This was the wisecrack of the UX Design team when I joined EMC Corporation as a fresh college grad in July 2015. Fortunately, if there was ever a common trait that I embraced wholeheartedly from my fellow classmates prior to leaping into this role, it’s willfully opportunistic. Borderline audacious, sometimes. Hearing this pun might even be the reason I took the job.
Soon after my ramp up into the world of IT data storage management, I took over the role of UX Design Lead for a new SaaS product that was still very much in its infancy—just getting over the initial Proof of Concept hurdle for executive support.
As part of a centralized design team within Dell EMC's Midrange Engineering division, I’ve been the lead designer contributing to CloudIQ for about 2 years. While we review and leverage common designs and research studies conducted by other designers on our team, our day-to-day responsibilities are product-centric and have fundamentally been self-driven. More recently, the CloudIQ UX team has grown from my "UX team of one" to include support from an additional senior designer, a user researcher, and a UX intern.
The product owners of CloudIQ know the storage industry well. Before diving all in on this cloud-deployed solution, they were veterans of creating features and building storage management products. “Engineering for engineers,” was a mantra that was brought up for legacy offerings. However, how do things change when the target audience is no longer the experienced “storage engineer;” shifting towards the more common “IT generalist?”
The process for provisioning enterprise data storage environments is an complex one, and truly takes years to come even close to mastering. The job for data storage administrators requires covering a wide scope of technical domains, often paired with a deep expertise of working in IT. In today's landscape, some of these admins may be tasked exclusively with the needs of data center provisioning, while others could find it only as a part of their daily responsibilities. Is the order too tall to deliver a product that can meet the needs of both of these users?
Each of Dell EMC’s software-based products are tailored with the mission to enable expediency for the daily tasks of storage admins. The unique opportunity for CloudIQ comes with identifying a gap in the existing software-based products line: none of the current offerings could meaningfully give recommendations for the user based on their individual usage.
As with many enterprise-based products, there’s a challenge in making the experience personal for the individual admin. This goes hand-in-hand with the need to build trust that we’re not just offering monitoring guidance based on a “one size fits all” template. The result of this concern has been to build the capability for extreme customization, so that each user could "chart their own adventure," in an attempt for one product to flex broadly enough to meet each individual's needs.
From this, several researchers and designers from our Midrange UX team conducted studies to identify the top pain points that arose out of this ambition:
It’s not uncommon to hear of advanced admins building their own workarounds to make their jobs easier for monitoring performance and tracking trends. The vision of CloudIQ is to alleviate the need of companies to build their own “home-grown” products to solve their frustrations—and to help the customers who don’t have this advanced know-how to tap into.
On a daily basis, I partner and collaborate closely with key stakeholders including product managers, UX designers, researchers, and engineers.
I collaborate with product owners, corporate systems engineers, UX researchers and other team members to reveal insights, user behaviors and motivations that lead to new or enhanced feature concepts.
I partner with project management and engineering leads to define features by addressing balances with customer needs and business goals. My voice at the table ensures the end user's voice can be heard and advocated for when discussing the product's road map. Our latest efforts to improve our process has been to incorporate frequent discussion around defining the gap between feature completeness and ethos completeness.
From whiteboard wireframes to high fidelity prototypes, I craft designs that converge solutions for the user & business needs, and validate the design’s success for engagement and ease of use through user testing and heuristic evaluations. I occasionally present works to gain buy‐in from executives, senior stakeholders and other sister product teams at Dell EMC.
I work side by side with the engineers that are building out the product vision. I’ve become deeply engrained in the implementation process, working in an agile environment to define MVPs and iterative roadmaps.
I collaborate with 5 other designers on a weekly basis to check patterns across products and define common components & patterns. Since the organizational merge with Dell, we’ve also begun leveraging and planning contributions to Dell’s design language, Clarity.
Our base interview plan—whether led by myself, a partner researcher, or our project manager— is driven with guided questions, organized by goals to better understand the person:
Design sprints are a great format to get team members that may not usually be involved in the design process actively brainstorming on solutions. In the past I've pulled in designers from other Dell EMC product teams, engineering leads, system architects, corporate systems engineers, and marketing representatives to participate in challenges spanning 1-5 days.
