Aligning design with product goals
Abhishek Sharma
August 17, 2020

When we started with Glific, we had a bunch of feature ideas in mind and a goal to achieve for the NGO end users. As is the case with all products. It was about solving a challenge, our users being the non-profits. There was not much form to that goal in the beginning, just a waving flag of the mission. We knew the process we were going to take through the journey. And that is the thing about building products with veterans and experienced team members that we believe in a process and are confident that through it, we’ll reach the end goal.

The afterthought

The design process at the start can feel abstract and perplexing. That could be one of the reasons why design is an afterthought for many products. A few other reasons for that could be:

  1. There’s a vision that the product should be a thing of beauty and it would work really smoothly, right from day one. This can add a lot of pressure and give a sense of misdirection if the real goal is really to push out features and get users to begin using the app.
  2. And yet, the initial design phase can still be straightforward because it’s about starting with a blank canvas. When more features get added, the product starts becoming complex, if a separate strategic design thought isn’t added too. 
  3. The tech team is empathetic towards the users and is adept at the initial design part which is mostly about capturing workflows as requirements. 

The process

With Glific we started really organically and with a good balance of design right from the beginning. While the tech team experimented with the tech stack, exploring the capabilities and prototyping how aligned available tech can be with the use cases, the design team focused on understanding the challenges of the users and generating insights for the features. Design focus was mostly on documenting the details that would feed into the product.

While the expectation from design was to have great looking screens, the design process itself in the beginning was quite ugly. Which is how any process of creation is. At the start we even resorted to verbal communication of how the layout would be. The discussions would go something like “let’s have a navigation at the top and a sidebar and main chat panel in the middle…” It definitely helped in moving forward rather than feeling stuck with what to do. A lot of times designers also feel stuck at this phase because the perfect thing isn’t in sight. Design is supposed to be the process of clearing abstraction not for the designers to be engulfed in it. And the process is to take small steps that make things clearer for the design and the rest of the team.

A set of wireframes at the early stage helped us with a visual reference for all the documented requirements. It was crucial for the front end team to have a reference to get started and for the design team to build into detailed workflows. 

This gave time to both front-end and design teams to experiment. The front end team used the Material UI framework to create the features initially. It showed us great progress.

Moving from wireframes to actual UI is also a big jump for the design team. And much more than the tactical jump, it was psychological. There’s always an ambition to create their magnum opus. But there’s also the hanging urgency to keep the team moving forward, and to have a unique look and feel too for the market positioning. While we didn’t have a ton of market research for the brand image, we went with experience and good judgement. The colors don’t sell initially the experience does, and how well it can solve the challenges. With all of these factors weighed in, we created our first set of fully furnished screens:

Collaboration and community

The tech team had already laid a good foundation for community contributions in the tech areas. For the success of open source nature of Glific and contributions from the community, we needed to have the same environment in design. We received nominations from folks at University of Berkeley, California and UPES.

Lobo introduced Glific to the design community and shared some insight and approach when designing for open source. It turned out to be really inspiring for all of us and the thoughts to be applied not just to one particular project but design approach in general.

Annie Zheng, Grace Ng and Akshara Kaushik have been the initial contributors to Glific designs apart from the core design team. We’re keeping various aspects of product design open for contributions including the communications, UI/UX, graphic design, and research. And no doubt that they’re already leaving their imprints on the product, only to be joined by more people in the coming times. 

It surely is a great opportunity for anyone looking to work with design systems, create user journeys, perform user tests, create prototypes, brainstorm features and other fun aspects of creating powerful interfaces and product experiences.

Closing thoughts and the way ahead

We began with a goal to build a cost-effective, and a powerful communications platform for the social impact sectors. Our plan is to create simple, easy to use and engaging product with our design hats donned. We are already receiving good feedback from the user base that our features are powerful, and we want the design to support in making it intuitive and a delight to use. 

There are few open source products and even fewer when combined with the social impact sector that get the design treatment that it actually deserves, it is also my goal to change that. Glific has the potential to change the way NGOs communicate with their beneficiaries and it is the design endeavour to make an impact.