As User Experience Manager, Mandy’s driven by customers’ and users’ problems to create the most effective design solutions to help them succeed. After earning a computer science degree from Georgia Institute of Technology, and spending the next 13 years expanding her knowledge and understanding of a continuously evolving field, Mandy’s proud to be on the front lines of end user computing at VMware AirWatch where she leads a team comprising of user experience, visual design and content strategy disciplines.
Prior to VMware, Mandy has worked and led teams in both agency and corporate environments. If she’s not chasing her 5-year-old twin daughters around the house with her husband, you can usually find her thinking critically about how to make the world a better place for end users.
J Cornelius: More and more people are using their phones to get their work done. Atlanta based AirWatch makes that easier by letting people run popular business apps on their personal devices. They must be doing it well because VMware bought them for 1.5 billion a few years back. Today we talk to AirWatch’s own Mandy Cornwell about how they’re using customer interviews and interactive prototyping to keep that company growing strong.
Intro: This is Design Driven, the podcast about using design thinking to build great products and lasting companies. Whether you’re running a startup or trying something new inside a Fortune 1,000 their tools, methods, and insights we talk about will help you create things people love. And, now, your host, J Cornelius.
J: Hello, everybody. We are excited to have Mandy Cornwell. She is the user experience manager at VMware AirWatch here in Atlanta. We’re excited to have you on the show today. How are you, Mandy?
Mandy Cornwell: I’m great. How are you doing?
J: Fantastic. It’s a sunny day. Weather is a little bit crisp, but it’s all good. Tell us about what happens over there at VM AirWatch. What are you guys working on?
Mandy: Sure. Probably I need to give a little context for where we are within VMWare and what our group does. VMware is a large company, has many different business units. We’re part of the end user computing group and we’re really part of the AirWatch product and Workspace One. What those products do is help companies to mobilize their employees and make them productive on their mobile devices, that’s phones, laptops, tablets, all those sorts of things. Our software and our products help their IT staff to make sure that employees have access to email, VPN, wi-fi, all the apps that they need to do their jobs and really make that a very seamless, easy experience for the employees as well as the IT staff for our customers. Personally, our team here works on the administrative console. Our primary users are referred to as admins or administrators and they’re usually part of the IT staff for our customers.
J: Nice. I guess as more and more people are more and more mobile and phones become more and more powerful that the expectation for what you can do from a phone becomes a lot higher. What are you seeing in terms of the trends of what people are asking for and how do you know what to build next?
Mandy: We work with, obviously, customers directly to understand what they’re trying to help their employees do and we have also end user facing products apps to help make them more productive. So we have an email app, a content app, and those work, obviously, in our product suite seamlessly. We’re working on ways to help users be able to act instantly from those apps on things that they need to do for their business. That’s one example. We have a pretty large scope of what the product does so there’s many different projects that are ongoing to help make improvements and really meet our customers’ needs.
J: That’s sounds like it’s pretty challenging work.
J: How did you get to AirWatch. I know you had some time at other companies. How did you get to where you are and what kind of fuels the methodology that you’re using in your daily work?
Mandy: I’ve been doing user experience design for 13, 14 years now. I’ve worked in various industries and types of companies. I worked in agencies. I worked in in-house teams like I am here. I worked in telecom and device manufacturers, Motorola. This is really the first time I’ve worked in a true B2B environment which is an interesting change of pace. What that really does is it’s given me an opportunity to work directly with customers. When you’re in advertising, it’s a little different. Your marketing sites or e-commerce, you have a different sort of relationship with the customer than in a business setting where you can really interact very closely with the customers and they rely on your products on a day-to-day basis so they’re much more invested in giving feedback. I find that to be a really good relationship and opportunity to really get their input into the products.
J: What kind of tools are you using to get that input? Are you having focus groups or are you doing surveys? How do you get that feedback and what kind of questions are you asking? What insights are you looking for from those people and how do you incorporate that into decision making for what you build?
