This is the transcript of Ask Me Anything Session with Ee Venn Soh on Product Tribes community, August 22, 2019
Ee Venn Soh is a senior product/interaction designer with a formal education in Computer Science. His studies and work experience revolve around UX, interaction, visual, motion and technology from discovery, concept to execution across different sectors and industries. He is currently working in the Atlassian’s Design System Team where he helps foster the development of compelling, practical and sometimes innovative components that’ll be consumed by all products in Atlassian.
Venn, welcome to AMA!
Thanks for having me :)
Venn, it is our first AMA with someone living and working in Australia! I know that you also spent some time in New Zealand. So maybe you could tell us a bit about living there?
That’s right. Well certainly honored to be the first AMA over in the other part of the world! I was born and raised in Malaysia. Pretty much lived my whole life there until I decided to do my tertiary education in New Zealand.
NZ is an awesome place. I love the country, love the people and love the scenery. I always tell people once you’ve seen the rugged mountains, vast rolling plains, spectacular glaciers and picturesque fjords, it’s really hard to find another place that could top that.
After a couple of years (8 to be precise) in NZ, I decided it’s time to move on and try different things. That’s how I landed in Australia. I’ve been here for 4 years now.
I’m curious how the design process looks like in the company with a big portfolio of products, like Atlassian. Are you guys assigned to particular products or does it change?
Atlassian is indeed a big company. Despite only just 2 years in the company, I’ve witnessed tremendous growth. New acquisitions, new products and new teams.
I consider myself fortunate to be able to work in a company that always seeks ways to empower the growth of any employee. If you’re interested in trying different things, you could “be the change you seek”. Take the initiative, be resourceful and spark that change. In this case, it can be working for a new team, a new product or a new project. It’s a matter of raising it up with your manager and together identifying the area you want to grow.
During my time, I did a “rotation program” where I was in Jira for 3 months before moving back into the design system team.
I’d love to hear more about how design systems work at Atlassian. In particular, how is your design systems team structured and how can the design team contribute and influence it?
Contribution has always been a topic that we discussed. In order for the design system to take root and grow in the company. We need to foster a community around it. That’s how I feel a design system can flourish and thrive.
I’ll skip discussing the technical aspect of it which you can read more about the repository contribution guidelines here: https://ak-mk-2-prod.netlify.com/docs/guides/contributing
I’ll instead focus more around some rituals and process for design contributions.
There are a few rituals that we are doing to make that happen.
1) Design system champions
We’re trialing a new initiative where we’ve designed system advocates across different products where they serve as our window of insights into their world. We want to facilitate an open discussion between design system and products to create a shared understanding.
2) Sparring session aka design critique
We have a fortnightly products x design system sparring session where products and design system team get together (remotely). Everyone is free to share what they’re working on and together we collaborate and try to solve a problem together.
3) Open channels for communication and sharing
We’ve dedicated Slack rooms (design and dev) where we monitor any signals, noise or comments that people are asking and raising. Once the same request reaches a certain tipping point (multiple people asking about the same thing). We’ll reach out to the collective group and be the shepherd that rallies everyone to solve the problem together.
4) Design system backlog process
We’re also in the process of revamping our design system backlog process to make it more transparent and visible for our users. We want to make it intuitive for people to raise an issue, suggest an improvement or request for a new feature. They’ll be able to monitor the entire lifecycle of an issue and participate at any point from to do → in progress → done.
By the end of the day, there’s only so much the team can do. We don’t want to be a bottleneck. We want to be the catalyst that empowers people.
There’s a lot of effort and work to establish a process down for contribution. But I believe it’ll definitely pay dividends in the long run.
It seemed you decided to become a designer quite early — do you remember the moment when you said: Hell yeah, I want to design things like THAT!“?
Certainly! I was first exposed to design when my mum brought me to a library when I was young.
I was just flipping through a design magazine and the designs just captured my attention. I was telling myself, “hey, I want to do just that!”
That’s how I started my journey as a visual designer and illustrator when there are no technological constraints at all. It was a pure creative indulgence.
And as time progresses, I got in touch with the internet and saw even more awesome stuff people have created on the internet. Those micro-interactions and the use of technology creatively to create those delightful moments…
That was the perfect intersection between design, creativity and technology. That really interests me. I want to be part of that journey. Be in that sweet spot.
As Atlassian prides on their remote work culture — What are your essential programs for collaborating visually with remote teammates?
Any top tips or trade secrets for working remotely?
The Trello team is the team we always look up to when it comes to remote working.
Other than the usual communication and documentation tools like Trello, Slack, Confluence that we’re using.
I’d also give credit to our rituals.
For example, we make sure when we’ve remote workers on the side of the world, everyone dials into the conversation. Even though my colleague might be just sitting next to me. This creates a fair playing ground for everyone and the other person in other parts of the world don’t feel left out.
I would be interested in what most excites you in design these days? What part of your job do you enjoy the most and what the least?
To be honest, working in the design system team isn’t something that I enjoy right away. It definitely takes me a while to love the work that I’m doing.
You’re seen as the safekeeper for the product’s design standards & guidelines, ensuring consistency, scalability and modernity of elements and patterns.
Very often, there’s a lot of documentation, process, workflow work which can be “invisible” sometimes. But once you slowly have the platform mindset, you’ll grow to like the work more.
How can we help other teams do work more efficiently and effectively by providing them with high value, high-quality components and documentation.
