Pivotal Labs began at the beginning of the agile movement with just a handful of people. Today, they have 11 locations across the world. We chatted with Jonathan Berger, Associate Director of Design at Pivotal Labs. We chatted to Jonathan about agile processes, demystifying design, and the importance of community.
Hey Jonathan, thanks for taking the time to talk with us. Can you tell us briefly about what Pivotal Labs does, and how they came to be?
Sure – Pivotal Labs is an agile software development consultancy, started around the birth of the agile movement. We’re several hundred people now, but it started in California with just a handful and grew and grew. One day, when they were about 40 people, they asked “Who wants to spend the summer in New York?” A few hands went up, and so a little Pivotal colony went off and started building an office in NYC, where I – who at the time had just discovered agile and wanted to figure out how to incorporate it into design – work.
What is the best thing about being a designer?
When I was younger, I was petrified of the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” A few years back I read an interview with two documentarian brothers who said the same thing. Everyone else wanted to be a fireman, or a doctor, or a policeman, but they didn’t know. Making documentaries, however, allowed them to be a fireman for a year, and then a doctor for a year, and then a policeman for a year. I feel that that’s the same for designers. As a designer, every project is like a new career. There will be some aspects of it that you love and some that you hate, and you don’t really get to choose which is which. You just have to roll with the punches.
InVision allows us to give stakeholders the fidelity they need to understand the design team’s vision.
You do quite a bit of writing and speaking about design. Do you think it’s important to contribute back to the community that fostered you?
It’s incredibly important – William Gibson has a great quote: “The future is already here. It’s just not very evenly distributed.” The 20th century is still very much around us, and our job as designers is to translate the 20th century into the 21st. We’re seeing these seismic changes in massive industries – entertainment, publishing, healthcare – and we’re flying into the unknown. Without being able to reach out to people and learn from them, without a community to support you, you’ll get stuck very quickly. And personally, I love teaching, and I love learning. Having opportunities to do that, whether it’s through speaking or writing, is really important to me.
What tools are you using in your design process at Pivotal?
It depends on the fidelity that we need. We’re in the business of making design decisions, not deliverables, so ideally all we need is a comment to memorialize that decision. “Make the navigation vertical instead of horizontal”, for example. If we can’t make it clear with a comment, we’ll go to a whiteboard and sketch it up. If that isn’t high-fidelity enough, we’ll wireframe it in Balsamiq or Illustrator. And if that doesn’t do it, we’ll move to interactive prototypes in InVision.
InVision has been key for us in that regard. A lot of stakeholders struggle to understand how a design will ultimately look when it’s just boxes and arrows, and InVision allows us to give them the fidelity they need to understand the design team’s vision. You can give somebody a design to look at, and say “Please imagine what this would look like if X” or “Please imagine that this button does Y.” They’ll go “Yeah, yeah, I get it.” But they don’t always get it. At least, not in the same way that you do, which will ultimately end up hurting the final product. Being able to use InVision to quickly create interactive prototypes has been a huge advantage for us.
What kind of a legacy do you want to leave for the design world?
We need to demystify design and increase its voice. In a business context, designers very rarely have the most powerful seat at the table. Part of that is because design is regarded as this ineffable magic fairy dust that nobody can really wrap their heads around.
We need to build a language for talking about design that can separate the “plumbing” (that’s common to most projects) from the project-specific interesting design challenges. Because those design challenges will get anyone excited, even the most non-technical, non-design-minded people. The big secret is that everybody wants to be a product designer. Everyone uses apps, and everyone has ideas for how they’d make them better. For those of us who can make apps, we know the language, but I think we need to find ways to normalize talking about design across disciplines.
I’d love to come up with a way of working that could help other designers do better work, but also be happier and healthier. Sustainable pace is so important but is often forgotten about. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of working harder or longer, instead of better or smarter. So many designers and design shops have this “you have to be right the first time” mentality, which just falls down in the real world. Right now, you know less about your product than you ever will. A designer's job is to shape the workflows to encourage lots of small, iterative choices, rather than collapsing everything into these big, high-risk presentations to the client. I’m looking to a future where design is less about deliverables & more about decisions.
It can be gratifying to think that you’re some lone genius in your own little tower, but you’re probably not, and even if you are, it’s no fun up there alone.
I would be really happy if this story of finding agile and discovering how it can apply to design results in something that can be spread and shared. “Agile design” is a story about “what can design do for agile?”, i.e. building fast, iterative, product-focused design workflows that comport with agile development. But it’s also a story about “what can agile do for design?”. Agile is a set of techniques developers came up with to help solve problems very similar to the problems designers face today. How do I know when I’m done? When will this be done? How can we minimize the grunt-work and focus on the interesting problems?
And finally, what advice would you give to young designers starting out today?
It’s very important to be able to build what you design. The stuff we build today has visual elements, but it’s mainly experience design. And if you want to design a great experience, you need to be working on an actual living product. You’d never hire a print designer who doesn't understand different papers and inks. Likewise, why hire an interaction designer who isn’t literate in their medium? Don’t think of coding as binary skill that you either do or don’t have. Think of it as a literacy, with many levels of fluency. To be a great designer, you don’t need to be fluent in code. You don’t need to be a poet. But it will definitely help you if you know enough ask somebody the way to the nearest restaurant.
Also, ask for help. Don’t hide in a hole. Don’t put your headphones on and block out everybody else. It can be gratifying to think that you’re some lone genius in your own little tower, but you’re probably not, and even if you are, it’s no fun up there alone. Engage in the conversation, and engage in the community."As a designer, every project is like a new career."