Mandy: We have done a variety of things. It depends on the phase of the project and what we’re hoping to learn. On a project that we’ve run over the past year, we’ve done customer conversations and research in multiple phases. In the beginning it was more of questioning them, asking them how they work today, what problems they’re facing and trying to understand how we can help to solve those problems and then we moved into creating some design concepts, a couple of concepts. Then we tested those concepts with those same customers, trying to obviously understand are these options working for you, what do they like, what they don’t like, in a little bit of a usability testing way, kind of an informal usability testing way. Understanding is it easy to use, what changes should we make to make it a smoother process. And then continuing down, once we had clarified a design direction, moving into detail design and then doing more formal usability testing on the final design. We’ve gone through all that. We kind of created that product and now we’re moving on to the next phase, the next iteration, and we’re going to kind of repeat that a little bit, trying to get feedback all along the way.
J: It sounds like you’re doing prototyping. I don’t know what level of fidelity prototyping you’re doing, but you’re doing some basic prototypes to prove that you’re actually going in the right direction and the things that you’re building are going to solve the problems for the customer and then you’re adding more of the design layer and going into kind of a higher fidelity. Is that accurate?
Mandy: That’s correct. Yes. We’re trying to get increasing levels of confirmation before we commit to a final design before we start actually building it. It’s not an easy thing to build. It involves quite a bit of back end coding so we wanted to make sure we had the right direction before we move forward with that.
J: Yeah, before you send it to developers. How would you say that process has helped you build things faster or more accurately? What kind of metrics are you tracking around that? How would you say that’s improved the overall development process?
Mandy: Sure. From my perspective, I feel more confident with our designs and that they are really going to meet the needs of our customers by the fact that we’ve gone through several rounds of customer feedback and we’ve gotten that validation, obviously, from sharing it with the customer. It’s not going to be a surprise when it’s launched. I think that’s really important when you have such a large customer base because when you put something out there, it means something. Your customers look at it and they judge your competency, whether you understand their needs and by having that knowledge that we’ve already gotten that confirmation all along the way we’re just helping the business overall.
J: Right. Have you seen the customers themselves respond differently to that process? What’s their feeling about being involved in that way?
Mandy: Yeah, so one of the things that we did, actually, we have a user conference every year and this year it was here in Atlanta and so we were able to actually meet with some of them in person. We used that opportunity to do a few usability tests in person with some customers. They responded really well to being invited to participate. Like I said, this is their tool that they use all day long, for most of them. Some of them have other responsibilities, but they’re invested in it and they want to give feedback, a lot of them. It’s usually a very positive experience for the customer as well. We had one customer that we met with and based on our meeting that we had, he went to the head of our R&D department and told him it was the best experience he had had at the Connect Conference.
Mandy: For the most part it’s, yes, very positive meetings and conversations that we’re having.
J: When we’ve done similar work we see that oftentimes you get involved with conversations with actual customers and you find that you were completely off base or going down the wrong path or thinking about things the wrong way when it came to the next iteration for development of the application. Have you had that same experience? If so, can you share a story about how that changed your direction or how that changed your way of thinking?
Mandy: Sure. I’ve definitely had that experience. Here, on that specific project that I’m talking about, the initial phase was pretty spot on with what … Because it was directly driven from customer feedback and challenges that they had been having. But those conversations that we had in the beginning to learn what are their problems, what are they are doing now, how are they working around the current solution to get what they need done, really gave us some excellent insights into how we could go beyond this initial phase and help to inform the roadmap. And then we got kind of some tidbits from those initial interviews that then we were able to work with the product managers in partnership validate those findings.
J: Right. How have you seen that change the conversation about the overall product? Especially like with C-Level management or product owners within the company? What kind of guidance has the user centered approach given them and what’s acceptance been like?
Mandy: Sure. After each of the phases of research that we’ve done, we’ve created a presentation type of deck where we can share that with leadership, we can share that with the whole development and QE (Quality Engineering) and product management team and really make sure everyone on the project is fully in the know of what we’ve been hearing from customers. This has been presented up to executive level, the findings in different forms, but direct quotes, the use cases that we’ve been finding. It helps to validate the roadmap. Right?
Mandy: I think everyone is more comfortable with the direction that we’re headed.