Regarding the travelling, would you say you can see any differences in the approach to working in design in Malaysia vs NZ and Australia?
Haha, I remember I used to work as a design intern in a big advertising firm in Malaysia many years back. The experience wasn’t the greatest. The creative awareness in Malaysia or Asian countries in general was very low back then. (It’s much better now.)
Not many people appreciate design and know the value of it. There isn’t a lot of autonomy and work is very prescriptive with a strong top-down hierarchy.
NZ and Aus are definitely very similar in terms of working culture. So I wouldn’t say there are many differences there. However, Australia certainly has more tech companies. Homegrown tech companies like Atlassian :)
Based on your experience, what is the biggest challenge for design teams and designers these days? Is it connected to process, tools or maybe something else?
I feel these days it’s hard for a designer to only just do design (as in all the hard skills) solely. You can always learn the tools, adhere to a process but it’s the people relationship part that requires a lot of experience and that human touch.
Soft skills are very important and it isn’t the easiest to get around. You need to learn how to communicate clearly, openly and also compellingly at the appropriate level of detail to all the audience.
Learning all the different languages in written or verbal form when you’re speaking to a PM, Engineer or Designer.
How do you solicit, receive and apply critique in a tactful manner that helps other people and you yourself to grow… or how do you create alignment between all these people with diverse backgrounds and opinions towards the common goal.
From what I’ve learned about design systems so far, the biggest problem is not to build one, but actually to maintain it and keep it up to date with some sort of versioning.
Would you say you can relate to it, or you’ve actually managed to overcome this problem in Atlassian?
You feel me.
“Keeping the lights on” isn’t the easiest work or the most interesting work but somebody has to do the job.
To touch on to your versioning question. We don’t version our whole design system but we version components separately and individually. From a technical aspect, I can’t speak too much about it as I don’t have a lot of insights into that process but I’m happy to connect you to the right people if you want to learn more.
On the general maintenance aspect, this is something we’re still figuring out and trying to learn to be better at. It’s similar to the contribution question earlier. In order for the design system to scale. We need to encourage everyone to participate. Design system is owned by everyone and we welcome people to discuss and contribute.
Our ultimate dream (at least mine) is to eventually convert people from being a people who raise an issue → contribute to it → be a maintainer.
If you or anyone else have any ideas, I’d definitely love to hear/learn more.
At Intercom, we’re currently in a transition to make our own design system federated (anyone can contribute with some guard rails in place), instead of centralized (having a dedicated team that owns it). Is this something you’ve considered at Atlassian? Do you have any suggestions for how to make it a success?
Awesome! I’d definitely love to hear more about all the wins/challenges on how you do this over at Intercom :)
I personally feel design system will thrive if we have a good balance between a federated x centralized model. We don’t want to come as a barrier for people to do their work. “I do this/that because design system says so”. We want to encourage people to challenge us and help raise the quality bar.
And to improve is to encourage an in-flow of healthy feedback and insights.
Some initiatives worth calling out:
- We’re currently trialing a design system champion initiative. Anyone in product can be a champion. They’re essentially the bridge between design system and products.
- We’ve done multiple secondments where a designer/developer from products join us for a period of time to see how things are done in design system and also contribute what they’ve learned over in products.
- We also did a trial on the “guru” model where every single week each designer in the design system team attends different design critique sessions across different products. This has helped shape the design system to cater more towards the product needs.
As a design system designer, we bring on the platform thinking and knowledge. We take a zoom out approach across all products. However, that can also mean we’re far away/short-sighted when it comes to our customers.
That’s when the products team will help fill those gaps. We actively invite them to help share what they’ve seen and heard on their side of the world.
With all this knowledge, best solutions across different teams/disciplines that are coming from all directions… it’s our duty to centralize them into a single place that’s accessible to everyone.
I am curious what are your experiences with working both with code and design? Is it easy to get people on board with the understanding that those two fields are very much interconnected?
I did dabble a lot between design and code. There are still a ton more for me to learn. I always have a spot for coding. In fact I studied computer science.
I believe it’s easy for people to see the connection between design and code. I think the hard part is to actually get people to use them together.
I just published a blog post that’s semi-related to this recently, https://uxdesign.cc/4-myths-busted-about-hi-fi-prototyping-44508ad85f15 All designers know the benefits of doing prototyping. They do know the possibilities you get when mixing design and code. It’s great to see many tools out there these days like UXPin or Framer X all trying to bridge this gap.
The motivation for me to learn coding is actually very straightforward and simple. “I just want to build the things I designed”…
All the other side effects like better empathize your engineering peers or understand the technical boundaries… those will come naturally.
Atlassian delivers tools we all use in our daily work (Jira, Trello, Confluence, etc.). How the company measures the impact of the design changes on the products (for example, last year Jira redesign)?
Glad you asked! I was involved in some of the ADG3 (Atlassian Design Guidelines) version 3 rollout in Jira.
To be specific, we defined different cohorts depending on our users characteristics (type of Jira license, complexity of usage).
For each cohort, we slowly roll out the new ADG3 changes. For each rollout a survival curve is plotted to show the likelihood of users staying in the new experience. “How long can the user survive in this new experience”.
The team then uses the survival curve as an indicator if improvements and if our onboarding are successful and strive to improve the survival curve for each rollout.
And time for our last question: What would be one thing you would like to share with fellow designers, developers and managers on Product Tribes?
Definitely stay curious about what you do. Curiosity has always been the one magic pill that fuels my passion.
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