Since we published this interview Teehan + Lax announced they were closing. Jon and Geoff along with some other staff decided to become part of Facebook's Design Team and relocate to Silicon Valley. However most of the info still rings true… and is probably a reason they got approached by Facebook in the first place. Now dive in…
Teehan + Lax are one of the world's leading digital product development studios. Based in Toronto they have made a name for themselves designing first class user experiences. Co-Founder, Jon Lax, was kind enough to share his insights on what it takes to design and build a great digital product.
In a lot of ways Teehan + Lax is a new type of digital design company. Tell us what you see it as and where you want to take it?
We’re a product design company that focuses on building digital products rather than physical products. We’re interested in helping clients make products and services that will get used by customers. This is different than most design or advertising agencies whose focus is on creating things who’s purpose is to create demand for a product or service.
We’re more similar to industrial design and product design companies like Ideo or Frog Design than we are to an advertising agency like Taxi.
We’re very focussed on building a place that is very skilled at helping companies either create new products and bring them to market or improve existing products to be more useful and useable to their audience.
What types of clients does Teehan + Lax usually work with?
We work with 4 types of clients:
Traditional Fortune 500 type companies. These are companies who have traditionally delivered their products and services through analog channels (e.g. banks, airlines etc.) but are undergoing a transformation of having to move their products and services to digital.
Digital Product Companies.
This is a term we use to describe clients like Google and Facebook. Basically startups that have achieved scale. They are very sophisticated in the creation and development of digital products but hire us to assist their core teams.
Venture backed startups at varying stages of maturity. Typically these companies have raised a good amount of venture funding and are looking for help getting their product to market.
Venture Capital Firms.
Similar to startups but instead of the entrepreneur hiring us, the VC will hire us to assist one of their portfolio companies.
In the last 2 years our business has significantly shifted away from Enterprise clients to Digital Product Companies and Start Ups. Enterprise clients went from 100% of our billings to about 20% in the past 3 years.
You’ve worked on some big projects that started out small – for instance Medium. What is it like to design a small product that has the potential to be huge and what additional design challenges does that pose?
I’m not sure I would describe Medium as small. Ev’s (Evan Williams – @ev) vision for that product was ambitious from the beginning. With ambitious products like that you can’t realize the vision on day one so the trick is figuring out what to design first. Ev has an incredible ability to know what his product needs and when. He has amazing focus to ignore everything except what the product absolutely needs at that moment in time.
I’ve become convinced that this the art of building great products; knowing what needs to be built first, second, third etc. When you have a product that doesn’t exist and needs to come into the world, you can’t and shouldn’t build every feature before you launch. You want to launch with the thing that is your product’s core value, that thing you can do better than anyone else, and then you add to that.
When we’re working on products that are truly innovative, meaning they are tackling problems where there aren’t existing well formed solutions, you don’t have a lot of best practices to look to. In these cases, you are primarily designing on instinct. Since there is no wellborn path you can follow you need to have some frameworks and tools that you know help you find a potential path.
For example, we use this framework for understanding product value called Jobs To Be Done. It is a tool we use on almost every product we work on. We have a few others that reliably work for us.
What is your favourite part of the design process when working on a project?
I tend to like the upfront thinking parts. Trying to figure out the core product value and what will make the product successful. I enjoy trying to create a space for work to happen in. That means I am trying to make the conditions in which good design and engineering can happen. I think about values, process and resources. These three dimensions are very clarifying for me.
I try to define the values of the project early on. These values will guide us to make decisions. I then look at the process and resources that will be required to satisfy those values.
Designing for interaction is a rather new art form. Much like Gutenberg and the early days of the printing press we are all still trying to figure out this new digital world. What have you guys learned so far?
I would argue that it’s not that new. Interaction design has been around since the late 1990s. I first heard the term user experience design around 2000 or 2001 and that was discussing the concepts of interaction design. Jesse James Garrett’s The Elements of User Experience was originally released in 2000 and that has all the foundational concepts of Interaction Design. What has matured is the tools and technologies to deliver on some of these concepts.
In 2000 we could only design for 2 browsers on computers running at 800×600. That was a very limited palette. We have a much broader set of tools and technologies at our disposal now, along with a more sophisticated and demanding consumer.
It’s easy to get caught up in the latest aesthetic UI styles that are in fashion (e.g. flat design) or some cool new programming language, those things change. I’ve been doing this long enough to have seen too many “this is the next thing” only to have it disappear 6 months later.
Interaction design is comprised of three parts
How does it work?
How does it look?
How does it feel?
Great design finds the right balance between those 3 factors.
How do you get buy-in on certain ideas and long term objectives when right now a lot of models in Silicon Valley use the Lean Method of building a bare bones product and adding onto it later?
Lean or Agile is a method for building stuff and it is good for breaking a large amount of ambitious work down into smaller tasks and getting things done, but it doesn’t really tell you what you should build and why.
As I said before we really rely on this idea of Jobs To be Done to align the work we do. The premise of JTBD is that people hire products and services into their life to perform a job for them. Your challenge is to understand the job you are being hired for and help your customers do it better than the alternatives.