J: What kind of tools and exercises are you using with your team to decide what you’re going to build and what it’s going to look like? How are you using those tools through the customer testing and, obviously, to communicate with developers as you’re building the product? Can you talk a little bit about that process?
Mandy: Sure. The main tools that our team here uses are UXPin and Sketch, and we recently purchased User Zoom and so we’re getting started using that. UXPin has prototyping capabilities and we’ve been using that to create prototypes. Not super high fidelity prototypes, but high enough fidelity to get some clicking and see where the intent of users is and be able to send them a link and have them click through the prototype as we’re talking through the tasks for usability type testing. Then, obviously, with User Zoom we’re planning to do some remote usability testing and be able to send it and capture video and kind of some survey type questions. That’s really great for us because so many of our customers are all over the country and all over the world actually so this will allow us to get a larger range and quantity of feedback than we have been so far.
J: Right. What kind of exercises are you doing with those tools? Are you using empathy maps or value proposition canvas or any of those types of exercises to facilitate conversation around the product?
Mandy: We haven’t used those two specifically. We have used experience maps to some degree and user flows. It just depends on the project what the best way to approach it is in the particular process and deliverables that it requires. For everything, we do wires, annotated wires, visual comps, obviously, and flow diagrams.
J: So you mentioned working with wire frames and higher fidelity comps. When you are helping maybe a client or customer or some other team member through understanding what problem you’re trying to solve, what level of fidelity? Is that a wire frame or is that something that’s more full color? What do you see being most effective in helping them think through that problem and why does that different fidelity level matter?
Mandy: Sure. For us, in our world, everyone here is pretty comfortable with wire frames so we don’t necessarily need to go to the high fidelity to get feedback or buy in necessarily. It’s faster if we stick to wire frame level, conceptual level, initially, then kind of share that with the main stake holders, the team itself, developers, QE, PM, maybe some leadership possibly. It depends on the project. And then, once you’ve gathered that feedback, obviously if you’re going to share with customers, that as well, and then narrow down … I see it kind of as a funnel. You’re just moving closer towards a final design, keeping it lower fidelity in the beginning, and moving towards high fidelity, visual comps towards the end of the process.
J: Right. So certain types of decisions are being made when it’s a wire frame or low fidelity mode and other types of decisions are being made as you’re adding more color and more texture and higher fidelity design level to the product. Is that accurate?
Mandy: That’s correct. I’ll also say we’re working with a product that there’s a lot of patterns that are established. There’s a visual design that’s established. There’s a lot of things that are understood when you’re looking at a wire frame and it’s not going to be such a drastic change when we move to the visual comps as it might be in other types of businesses or in marketing or advertising sort of scenarios.
J: I’m glad you brought that up because we’ve had lots of conversations about design systems and pattern libraries so if you’re using those how has that influenced the ability to get things done faster and with more accuracy and less confusion across the different departments within VMware?
Mandy: Sure. We’re kind of in a constant state of evolution on that. In my experience, the pattern library is never finished. Right? You may get to a good point with patterns and then technology changes. You may want to move to a new front-end technology and then that shifts things. It’s really important for enterprise products, very large products, to have a pattern library and be working towards that and making sure it’s part of the process because you just have so many parts of the interface that are very similar and it can become unwieldy over time if you don’t enforce some consistency there.
J: Right. So how are you developing that pattern library? What kind of tools are you using for that?
Mandy: Sure. Well, we’re building in Angular and so we’re using Bootstrap but then that’s a base of the library and we’re building on top of that to create patterns for things like wizards and list views and things that are pervasive throughout an enterprise type product. We’re building it out in a website so developers can reference the patterns and the code that goes with them and we’re building out also a design library basically for our design tools so that designers can pull from the patterns as well. One of the folks that’s really running that here, he’s developing a process so that as teams come across new patterns that they need we can make sure that it’s going through a really thorough process so that we can ensure that it’s a really good pattern before it gets added to the library.
J: So you’re doing some testing with that pattern before it actually makes it into the production library?
Mandy: That’s the plan.
J: Right. So when you’re testing with customers are they exposed to that process at all or is that all internal?
