt, so there were usability and UX issues. The second issue was that it was suffering from an inconsistent visual style, so there wasn’t very strong creative direction. You could start at one part of the site and go to another part and feel like you’re on a completely different website. There were major consistency issues.

The third was that we identified large conversion opportunities. Then the fourth was that we were actually launching entirely new products within two months, so we had to introduce large new areas of the site in order to account for those products that we would be launching.

Jared: Two months isn’t a lot of time. And they were on the hot seat to improve the site’s design and experience. How did they get into this position in the first place?

Austin: We used some very intense experimentation processes on Hubspot.com. We’re lucky to have large traffic numbers, around ten million visitors per month right now. What this allows us to do is experiment on a really granular level and get very, very, very deep in the science of how our design is performing and how we’re turning users into leads, into customers.

Through that process of experimentation, we ended up fragmenting our site a little bit because we were experimenting so much. If you think of a design, when you first create the design, every single element in that design is created within the context of the other elements. It’s fully unified. You launch it, and then it performs at a certain rate. Then over time, you want to experiment, learn more about your audience and improve the design.

As you run those experiments you introduce new elements that were not created originally within the context of the other elements, so you lose this reciprocal relationship between those elements and incur what I like to refer to as design debt.

Jared: That fragmentation was happening on Hubspot.com in several different ways. For example, Austin said that before the project began they had conducted an audit of the paths users took to achieve the various objectives for the site. They discovered that some of these conversion flows were fairly long.

Austin: There were multiple different ways that a user could convert on a product, and for some users, when we looked at this on an individual level, we found that because we were running experiments in multiple different places and creating these conversion paths, that some users were converting on the same product multiple times because they would sign up for the product, and then there would be like, “how do I get into the product? How do I sign into this thing?”

Jeff Gothelf: Most companies find themselves in one of two situations, fairly familiar, in that they’re either trying to create something new, or they’re trying to optimize an existing system or product or service that’s already in front of their customers.

I’m Jeff Gothelf and I’m the co-author of Lean UX and Sense and Respond.

Jared: Hubspot thought Lean UX was the right methodology to use to rethink their website’s design, and Jeff agrees that existing “front door” sites are good candidates for a Lean UX approach. There is a stereotype that Lean UX only suits startup cultures and blue-sky ventures where the team is starting with a blank slate. However, Jeff says teams reworking already existing designs can also benefit from Lean UX, yet they face unique challenges.

Jeff: There’s an opportunity to take every piece of the customer journey that your organization promotes and evaluate it for how well it’s doing its job. And so, “Why do we have a front door website?” If it’s a marketing and acquisition channel, that’s terrific. And that’s an easily testable component of the customer journey to determine how well it’s doing its job as an acquisition channel.

The question that the people who own the dot coms of their companies, the dot com websites, should be asking is: “Who are we trying to attract? Why would they be seeking this out? How would they get here? When they get here, what do we want them to do? What are we looking for as a sign of interest, as a sign of conversion? Or whatever that is.” And then there’s a variety of ways to solve for that business problem.

Jared: I asked Jeff what advantage Hubspot’s designers had over a team that was working on a blue sky, brand new design. He gave me two words:

Jeff: Qualified traffic.

Jared: Qualified traffic gave the Hubspot.com designers an advantage because they had millions of users visiting that site every month.

Jeff: In existing systems, you have a significant amount of data to help inform that conversation and to reduce the risk of working on less successful ideas. Specifically around who the customer is, what their motivations are, what their current behavioral patterns are in this market with your set of products, how they feel about your brand or your company, and so that really helps de-risk a good chunk of the hypothesis that you would ultimately write about how to achieve the kind of outcome that you’re looking for.

Jared: Lean UX’s emphasis on understanding user motivations and behaviors turns out to be a perfect match for design teams who have a large existing audience they can draw research from. Austin and his team looked at traffic, data, and user research, and unearthed missed opportunities for Hubspot.com.

Austin: We actually mapped all of the user flows out into flow charts, or user journeys, if you want to call them that, and we tied conversion numbers to each step of the process and each individual flow. When the flows were super gloated, we found that the conversion rates were a tenth, around a tenth, of what the conversion rates were when we had a completely straight forward process that would only involved two to three steps. We uncovered this thorough paying attention to more qualitative, usability-focused audits, and what we uncovered was major quantitative conversion opportunities.

The next logical step for us after identifying this issue and after seeing it happen within specific user profiles was to interview the users themselves and talk to our existing customers about what their experience was going through the process and then eventually signing up for the product. Then talking to users that had started the process and abandoned, and then talking to completely fresh users.

Jared: But the Hubspot team still had a big challenge: they had to deliver a redesigned site in two months for the new product launch.