So if you can figure out your JTBD you can then say, “how will we know if we are accomplishing this job for people. What behaviours will they exhibit, how will we see it in the data?” If you can answer that you can then determine which features you should build that will help people do the behaviours in their life that satisfy the job your product is hired to do.
As I said, most of our clients are now in the Bay Area so they are very comfortable with these methods. There isn’t much buy-in required. In fact, if we presented them with a more consensus driven approach they would react very negatively. With the enterprise clients we need to modify our approach and we try and sneak in aspects of agile but in reality those clients are in the minority for us.
Teehan + Lax do a fantastic job of balancing engineering and design. Is there a real focus internally of getting these worlds to meet? How does a project generally flow through the studio?
We’re organized into 3 teams of roughly 10 people on each team. 7–8 of those 10 are designers and developers. Clients will work with teams and those teams working client projects. Clients stay with teams. This allows the knowledge of the business and user to stay inside a team.
Our teams only work on 1–2 projects at a time. They are focussed on making the best possible product together. This focus is incredibly important. The way you get these worlds to meet is to put a common goal in front of them that aligns them.
Too many companies think of their company as disciplines (creative, engineering, project management). This creates horrible misalignments and basically makes work shitty.
The visual design aspect of digital products is going through a massive shift in thinking at the moment. Things like iOS becoming ‘flat’ and the abandonment of skeuomorphism is spreading throughout the web. In your view is this nothing more than a trend or does it offer true value? Do you see the pendulum ever swinging back?
These are trends. They are fashion. These things work in cycles. Will we see skeuomorphism again? Maybe.
I think that style has in important role in the design of a product, but in software we work in bits, not atoms, so these bits are easy to change. I don’t hold our design all that precious. It is meant to serve a purpose. I think too many designers chase styles. They spend all their time on Dribbble and Behance, which are great resources, but they can be distorting. You get focussed on the wrong thing.
Yves Béhar (FUSE PROJECTS, JAMBOX, etc.) invests and becomes a partner when developing his clients products. Do Teehan + Lax take the same approach or is this something you are interested in working towards. Watch Video (Skip to 16:20 in the video)
We do this on a much smaller scale than Yves. He created a studio who’s economics are based on co-creation and large equity stakes. We take small pieces of equity on select projects. We are exploring a lot of non traditional ways to get paid. I believe strongly in not relying exclusively on fee based revenue. I think there are many different ways to get paid for what you do.
There is a lack of imagination in our industry about how we get paid. Most people just have an hourly rate and charge for effort. I’ve spoken very publicly about why I believe this is wrong.
Teehan + Lax changed business model a few years back to move out of service ended design and into product design and development. How tough of a decision was it to let go of the ‘relatively’ easier income of designing banner ads etc?
It was pretty easy. When Geoff and I started in 2002 we knew we weren’t that interested in the demand side of the business (advertising). We were always interested in making things people used. We started the company as a user experience company. If you come to our office under our name on the door it says “Teehan+Lax: defining experience” which was our tag line when we started. We literally defined experiences for companies. Back in 2002 the concept of product design didn’t really exist. We talked about it as user experience design.
I think the last banner ad we made was in 2008. I knew back then that the banner ad was going to be problematic to our business. Our heart was never really into the paid media side of the business so it wasn’t that hard to give up.
I don’t think of it as changing our business model. Our business model has been consistent since we started. We are a services firm, clients hire us to work on their behalf. What’s changed is our choice to focus on parts of the industry where we felt we were stronger at and that we are more interested in.
Does Teehan + Lax have it’s own internal design manifesto (unofficial or not) about working on products? What standards do you have to meet and how do you meet them?
We believe that “Great Digital Products Don’t Happen By Accident”. I know that might sound like a truism but let me unpack it a bit and explain what it means.
First off, what does a “great digital product” mean to us? We define it by the following criteria.
It gets used.
It gets used – a product can not be great if no one uses it. I don’t care how many design awards it gets. If it can’t find a market it isn’t that great.
It gets talked about.
Another indicator is if a product is so good people talk about it, share it, evangelize it. I would also argue people tend to share the things they love or have an attachment to which is another indicator of a great digital product.
We’re proud of it.
While the first two criteria are external to us, the third and fourth are internal. We think it is important that we are proud of the work. This is key for us to be engaged. You can imagine working on something that achieves the first two criteria but you are embarrassed of it. This is a bad situation for morale.
We learned something new.
A great product has an element of doing something new and novel. Not for novelty’s sake but for evolution. If we don’t learn anything new or take on a challenge we’ve solved before, we’re probably not making something all that great.
So these 4 qualities need to be present for us to consider a product we work on to be”Great”.
The other part of that statement is that these great products “don’t happen by accident”. This means that there are conscious and willful things you can do to make great products. This doesn’t mean that you can guarantee success but we believe you can bias products towards having a great chance at being successful.
The fact is, that if you don’t believe this, then the alternative means it’s all chance. That when you build a product there is nothing you can do to increase your chances at being successful. If that’s the case, if it is that fatalistic then this company shouldn’t exist. By that logic you could hire any company to work with and the Wheel of Fortune will tell you if you are successful or not.