Mandy: Right now all of that’s internal but as we have more patterns that we add, we may be exposing them to those patterns. I’m not sure that we would frame it that way to the customers. I imagine we’d probably frame it as just we want you to test this interface and here’s your scenario.
J: So how early in the process are you bringing customers in and starting to get feedback from the people who are going to be using the product as opposed to sitting in a room and conjuring up your own ideas about what needs to happen?
Mandy: Sure. It depends on the scope of the project. When the UX team is working side by side with the project managers, we’re always wanting to dig in and understand how did this problem come about, what customers have we heard from, what is really going on with those customers and what other customers have the same problem so that we can make sure the solution we come up with is going to meet a variety of customer’s needs and not just one type of customer. We, obviously, want to be involved as early as possible. We want to be, basically, side by side with the project manager.
They have not just a customer hat, they have a business hat on. We’re thinking highly about the customer experience, but it’s really important first to understand the business side of things as well and the value that this particular feature brings. Like sometimes we may want to create a really amazing experience but if you find out it’s only going to be used by a certain percentage of customers that may not be the best strategy. We just want to be working really closely with PM in understanding all of those factors.
J: Those are important questions to ask about what problem are they trying to solve and what is the actual outcome they are looking for. Are those the kinds of questions you’re asking or how do you get more insight into not just how to build the interface but how to help people actually accomplish the goals that they’re trying to do in their daily work?
Mandy: In the beginning we have sessions before we start really designing or working with PM to really understand where did this problem come from and everything we can possibly learn about the problem. Then we start to form… Either we decide to do more discussions with customers or we decide we have enough information to move forward and then we can start doing concepts and kind of vetting that. That’s where we might go ahead and share the concepts with the customers, some of the customers that were specifically asking for this solution so we can make sure that it’s really meeting their needs.
J: Right. And are you always going back to the same kind of core group of customers or how do you choose which customers you’re actually going to talk to about certain things?
Mandy: No, it depends, because we have quite a few project managers actually. It depends on what the project is, like what part of the product that it relates to and then, usually, the project manager will know which customers would have a particular interest in that feature set and can help us find customers to talk to.
Mandy: We, obviously, don’t want to be talking to the same customers over and over and over again. That will lead to biased designs and, ultimately, the product.
Mandy: So we do try to ensure we’re getting a variety of different size of customers, different industries, and different needs that they have.
J: Right. And just for understanding the scale, how many customers are you talking about? How large is the customer base versus how many people are you typically talking to?
Mandy: We have thousands of customers. There’s a very large customer base. We’re global. There’s sales all over the world. We haven’t done as much user research outside of the U.S. but, like I said, with User Zoom we have the opportunity to do that down the road. When we do user research-right now we’ve been doing kind of the typical six to eight to each round of feedback and we may use the same customers or we may talk to different customers in each of those kind of sessions-whether we’re really refining something or we want to get a variety of feedback or what we have access to at the time.
J: Yeah, and does that depend on what phase you are on in development in terms of how many people you talk to or who you talk to. You mentioned earlier that you try to go back and talk to the same people that you spoke to early in the process so does that ever shift or is that a pretty rigid methodology?
Mandy: No, it’s not rigid. Ideally, we would be probably going to different customers at different phases of the project to get additional validation, which is another reason why we’re going to be using User Zoom so that we can really push it out to a wider audience.
J: Looking at the work as a whole, what would you say is one of the more challenging aspects of what you’re doing? Have you given any thought to how you might be able to solve that?
Mandy: I mean, it’s challenging because we are a relatively small design team compared to the size of the engineering and PM groups. We’re growing but it’s hard to have the coverage right now of the scope of the work. So that’s a big challenge. We have doubled in size in the Atlanta office over the past year. We’ve added a content strategy discipline. The Palo Alto office has added a dedicated user researcher. We’re getting the support. We’re getting leadership buy in to have more of a design focus but it’s a volume challenge. The product is very complicated. It’s been grown over the past many years since it was created and it’s vast.
