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Product Building in this Pandemic, It’s Not Business As Usual

Lisanne Binhammer

Lisanne Binhammer

Senior Product Designer

April 23, 2020

This isn’t another “How To Successfully Work Remotely” post, or an article around the importance of creating a separate work environment or a rigid structure throughout your day. There’s nothing wrong with content like this; I’ve been consuming and sharing it to my colleagues almost every day. Okay, every day. Every few hours. I’m starting to become spam-y on Slack. Anyways, there’s a lot out there that covers these things so I feel the need to talk about things slightly differently. 

I’m not going to tell you how to conduct business as usual because, well, things are utterly unusual right now. As product builders, this can be confusing. Tried and true methods are proving not quite up to snuff. Collaborative practices are an uphill struggle. Even the products we are building aren’t being consumed for their intended purpose (but hey, are they ever really?). 

The fact is, our methods, practices, and products all need to be rethought and reimagined for our current state. When things radically change, we need to reinvent the way in which we think about the how, the who, and the what we are building for—which will undoubtedly lead to novel approaches, a richer sense of empathy, and innovative experiences.

How We Build Remotely

At Connected, we highly value human-to-human and cross-disciplinary collaboration. This looks like face-to-face user interviews, in-person ideation sessions (with the entire team:Product Managers, Developers, and Designers alike), pair programming, and more. Being physically present with each other means that we can easily learn from each other (and other’s expertise), build off of one another’s ideas, and ultimately work together to build better products.

Of course, now, we can’t share our work with one another in the same way. This poses a very real threat to discovery-based work in particular, as Marty Cagan mentioned in his article ‘Discovery When Working Remotely’. “Very soon, the new remote work process has reverted back to waterfall-like passing along of artifacts… the entire discussion will quickly move back to output, rather than outcome.” 

The trouble is when we don’t have ample room to discuss how we are going to approach a problem collectively, then it’s just that much easier to resort to assigning solo tasks for efficiency’s sake. While we can jump on a Zoom call, pair via Chrome Remote Desktop, or ideate via Miro, these are one-offs as opposed to a dedicated physical space, or a casual coffee chat, where somehow, things typically seem to get resolved. 

There’s something to be said about spontaneity and off-the-cuff moments that spark the magic behind product building. But, it’s not enough to try to replicate how we used to do things. We need to get excited about the different approaches we can take because of our current situation. Products like Spatial embrace the way things are and build on top of it. Novel approaches to the process of product development need to be sought after, so that we can find different ways to spark new types of magic.

Who We Are Remotely Building For

Our team of Design Researchers and Product Designers at Connected—myself included—are extremely passionate about user-centred design. Our toolkit of mindsets and methodologies that we bring into the field when talking with people, or to our synthesis sessions or even to our screens are geared towards meeting the needs of our users. 

One way to come to an understanding of another person’s needs is through taking an empathetic approach to research and design. But being truly empathetic is hard. We investigate the lives of so many people whose lives appear nothing like our own, putting ourselves in their shoes can be quite difficult to imagine. The quiet, small surprise of this pandemic is that it has levelled the playing field, to a degree. We’ve all been forced into a collective position wherein certain behaviours, or lifestyle choices are simply out of the question. This is to say that the users of our products have changed, somewhat dramatically. The upside is, we’ve changed in (some of the) same ways. 

In saying this I’m not attempting to discount the very different experience of front-line workers, whose experiences I would never assume to imagine. Rather, in a sense we’ve all adapted feelings of being trapped and of grief, as Scott Berinato notes in his article in the Harvard Business Review. Here, we’ve been able to gain a sense of collective empathy with one another. When we can start to appreciate better who we are building for, then we’ll be able to discover the products that truly meet the needs of those people (and, of ourselves).

What We Are Building Remotely

Many of the products we saw undisputed value in are no longer relevant right now. A product that helps me stay in someone else’s home? No thank you. An app that makes trip-planning easier? Why? An experience that matches me with romantic interests so that I can spend time with them—not two metres apart? Absolutely not. Of course, it’s easy to wave this sentiment off as temporary; that we’ll get back to normal and back to using our most loved products. But will we? 

The current situation is going to impact more than right now, it will affect our future selves and the way we experience the world. We need to start building in response to now, yes, but also think about how we can build in response to our affected futures. The value people place in products are changing. 

Take Nextdoor, an app that is a social networking platform that connects communities locally (e.g. those in your surrounding area). Before COVID-19, it was underutilized. Now, it’s usage is up 80%, and not for small grievances or local deals—it’s being used as a support system or messaging board so that people in the same area can be there for one another (by doing grocery runs or errands for the elderly, by transporting masks to hospitals, etc.). The shift in this product has resulted in the company itself developing features specific to dealing with the pandemic. We need to reevaluate what we are building as our products are evolving right in front of us. 

Additionally, the categories in which we build are changing—travel-related products may need to shift to experiential travel-related products. Or, repurposed entirely. If we can start to reinvision industries altogether, then truly innovative experiences can be designed.

I should have probably mentioned at the beginning of this post that I don’t have the actual answers, or insights into what these advancements in product building actually will look like (is it your moment VR?). Rather, this article is meant to shed light on what we need to start thinking about, as product builders. How can we start to shift our processes? What does our increased sense of collective empathy mean for empowering our users, and ourselves? What exactly are we building, and how is it relevant not just now, but in a future state? With the push to start working fully remotely—at least for the time being—we can start to imagine that the tinkerers and makers of our society will start to device new ways of working, and thinking, as well as creating new advancements in how we all experience the world.

Lisanne Binhammer

Lisanne Binhammer

Senior Product Designer

Lisanne Binhammer is a Senior Product Designer at Connected with a passion for ethical and inclusive design. Most recently, she has worked on a discovery-based project for a client in the civic technology space. Outside of her day-to-day, Lisanne is the Director of Product Design Education at Bridge, a non-for-profit that levels up skills for marginalized groups in the tech sector.

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