Jeff: If you’ve got a fixed deadline, that’s fine. The question then becomes, what are the customer behaviors that we want to optimize for, and what is the best thing that we can build, in the timeframe to achieve those outcomes. And that’s really where Lean UX drives again the conversation away from features as the measure of success and customer behavior as the measure of success.

Jared: Because Lean UX is a flexible approach, Austin and his team could adapt it to their constraints.

Austin: A tight release schedule requires that sometimes you omit parts of the Lean UX process, which I think is part of what’s so wonderful about it. For example, in this particular project, in many cases, as much as designers love to talk about sketches and making paper prototypes, we blew right part that stuff and we went straight into wire frames. As soon as we felt that the structure was established, we moved right into visual design. In many cases, when we had those visual design patterns established, we would develop simply off of a wire frame.

We broke the project out into two pieces from a design perspective, the first of which would be that we would identify the core pages that were critical to the functionality of the site, to the usability of the site, and to our conversion paths. Basically anything that was in our top level navigation, anything that our analytics showed was getting high traffic through one form or another, and then anything that was critical to the conversion flow. We would pay special attention to those pages.

Then for the rest of the site, we would focus on developing scalable template level solutions that could be applied globally. What this amounted to was thirty-nine core designs that we would be working on and going all the way from sketches through wire frames, through mockups prototypes to live functioning designs over the course of two and a half months.

Jeff: I think the most challenging thing in working on existing systems is challenging the legacy beliefs. Challenging the historical inertia that feeds these existing conversations. So you’ll find that people come into, say a success metric conversation or even a persona conversation with very strongly held beliefs about who we’re working for and what it is that we’re trying to get them to do.

Jared: These legacy beliefs, that have formed over the long history of the existing design, often without much real data or validation, are now presenting a real challenge for the team. For the design to succeed, they must be ready to walk away and form a new, validated understanding of who their users are and what they’re trying to accomplish. Testing is a key to validating what the users truly need.

Austin: We took very, very conceptual designs and we tested them as wire frames with actual users before, not just touching a line of code, but not even opening up Sketch or Photoshop or anything that would allow us to work in high fidelity. Then alongside those, we collected a lot of inspiration, a lot of designs that we were betting were working for other companies, and we tested the final versions of those designs with users.

It helped us to understand what appealed to our audience from both a functional perspective, but also from an aesthetic perspective, which is something that I love about Lean is it really focuses on objective design and removing the subjectivity from the process.

Jared: Austin’s team wanted to bring illustrations into their design and tested different styles, but their audience didn’t like it. They kept hearing back from users that the illustrations didn’t look professional. They then tested images, even drop shadows, different ways to treat buttons and gradients… all the latest trends in design – to see what their audience responded to.

Austin: We wanted to understand are our users going to identify this element as a button? Are they going to appreciate the visual treatment that we’re using with our containers or with our typography? Instead of sitting in a room amongst ourselves and saying, “This is what I like as a designer,” or “This is what I like as a marketer,” we got outside of our company and we let our users determine that for us.

Jared: Lean UX was the glue that kept the Hubspot.com redesign together, from its emphasis on data and understanding users, to testing and iterating. Austin’s team used Lean UX to take the subjective out of decision-making and move the team toward objective results. Hubspot not only met its deadlines, it exceeded its goals by doubling conversion rates, and creating a better user experience for its customers. It’s a reminder that solutions are out there in plain sight, just waiting for problems to find them.

This UIE podcast is brought to you by UIE’s All You Can Learn library of fantastic UX presentations and seminars.

We just recorded Jeff Gothelf’s talk, Scaling Lean: Project, Program, Portfolio at our UX Immersion Interactions conference in Portland, this past May. In this talk, Jeff shared methods for scaling Lean UX techniques in large organizations. I think you’ll love his presentation. I certainly did.

You can watch his presentation, and any of the more than 300 other seminars in UIE’s All You Can Learn library for one low monthly fee. Just visit AllYouCanLearn.co for more information.

Also, if you’re in an organization that is looking to hire more UX designers anytime soon, I want to point you to our new school in Chattanooga, TN called Center Centre. Our students are learning what it takes to become an industry-ready UX designer and they need your help.

To help them learn the craft, they need great projects to work on. Companies supply the projects and, while they’re at it, they get to see what our students are capable of. It’s a great way to help grow our field while you’re doing preliminary recruiting. If you have a project that you think might work, please get in touch. You can learn more at Center Centre’s website. That’s C E N T E R C E N T R E dot com.

This UIE podcast was written by Kathleen Barrett and is produced by myself and Sean Carmichael. We’d like to give special thanks to Jeff Gothelf and Austin Knight for appearing on this episode.

You can find more information about the UIE podcast on our newly launched UIE Podcast Network website: U I E dot F M. Go there now and look at all the great shows we’ve put together over the years.

This podcast is part of the UIE Podcast Network. Thanks so much for listening and, as always, thanks for encouraging our behavior.

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