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March 25, 2020

Unfinished business: How to build a product without constraints

Happily ever after?

“Thanks for everything!” And with that, the Pitch project was over. I’d just gotten off a video call with our main client stakeholder and he sounded really happy with us, but I wasn’t so sure. Had we even been that helpful? Was he genuinely satisfied with our work? We’d touched nearly every aspect of the product, their visual design language, and even riffed on logo design, but without staying on to see the weekly progression through to the finish line, doubt lingered in my mind as to whether or not we could call this project a success.

Truthfully, I knew this project would be atypical from the beginning; I’d witnessed my team grow in new ways and I was proud of both the relationships we’d developed and the quality of the work we’d created as a result. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that my doubts didn’t have anything to do with Pitch or the project outputs at all. Instead, it was a reflection of how narrow my definition of project success had become.

How we get from starting to shipping

At MetaLab, we pride ourselves on end-to-end design. We’ve established a reputation and a client list on our ability to take big ideas and turn them into products people love and can use right away. Sure, blue-sky thinking is an important part of every project’s creative journey, but time constraints and practicalities put a cap on how much dreaming we can do before it gets in the way of the quality of the end product.

Our track record and experiences have led us to develop a general framework for how we run a project. This doesn't mean we take a "one-size-fits-all" approach—every partner is as unique as their needs. What it does mean, however, is that most of our projects have a clear beginning, middle, and end; we rely on well-defined project plans and processes to serve as guardrails for our thinking and ensure expectations are met on both sides.

Learn more about our typical process.

Still, we’re always up for exploring alternative ways of working when opportunities as exciting as Pitch come along.

Pitching a new approach

Initially, the ask from Pitch founder, Christian Reber, sounded familiar —and right up our alley: “We have this idea, we want to turn it into something real, and we want your help to do it.” We were excited to dig in.

Soon, though, we found ourselves a bit out of our element. With a $50 million investment to build the collaborative presentation software for modern teams, they’d made a conscious decision to approach a more experimental relationship with us as design partners.

Final designs supplied by the pitch team.

Reimagining a product as institutionalized as PowerPoint requires a creative environment where it’s safe to poke holes in (or protect) the status quo, so that became our main job. Rather than looking to us to tackle the full product or lead the charge on a defined feature set, they wanted us to operate as a continuation of their own internal design team who could challenge their thinking and provide alternative perspectives.

The beauty of unfinished business

There are elements of our typical process that are highly collaborative, but working with the Pitch team took our concept of collaboration to a whole new level. Instead of designing separately towards set milestones, each team would take turns generating ideas and riffing off of each other's thinking. Some weeks, we’d dive deeper into a particular focus area only to go in the complete opposite direction the next. Other times, their team would present ideas to us and we’d give them feedback (or vice versa). Lo-fi prototypes or half-baked concepts would be abandoned only to reappear in later iterations.

Week over week, new rules of engagement began to develop. At first, we were uncomfortable handing over incomplete thinking; it was hard to let go of ownership over quality and polish, and we had to learn how to operate in a permanent state of fluidity. But for Pitch, it wasn’t as important to spend time on structure and formalities. They wanted to get down to work instead of spending time defining how we planned to get it all done, especially because their priorities were apt to change and shift as a growing startup. Eventually, though, through this tag-team approach, we came to a consensus on what did and didn’t need to be in the product, all the way from layout decisions to how to differentiate Pitch in the market.

Our team, drawn by the Pitch team. New profile picture, anyone?

Elements of this working style were extremely liberating. With so much freedom and so few limitations, we could take the time to do the things we thought were wrong but wanted to try out anyway. Every time, we surprised ourselves with what we learned and we were able to develop more concrete arguments for the pursuit of one functionality over the other. Where most clients need us to work quickly on our own to iterate and arrive at foolproof solutions, the Pitch team embraced divergent directions and wanted to be part of arriving at the best solutions together.

What we left (and learned)

In the end, we left Pitch with a kaleidoscope of work in varied formats and states of completion. We also gave them a component library in Figma with visual design and icon work that they could pull from as needed in an effort to set them up for future success. When we checked in on them a few months later, we were happy to discover that they’d been putting our unfinished files to good use as they continued to refine their MVP. Thanks to Figma, we could see exactly when things were touched last and by whom, and not a single one of our files had been left for dead. It was pretty cool to see designers we’d worked with — and even some who’d been hired since we left — poking around and drawing inspiration from our initial ideas.

Discomfort is often the gatekeeper of learning and growth. As a design leader on our team, it’s my job to support the good kind of discomfort and fend against the bad. This can be a tricky exercise, but projects like Pitch push me to get better at discerning between the two. Since wrapping this work, I’ve embraced of similarly unconventional partnerships that come through the door in the hopes that my “loosening by example” will give our process more room to breathe. This project wasn’t typical for us by any stretch of the imagination, but once we were able to let go of the reigns and relax into uncharted territory, we were surprised by how much there was to be gained in trying something new.

Push the envelope where it counts

When it comes to the creative process, staying in your comfort zone can be more dangerous than venturing outside it. Even on tight budgets and short timelines, there are ways to practice "radical innovation” without breaking the bank. One method that we lovingly refer to as “The Tarantino,” is a great exercise to try when you’re looking to generate out-of-the-box ideas quickly and effectively. Another way to use your creative reserves wisely is to focus on differentiation where it counts. Don’t reinvent the wheel for the sake of it. Pick and choose where to push so the product can have a transformational impact where it matters most.

Discomfort is often the gatekeeper of learning and growth.

More structure isn’t always better

No matter your typical project style or constraints, use structure sparingly. Obviously, it's a huge part of keeping things on track and establishing shared rules of engagement. But when there’s a little less rigidity and a little more appetite for “let’s see what happens,” creativity flows in a way that’s unhampered by egos, insecurities, or fears of getting it wrong.

You have more to offer than you think

Lastly, don’t pigeon-hole yourself or what you bring to the table. You can make hypotheses and educated guesses about how you might be able to best contribute to a project, but don’t assume you know exactly what others might get from working with you. In our case, we were the right partners for Pitch not only because of our ability to make interfaces, but also because of the quality of our thinking and our approach to project management. By the end, we were giving input and direction on things that would normally fall outside our typical scope and expertise thanks to the trust that we’d developed with their team.

Weekly bulletins kept both teams moving and organized

So, could I rightfully call the Pitch project a success? Absolutely. Not because our team created every flow or vector, but instead because our involvement has continued to permeate and inspire long after we left. Part of creating solid products requires a willingness to exhaust the bad and the mediocre to get to the good; we helped Pitch cut through a lot of that clutter and clear the path to success.

For more about Pitch and the product we designed together, read the case study.

Celebrate little wins
Embrace the scroll
Coach them though big ideas
Embrace the scroll
...make sure anyone can use it
Give them one task at a time
Teach by example
Create a 'consumer-friendly' feel
Focus on the most common user needs, but...
Start with mobile
Principles we
can use today