To highlight the perspectives of our leadership team here at Spire Digital, part of Kin + Carta, we have conducted a series of executive interviews to gain deeper insight into their unique backgrounds and their opinions on key topics. For this blog post, we interviewed Garrett Kroll, our VP of Design and Managing Director. Garrett co-leads all design services and processes at Spire, in addition to coaching all members of the design team. Garrett specializes in taking large and complex problems and distilling them into simple and intuitive experiences that accelerate business strategy.
Can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you got involved in UX/UI design?
Garrett: I started with some AutoCAD classes in high school. I was really fascinated with reverse engineering blueprint designs, which were part of the curriculum at the time. I thought it was a really interesting combination of artistic ability and problem-solving. That was my first introduction to the broad field of design. Eventually, I found my way into an architecture program at the University of Oregon, where I pursued my five year, professional degree. As you can imagine, the architecture program was heavily invested in the design process. It involved working with fellow students through the traditional phase of early research and early concept design, getting feedback through peers, and then ultimately refining the work into a detailed and spec ready design. The program also included physical models and 3D digital models. I worked with the Adobe Suite, and I knew how to make presentations and communicate information, which is a big part of design in general, but specifically the architecture curriculum. I had all the skills but I was craving more: more design, impact, and responsibility. I found my way into digital. I started at Spire and the rest is history.
What is UX/UI and why is it important for businesses?
Garrett: UX is a lot of things, but at its core, it’s defining digital experiences including all the little details. It is about information architecture and how information is arranged. It’s heavily research-based and qualitative in nature, where you’re trying to obtain data about the users and their needs. Ultimately, you’re working with all these things to create an experience that is intuitive and meets the goals of the users and the business. It’s not all about making things easy to use.
Then we have UI design which is a very important piece under this broader umbrella of what I would call product design. UI or user interface design refers to how an application looks and feels. Most of the time, this work closely aligns with the brand- we are trying to translate some larger brand visioning or initiatives into a product experience that’s unified. So as someone moves from print, web material, or any other touchpoints with a brand, it is important their interaction with the product is cohesive. Certainly, the line between those two gets blurry. As you can imagine, the way an application appears has an impact on how it works. There’s a lot of overlap so oftentimes, designers practice both UX and UI design.
Why is it important for businesses? The decisions that designers make can fundamentally impact the business, ideally, for good. As UX/UI designers, we can easily identify some key performance metrics using research processes, which highlight the goals of the business. We make changes via experiments to prove, through data, that our designed products are having a positive impact. Design is a fundamental lever to change business outcomes. There’s a lot of data, especially in the last five years, which proves that companies investing in UX/UI design are seeing an incredible return on their investment.
What is unique about your team’s UX/UI design process?
Garrett: In general, being in a consultative role gives us an advantage over many in-house teams. This is because we have seen a lot of different problems and we’ve worked in a lot of different verticals. In short, we always have a fresh set of eyes on a design problem. However, that’s not necessarily unique to Spire, that’s more agency versus in-house.
What we specifically do really well is bridge the gap between business strategy and user needs by translating the goals of the business into tactical design solutions. Oftentimes, designers will focus on optimizing the user experience so they’ll understand user pain points, and they’ll solve the problem based on those pain points. However, they don’t necessarily address the core business needs, or they don’t work within the technological, financial, and timeline constraints. We are able to effectively balance all these factors and sit in between them. If you think of a Venn diagram, we’re able to live in that center space and optimize for many needs.
In a similar spirit, we’re often building products from the ground up, so we have to think about how to design solutions that scale. We may only work with a client for six months but they may be iterating on that same product for five years. Therefore, we need to think about design with a more systematic lens and from an information architecture standpoint. It is important for us to understand how the applications we create, or parts of these applications, support the long-term business needs. It is a balancing act between the short term versus long term.
Additionally, with the maturation of design systems and the efficiencies they create, we’re able to spend a lot more of our time focusing on the high-value aspects of the product, which are unique to the business and are commonly about 20% of the product. There is always something that’s unique to every application, and we intentionally devote about 80% of our time unpacking and translating that into a great experience. Then we use the remaining 20% of our time to focus on the rest of the application that usually leverages common design patterns.
Lastly, I think we do a really good job of guiding our clients. Oftentimes, they are not familiar with the nuances of building software and they don’t yet understand what it means to go through a design process. But that’s why they hired us! We’ve become very good at educating clients on the design process in general – how to progress through it, what questions to ask and when, etc.
Read more about UX/UI process:
Can you touch upon the iterative nature of user experience design?
Garrett: There is no user experience design without iteration – it is fundamental and core to the work. If it wasn’t user experience, design, it would just be requirement design, which essentially means someone has an idea, and we’ve executed it. User experience design says we need to include feedback from the users and you cannot do that without iterating. Commonly, anytime you put designs in front of users, you’re going to learn something. I’ve been on a lot of user tests and interviews over the years and I’ve never left a session having not learned something.
To build on that feedback, there’s a process of understanding what is valuable, what is relevant, and what isn’t. That takes some expertise and experience to be able to determine. The most valuable and successful designs are going through that process numerous times: iterating, coming back, and then seeing what was learned in the process. Some would argue that the learning is really just beginning once you have real users, not just testers interacting with the software. These users are paying to use this product so suddenly the stakes are higher.
What is dual-track agile?
Garrett: Dual-track is simply a way to integrate more time and resources to research during a project. Commonly, research is linear. For example, there’s a discovery or research period where we’re trying to cover the big questions such as the goals of the project. Then we move into product delivery, which includes design and development. In contrast, dual-track runs discovery and delivery as parallel workflows. In other words, discovery happens in iterative sprints throughout the product development process, ensuring that future epics are validated before they are built. The core of dual-track agile is validation work. Validation can happen through any number of methods, such as interviews or surveys, which are appropriate given the goals of the feature.
Once we have validated our core hypothesis, we will hand off that design direction to our product team to then go through the design process of refining, and ultimately building the product. If we have not validated certain features to be worthy of our time and investment, we will scrap them. We may pivot to something very similar, we may scrap it altogether. That’s why the flexibility of agile development is so valuable. You’re not hamstrung by the need to deliver on these exact things, you have the flexibility to change. Dual-track gives you the best of both worlds, it allows for more traditional research, while also providing flexibility to deliver in an agile development process.
Read more about agile development:
What trends do you see emerging in the design space?
Garrett: More system-wide thinking and thinking about the reusability of design components. This is not necessarily a future trend, it was established a few years ago, but it is maturing right now and it’s exciting to see.
There’s also this need to intentionally and thoughtfully design solutions that establish trust. There’s a lot of skepticism with many products today, and a growing number of people are concerned about how companies are collecting their personal information. I’d say designing for trust and transparency is more important now than it was three or four years ago.
Lastly, I think we’re going to see a shift in interfaces or screen experiences that require input from users. We’re going to get better at anticipating user needs, enabling our products to present sets of options or default states that users can then interact with and modify to derive value, without requiring manual input prior. In the future, we’re going to get better at anticipating those needs.
We owe a big thanks to Garrett for taking the time to shed some light on key UX/UI design practices and trends! Learn more about Garrett and the executive team here.