So if great products don’t happen by accident then how do they happen?
We looked back at the over 600 projects we’ve done over 12 years and asked ourselves “what are the things we know to be true about building great digital products?”. We looked at what conditions were present in our most successful projects and said “let’s do more of this.” We came up with 6 principles
Assemble the right team.
It sounds obvious but having the right team structure is essential. For us, that means multidisciplinary teams (designers and developers in equal numbers) of 7–10 people. The size is very conscious in that it maps to research about ideal team sizes. This team size is sometimes known as the “two pizza rule”, which states that a team or meeting attendees should be able to be fed with two pizzas.
We also keep teams members together from project to project so that they aren’t constantly working with new people and managers. The stability creates creative relationships that make better products. If you work with another designer or developer for a while you begin to develop this shorthand and collective experience that becomes very effective.
Solve real problems for real people.
We want to understand very early on what problems this product can solve and who it solves it for. We see a lot of companies solving imaginary problems for imaginary people (e.g. target audience – Moms).
Work towards measurable outcomes.
You need to know upfront what the finish line looks like. We want to know if we are designing towards a specific launch date or business goal. If you have a measurable outcome it is much easier to judge how close or far away you are from hitting it.
Constantly reiterate and refactor.
A lot has been written about the value of this approach and we’ve seen in practice that over the long term it delivers a better product. The challenge is having the discipline to throw out work that you did.
Culturally this is very difficult for large enterprise clients to do. They perceive it as wasteful. The reality is that if you want to move in a straight line – never going back on decisions – it assumes you know the solution before you start. Which means you are doing something you’ve done many times before. And this means you are not doing something new or innovative.
We only learn through failure.
Make decisions by using the product.
We learned this one from Ev on Medium who would quote Matt Mullenwieg from Automattic, “Usage is like oxygen for products”. We try very quickly to get something we can use and make decisions on, rather than relying on Sketch or Photoshop files. Because of this, design and development start together on day one. Our goal is often to have something we can use, even if it is super crude, very quickly. We then iterate on that.
Plan for a seamless UX.
The process of building a product is a lot of head’s down work. Lean and agile processes are great but they are incredibly myopic. Daily scrums start with the same three questions, what did you do yesterday, what are you doing today, what prevents you from getting this done? If you think about that, the team is only thinking in 48 hour increments. This is like trying to get from point A to point B while staring at your feet.
Great products are holistic, they are seamless.
They work in an integrated way. So you need to have ways to look up and understand how it all comes together.
These 6 principles guide a lot of process and tools. While we change our methods and tools to suit situations we are always trying to stay true to these principles.
We turn down work that corrupts these values too much. For example, if someone asked us to only deliver designs in static form that would mean we wouldn’t be able to make decisions while using the product and part of the other five principles. We won’t do that project.
Wearable technology is about to explode as a new general consumer technology. What design challenges do these new devices pose?
Wearables are in a very early stage of the hype cycle. In terms of the hardware side of the equation, wearables are primarily fashion. The Watch is a good example of this. It is very focussed on style, which is important to get people to wear these things. I compare that to say Google Glass which wasn’t very stylish. They tried really hard to make it stylish but I don’t think it was very successful.
Most wearables end up in a drawer within 6 months. There is a limit to how much we will wear on our wrists so I think a lot of what we see in wearables space today will not succeed long term. It is murky for me what will succeed.
I think that as sensors shrink and phones get better at being a ubiquitous sensor a lot of wearables will either vanish into clothes or into the phone.
I think highly specialized wearables for extremely complex measurements will exist for a while. I am an advisor for a Toronto based startup called Push which makes a wearable for weight training. It provides sophisticated tracking of force and energy which is great for elite athletes or people who are really into training (Crossfit, Olympic lifting etc.). I think eventually their sensors will end up inside another device. This means that the future of the business is actually on the software side of the equation.
The software side is where it gets interesting. Nike+ really did this the best. Their hardware wasn’t anything more than a pedometer but the ability to take that data and put into a dashboard, create challenges with friends, make running more like a game that you are trying to get better at, is what made that product such an early success.
What types of designers to you have working at Teehan + Lax? And what are the things you look for in a new hire?
Traditionally our designers are pretty senior. We haven’t been great at working with more junior people so we tended to hire very high functioning autonomous individuals.
The designers we hire are interested in product design versus advertising or graphic design which are more communication arts. So they are people who enjoy the challenges of making something people will use. This is a specific set of skills and interests. It’s not for everyone.
We have started to take steps to create ways for us to bring in more junior designers and teach them how to do product design. We just aren’t seeing that many designers coming out of school with these skills. The schools are still training students in marketing since that has traditionally been the job market.
Programs like HackerYou and Bitmaker Labs are turning out some interesting designers that we are very bullish on.
We look for people who have good design chops and a desire to work on product. Typically, if you have those two things you probably also have some code skills. These people are craftspeople, they are builders. We want to see a level of product thinking – that means being able to conceive of features that people will use.