For example, there’s 300 to 400 settings pages. On those pages there’s obviously multiple settings so that’s just kind of an idea of the breadth of the product. So it’s not going to be a “we change everything all at once”. It’s going to be a strategic what’s high impact to make a change and to make improvements and have a strategy for doing that over time. It’s not something that is going to be all planned at one time. It’s going to be an evolution.
J: Right. It’s a very iterative process.
J: Each iteration might take you a slightly different direction than you thought.
Mandy: That’s correct. Right.
J: Speaking of iterations, is there a specific methodology that you subscribe to? Are you following the D School methodology from Stanford or the IDO methodology or have you kind of created your own thing?
Mandy: We don’t follow a specific one religiously. We actually have had Stanford design training. They actually brought in some folks from the D School and had an in-day training last year for members of the R&D team. It was a group within R&D. I’ve actually just finished taking a Stanford design course which is also something that was offered through VMware. They have been putting some effort behind bringing design thinking into the organization, which I really appreciate. I still, even though that’s kind of been an influence here, I wouldn’t say we follow those strictly. We look at them as a tool kit, having more knowledge of more methodologies and more approaches that are available to us then picking the right ones at the right time based on many factors, time available, the type of project, what information we already have and where we are trying to go from there. We’re not following a very strict methodology.
J: We find that not many people are. All of those tools are helpful, but they’re just a tool in the tool belt and it really comes down to having somebody on the team or having a team of people available who understand which tool to pull out at which point in the project and how that’s going to affect the overall outcome.
Mandy: Yes. Completely agree.
J: What would you say… Any parting wisdom or any little tidbits of knowledge you’d like to share?
Mandy: I’ll speak from the perspective of enterprise business, if you as a user experience designer within an organization or you care about the customer experience, if you want to have more influence, I think it’s important to really build that relationship with the product manager or multiple product managers and make sure that you’re thinking like you own the experience. Get to know people. Don’t just take in requirements. Make sure you really understand them, the business problems, the competition, and really work hand in hand with the PM so you’re supportive of each other and really working towards the same goals. I found that to be really helpful.
J: It sounds like just finding alignment within the product, the dev, and the design side of the organization is really critical to achieving some success with the product itself.
Mandy: Very much so.
Mandy: And also I’d say, especially in enterprise, in business context, talk to you customer facing teams such as call centers, sales, support. Those are other places that we go for customer feedback, not just to customers directly. They’re usually very easy to access and not that they’re replacement for customer feedback but they’re a great compliment to it and it’s important, obviously, to work with those teams and make sure you understand the problems they’re hearing about.
J: Yeah, because they’re dealing with customer feedback every day so they’re a huge source of knowledge for what’s actually happening within the product and how people are feeling about it.
Mandy: Yep. For sure.
J: Yeah, so I guess the overall theme there is try to eliminate the silos that typically exist within some of these organizations where the teams just don’t talk to each other enough. Kind of break that down and get more cross-functional teams working together and you end up with a better product as a result.
Mandy: Yeah, totally agree. I say take that even further. It’s a cultural thing. You want to help try to alieve other team’s pain points any way that you can or at least understand them. Once you start to do that then things are going to go much smoother. People are going to be less stressed and feel more inclined to want to do those things that are going to help the customer experience and the product overall.
J: Yeah, that’s an interesting point about helping to not just solve the customer’s problems but help solve problems for your co-workers, too. If they’re struggling with helping a team get something done or helping customers with their goals then perhaps there’s an opportunity to improve that as well.
Mandy: Correct. Yes.
J: That’s good. That’s great stuff. If somebody out there wants to get in touch with you and hear more about what’s going on there at VM AirWatch or maybe just chat with you about your process and what’s going on, what’s the best way to reach out.
Mandy: Sure. I’m on Linked In so you can find me easily there, Mandy Cornwell. You can also find me on Twitter @mandyco as well as email@example.com
J: Mandy I really appreciate you taking time out of your day. I know that you and the rest of the team there are really busy. Just want to say thanks for coming on the show and I’d love to catch up with you at some point, maybe have you back on the show at some point to chat about what’s happened between now and then.
Mandy: Yes, I’d love to continue the conversation. It’s been good chatting with you.
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