A Case Study:

Leading Realm UX

ACS Technologies
2013-2017

Role: UX Lead/Manager

Design work on this screen by Christabelle Granadosin, Dale Ahn, Kevin Hoxie, Kristen Hardaway, Mike Dommer, Mike Kuechenmeister, and me. 

As the UX Lead/Manager, I created the UX department for Realm in 2013, and tackled challenges both in the product itself and in our collective approach to the project. I did a bit of design work, but my bigger concern was making sure the system facilitated our success.

The Problem(s)

During my tenure (June 2013 to present), Realm grew from a relatively small product with two dev teams to an enterprise-level web app with eleven teams. Growth at this speed introduced a lot of problems:

  • The agile approach tended to focus on the granular, so driving principles could get overlooked or devalued.
  • Effort spread across so many teams caused us to lose track of how we were solving problems, eroding cohesion in product vision and details.
  • As Realm got more complex, information architecture tended toward entropy, making the system less usable and intuitive, and making setup much harder.
  • Despite subscribing to Lean’s ‘Build, Measure, Learn’ philosophy, in reality we were very good at the first, and practically ignored the second and third.
  • Realm was built to serve two user groups: the back office (who were essentially paid to use the tool), and the congregation (who were voluntary). This led to a lot of confusion and contention around how to approach user problems, especially those that straddled both user groups.
  • Corporate culture was siloed, so collaboration was minimal and decisions were not always vetted well, causing constant revisiting of decisions and a lot of rework.
  • A belief that Realm should be ‘so easy to use that we don’t need documentation or support’ led to undervaluing of inline guidance.
  • Stakeholder pressure to get product to market played into a ‘check the box’ approach, which resulted in important corners being cut in the product.

What I did

As the UX Lead, my efforts were focused on establishing the team and giving oversight and direction, but allowing my designers and researchers to focus on their day-to-day work while I focused on the bigger problems that were limiting our success.

I worked with R&D, our Customer Management Teams and Functional Management Teams to establish some vision for Realm, including a specific approach to delivery strategy (Minimum Desirable Product, or MDP). This approach guided us for a few years, and eventually led to the formation of a Product Management team, which now provides overall direction for Realm as well as business-driven prioritization of the problems that Realm seeks to solve.

For the UX team, I established a good balance between feature work and system work. In other words, while the designers and researchers supported specific development teams, we operated as a community of practice to help us think about and deal with the larger systemic challenges, like overall clarity, efficiency and cohesion. We built out a design toolkit, then a style guide, and we’re currently establishing a design system to make it easier for everyone to make the right decision as they design and build.

To deal with Realm's slide toward informational entropy, I instigated an extensive research project to study users’ understanding of how Realm should be organized, and how disparate parts of Realm interconnect. We are currently taking that data and using the insights it provides to completely reorganize the information architecture of the product.

I initiated the adoption of Intercom, a product management and customer service tool that serves up metrics to show us how Realm is being used, and allows us to talk to customers based on their use of the product. This means we can send relevant information to targeted audiences, we can recruit specific users (with specific usage patterns) for research, and can evaluate which parts of Realm get a lot of use, or not much at all.

Recognizing that most of us on the team were heavily biased toward office staff (because that’s where ACST had 98% of its software history), I crusaded relentlessly for building understanding of the congregation and their needs by talking directly to them - not by assuming that the church staff could function as an accurate proxy. This helped us recognize our congregants as our customers, and appreciate the consequences of our development choices. Over time, we built a proper database of congregants for business and user research, using Intercom to identify and communicate with congregants based on their actual use of our product.

I developed a process that would include a wider swath of people in our organization, and over time figured out ways to build out a more collaborative process so that we shared a common understanding of what we would build, how and why. This eliminated unhappy surprises from the end of a development cycle, and helped everyone feel like they were included in the work.

Together with the head of the Documentation department, I pushed for (and helped develop) a better content management system for our online documentation that would enable us to syndicate content (write once, publish anywhere), channel it into specific areas of Realm, and surface only the content that is relevant to the user, context, and level of product. I also helped stakeholders understand where we were undermining usability and usefulness in our product so that we could strive for and achieve better levels of usability.

I constantly strove to improve our presentation of our work - both to stakeholders and to team members - so that there was a stronger understanding of the why behind design decisions, and a better appreciation for the value of a good user experience.

Impact and Takeaways

The shift to leadership and management has been a challenge because I’ve had to change my perspective on what it means to be productive. Many of these projects happened over a significant period of time, and involved careful application of influence rather than direct decision-making power. That’s given me a deep appreciation for and interest in how the system and culture we build helps us all be more successful.

As I move on from ACST, the Senior Directors I meet with have all been telling me the same thing: despite the challenges, I’ve made a strong and enduring impact here and added a lot of value. That’s pretty gratifying to hear and my hope is that as I move on, these initiatives will bear fruit for ACST and lead to ever greater success.