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Pivotal Labs

Discovery, framing and pair design.

Pivotal Labs is a company whose name has come up in many different conversations over the last couple of years. A friend of mine had worked in their Toronto office; a friend of a friend works in the San Francisco one, and their unique processes had been mentioned in conversations I’d had with designers and developers quite a few times. So when Matt and I were looking into teams to visit in San Francisco, Pivotal Labs was definitely on the list. When a company has been around for over 20 years, and has 16 offices internationally there’s a pretty good chance they’ve got some processes that are working for them. We were connected with Kim Dowd and the design team at the San Francisco office and they welcomed us into their space to spend a morning with them.

Matt and I took the elevator to the fifth floor where the Labs team was situated in 875 Howard Street. There we were greeted by Kim and invited to grab breakfast from the large, open-concept kitchen that had a buffet of options. As we talked with Kim, she told us who we would be talking to that morning from the design team. We noticed that everyone in the office was starting to gather for a very large stand-up meeting, definitely the biggest one we’ve been a part of so far. This one was super quick, with some office-wide updates. The team uses this time to introduce new hires, let everyone know about upcoming events or other important news that’s relevant to the entire team. It was really interesting to see how much energy the stand-up brought to the office. Breakfast had been relatively quiet, but during and after stand-up there was definitely a buzz, and an excitement to dig into whatever was next.

After the crowd dispersed, Kim took us over to where the design team congregated for their team-specific stand-up. This was much smaller and more focused on design team updates and projects. Kim was quick to explain that designers are spread-out around the office based on what project they’re currently allocated to. The area we were in was a place for designers to congregate and was also where “beached” designers could work. An important thing we learned was that every designer is either pairing with a developer or another designer every day for the entire day. This is one of Pivotal Labs’ core processes. However, if a designer isn’t currently allocated to a project, the team affectionately refers to them as being “beached”. While it doesn’t happen often, occasionally a designer will have a week or two where they’re not tied to any specific client project and they’re able to then work on something related to their design practice, or a Pivotal Labs project. For example, Aaron Lawrence who was working on designing unique badges for each Labs location. This was one of my favourite aspects of the team’s workflow -- for one, the term is great and makes me laugh, and the process naturally allows for time to work on personal and team-related projects.

“You have a buddy to basically share the mind space with and get immediate feedback. All of the benefits of pair programming are very similar from pair designing.” —Nina Mehta

Talking with Kim and the rest of the team, we wanted to know more about the types of projects they were working on and what the flow of a project was from start to finish. There are two key elements to Labs’ process called Discovery and Framing.

Discovery is where the Labs’ team collaborates with the client team to determine what problem it is they’re trying to solve. This stage involves open-ended research, workshops, interviews and any exploration needed to discover what the problem is.

Framing is establishing how to solve the problem. During this stage, the team is focused on researching and validating their ideas.

Kim illustrating the discovery and framing process to myself and Matt.

After Discovery and Framing, the project moves into delivery where designers and developers work in pairs to develop the solution that was uncovered during Discovery and Framing. This stage is iterative and involves continuous testing, user-research and validating that the solution is actually working.

A key theme throughout talking with the team was the importance placed on flexibility. Pivotal Labs uses an agile methodology and they really live by it. Kim explained that while there is definitely a defined flow through a project, each one is different and often projects will come to them at various stages. She explained how some will come with the problem already defined and at that point the team helps to validate any assumptions or potential solutions. Sometimes a client will come with wireframes and concepts and are looking for design and development support. In every case, the Labs’ team becomes an extension of their team to help not only deliver the product but often help the client adopt a more agile process within their own team.

“The reason we do time and materials is that they're a very sustainable pace. If you promise scope, you're going to wind up sleeping under your desk. That allows us to start work at 9 and leave at 6, have a reasonable pace, and always be improving a product but not burning yourself out.” —Kim Dowd

I wanted to know what this process looked like in action so I sat down with Nina Mehta who is a design manager on the team and had just wrapped up a project for an insurance company looking for an iPhone app. They were looking to have a better digital presence and wanted to transform their company from a waterfall approach to more agile. Nina explained how both are large challenges on their own. The first week of the project was about getting to know the team and their product and doing exploratory research on their users. She told me one of the main challenges of the project is one that often comes with working with larger companies, which is the barriers often involved in reaching users. A lot of the times companies don’t want an external team representing them while talking to their customers. So finding creative ways to connect with users is important.

“We get a lot of clients who want to make that change. They way that we do it is we say, "bring a small group of people from the company who are actually ready to do it. We're going to teach them, we're going to work with them, and we're going to build something together."” —Nina Mehta

I asked her how they went about introducing a concept like agile to such a large team and she explained that it was key to start small. Finding the small group of people within the company who are excited about it and ready to do it, and working with them so that after the project was finished, they would have the tools to be advocates for the rest of their team. She told me that the project was so successful that the company came back to work on an Android app, which Nina explained was exciting because several months later she could witness the changes happening in the company from their first project together.

After talking with Nina, we took a final tour around the office where there were pods of designers and developers working, all grouped by the project they were currently working on. There was a mix of people using standing desks, some sitting, some at whiteboards, some in breakout rooms and others just chatting throughout the office. Oh, and there was almost always at least a few people at the ping pong tables.

Thanks to the team at Pivotal Labs for letting us spend the morning with them and learn a little bit more about how they do the work they do. Interested in having us spend a day with your team?
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