What it’s like to work with thoughtbot’s designers who code

At thoughtbot, our designers not only provide traditional design expertise through research, product design, design systems, etc., but they also write code and consult with client teams to help them grow.

We wanted to better understand our client’s perspective on working with thoughtbot designers who code so we sat down with Marta Kusztra, Director of User Experience and Product Design at the Harvard Business Review while we were working together on reinventing their mobile app.

Interview with Marta Kusztra from the Harvard Business Review

Could you tell me a little bit about yourself and your role at the Harvard Business Review?

I’m a Director of UX and Product Design at the Harvard Business Review. I’ve been at HBR for over 10 years.

Screenshots of the HBR Mobile App

Can you tell me a little bit about how this project came about from the HBR side?

Anne Bartholomew the Director of Product and I started developing and testing ideas after thoughtbot ran an initial design workshop with us to explore what the new app could be. We added definition and evolved the outputs of the workshop; we wanted to leverage our internal, institutional knowledge about the HBR product and build for the future, but also realized we needed to figure out what would be realistic to build first. We tested a few more rounds of different approaches, then decided to bring on thoughtbot again to partner with us to design and build the whole app. We started our work together with a design sprint before starting detailed design work and now it’s a real product!

What’s your perspective on what it’s like to work with designers from thoughtbot?

You really engaged and you really listened. It was a side-by-side working relationship. Even when you were taking a much bigger burden of the work upon yourself, we still felt involved and informed. And we felt like you are partners and not just people who deliver work and go. It’s almost as if you’re training us to work in a certain way just through practice. I found it very, very useful.

Collage of screenshots of the HBR mobile app

What are any specific advantages of that close relationship that come to mind?

There are many big advantages but one of the biggest advantages is, as an example, you trained our designer. She was very very eager to learn and had a great collaborative environment with thoughtbot where she could learn fast. And now we have a trained designer! That’s a big win.

The other benefit is that because we work together and make most of our decisions together, we are very well-informed as designers on the internal side. And, therefore, we can help other stakeholders understand the rationale for project decisions. We can answer questions, and advocate for things.

I would emphasize that, for me specifically, it gives me enough insight so I can say, “This is important, this is not important and who do I need to convince that this is important and we should be working on it?”

There was a unique setup for the design team on this project. Two thoughtbot designers owned the UX side and two HBR designers owned the UI—with lots of collaboration between us. That’s a big team with a lot of design voices but looking back at that, what advantages or disadvantages do you think that team structure had on the project as a whole?

I mean the advantages are kind of obvious, it’s a team of people who are committed to moving quickly and delivering the best results. People who have technical knowledge are immediately available rather than what often happens in design teams, you sort of put aside all the technical questions and have to wait until someone answers those questions that then informs design decisions moving forward. Whereas here we were immediately resolving problems as we went along. Now and then we had some questions for the back end but other than that, it just went so much faster.

And one more thing, normally when you work with technical people, even if they call themselves designers who code, more often than not those people are kind of “meh” about visual quality. They often think it’s not that important but that was not the case with thoughtbot. While we might have had different ideas about what “quality” means, everyone had the same attention to detail and desire to make the app look really good.

From a project point of view, did it save time to have designers who can code?

It expedites the whole design approval process. If design is separated from coding, it has to go through this process of delivering, and then feedback is implemented without us looking and checking that it’s correct. In this case with thoughtbot, because it was happening in real-time, for work that normally takes a week, the turnaround was happening in real-time basically in front of our eyes sometimes.

Something unique about this project was having two designers from the client own the UI direction which allowed the thoughtbot designers to focus on implementing.

This was actually the part of the project that I enjoyed the most. When we, as a team, had those daily sessions for an hour and a half, and we would just design things, resolve issues, and vote on them. I actually really enjoyed that our little organization of designers was flat, it was like everyone was equal. We often had different points of view, but we made decisions together really quickly.

What surprised you most about working with thoughtbot?

Designers can often be slightly territorial about their designs—but you are not. And just because you weren’t territorial it didn’t mean you washed your hands of responsibility. It was just like, “All right, you don’t like this. So what can we do that we all agree is a good way to proceed?” I wish I saw this type of engagement more.

The top of the For You page of the HBR mobile app

Do you have any final thoughts on what it has been like working with thoughtbot and the design team in particular?

When I look at the product right now, it’s polished and complete, it sets a high design standard. I understand some things are not perfect but in comparison to what I was expecting, this is so much more polished and done and complete.

Do you think in the end it was worth the cost of the engagement?

100%. Yes! Absolutely. And I’ll be the first one to say that. Working with vendors can be expensive. But if they provide unique value, the way you do, that’s ultimately the decisive factor.

If you had to sum up the unique value the thoughtbot design team presented, how would you describe that?

I would probably just try to draw the essence from what I’ve said before. People often collaborate but not in a way that not only just delivers a product, but makes the team grow. Where you learn new things and people on your team learn new things—that’s the best there is. It’s the best experience!

You asked me about the specific value thoughtbot provided and I believe it’s how deeply you engage with a client, unusually so. That speaks to the culture of the company—that you understand how companies work.

Read the full case study on our work with HBR