Leveraging Google Venture's sprint framework, I often use time in the final read out to be as transparent with our process as possible. This serves to advocate for more time and resources to host future sprints and to encourage more stakeholder involvement.
Invision is great to send out interactive demos that are meant to be more exploratory. It helps to simulate the end result that lives in the browser as opposed to a 30 page deck of motionless slides. I've also taken to using the highlighting and annotation tools to send out rapid UI specifications for the occasional last minute pivots in development needs.
Webflow is another tool I love, which helps structure responsive prototypes to send to my team members in engineering. It serves as both a learning tool to demonstrate responsive best practices, as well as offering exportable code when transitioning from prototypes to production. I've recently switched from working on a Mac to a Dell Precision, so without native tools like Keynote and iMovie I've found myself demoing interactions and behaviors directly in the browser much more frequently.
In an organization where engineering drives the company culture, design is often perceived as the veneer that covers the engine. More important than promoting ourselves, though, is ensuring that the team that I partner with on a daily basis is informed of why we work towards what we do.
From the start, one of my challenges involved addressing the organization’s promotion for the theme “Simplicity" in its daily application. For starters, my senior team members expressed a lot of positivity around the company acknowledging the need to aim their efforts towards reducing the complexity of their products in order to gain the competitive advantage.
However, keeping it simple might not always be a fair undertaking for this domain.
From a designer's viewpoint, it works. There's a plethora of methods in a designer's toolbox to ease apparent complexity of a tool. Although when we step back and consider our process for concepting solutions, team members with design training are often not the leaders for many projects. This is both a benefit and drawback of building a multi-disciplinary team.
"No matter how complex a design, no matter how many tasks it supports, how many user roles are accommodated, or how many different ways it offers to perform the same daily actions, each and every screen, each and every detail of those screens can be made clearer."
It’s essential to align the team’s understanding of this vision, because when working towards crafting a strong and successful product the design cannot always be about the pursuit of simplicity—especially when catering to such a complex domain. In context of the user experience, I took a stance to simplify the ask for simplicity: It’s not about reducing the relative complexity of the thing, it’s about making the thing incredibly easy to use.
In an effort to align the whole contributing team on the same product vision, I promoted common key drivers to success that stem from the foundation of design. Even if many of the concepts aren’t always feasible at the time of launch to meet the Agile MVP cutoff, they are still helpful with getting the team excited about what we're working on and ensuring we're aiming for the same future.
CloudIQ is not the first of its kind. There's high demand in the market for analytics tools for data storage, and even a few cloud-deployed tools rising up to address the need. Within that domain I'm regularly running design projects that are brought on by requests from the lead stakeholders, as well as championing needs that reveal themselves along the way.
Our work is ongoing. As a team, we're constantly working towards improving our process to be more efficient and keep ourselves honest with where we need to do better.
Quantifying my results.
User Research has this perception within our organization that it'll always be a huge undertaking to complete, and that teams aren't entirely sure how to leverage the findings and "soft deliverables" that are drawn from research projects. Due to this, requesting time and resources to these initiatives are often seen as a bottleneck to rapid development.
As a result of a process thats spread far and thin in our team, it's extremely unfortunate when admitting how rarely we validate our ideas in favor of rapid release cycles. This is a mold that I'm passionately intent on breaking. I regularly partner with another researcher and product manager to exercise more ways to incorporate direct, unbiased feedback into our process. With every new iteration, I strive to educate the rest of the product team on the value of going outside of our own heads to challenge our assumptions, to showcase how user testing directly enhances the design of the features, and to identify and hold us accountable for what we don't know yet.
Our efforts are certainly not going unnoticed. We're gradually gaining more buy in to incorporate more longer-term research initiatives a year, as well as bringing in more comprehensive web analytics into CloudIQ and strategizing how to leverage the analysis.
I'm proud of the work we've accomplished so far, and there's only more to come.