Product Hero is our bi-weekly series to highlight outstanding members of the product management community. These industry leaders share tips on processes, team building, how to be a better product manager, and who they are outside of their careers. This week our product hero is Billy Kiely, Vice President of Product Design at InVision.
C. Todd: Today, I’m joined by Billy Kiely. Thank you for joining us. Can you tell us about your background? How did you become a designer?
Billy: I’ve been with InVision for just over four years now. Back in high school, I was in a vocational program centered around graphic design where I’d spend close to half of my day. As new media started coming into the mix I split my time between the two. When I went to college I followed the same path, enrolling in a program that was a mix of web design, video, motion, and traditional graphic design. It was exciting designing for these new mediums.
I met my future business partner in college and we soon started a design studio together. We took it as it came and learned from a lot of the successes and mistakes we made. We grew fairly quickly, doing work for some prominent Canadian brands.
During that time, the iPhone came out and people started designing mobile apps and learning how to create for this new medium. That was when I got my introduction to product design, as we worked on a few applications for client projects. The iterative component of working on product design really appealed to me. You would put things out there, get feedback, and refine your work.
I then left my company to pursue a new passion in product design, working with a handful of clients. I freelanced for about another five years before my introduction to my role at InVision.
C. Todd: Tell me a little bit about InVision’s focus right now. As their Vice President of Product Design, what keeps you up at night?
Billy: We’re in a very exciting space right now. What started as a prototyping tool is evolving into a robust design collaboration platform used by everyone from project managers to designers, to developers and writers. Prototyping still plays a key part in our product, but there’s a bigger audience to serve. There are many people who are realizing how design can impact their business, solve tough problems, and help them make important decisions using design conversations. We’re still working on optimizing our platform to connect these different stakeholders and collaborators. It’s so exciting more people are realizing the power of design.
C. Todd: It can be tough being a designer creating a tool for designers. How do you incorporate some of the features you know from personal experience would be helpful, while balancing that out with input from your users?
Billy: Yeah, it’s definitely exciting to develop a platform you use yourself in your daily work. We’re solving problems related to my own personal workflow and problems my team is having. Many of the early features in InVision came out of our team solving collaboration issues we were experiencing.
It’s also quite dangerous when you’re your own core user. Everyone has a different approach and use case for InVision, from finance to healthcare. Our users are solving different problems with different features. We spend a lot of time talking to our millions of users, understanding their difficulties and use cases. We always have to be mindful we’re not our only user.
C. Todd: How often do you speak with your customers?
Billy: We speak with our customers regularly and are reaching out to different personas as we scale. We have an in-house research team that helps designers and product managers connect to our base. Being a distributed team, the meetings we have and insights we gather happen over Slack, Google Hangouts, or Zoom. We also get product people and engineers working together in various cities, often by lining up a bunch of customer visits to do in person as a team.
For certain products, we’ve set up advisory groups in Slack where we engage and facilitate conversations between users. We are also active in online communities like Designer Hangout, Designer News, and Product Hunt, which are hugely valuable for feedback.
C. Todd: I think a lot of teams still struggle with that. You mentioned being a distributed team. How do you manage for that?
Billy: We’re a largely distributed team. InVision has about 300 people total, spread across 19 different countries. You can imagine it has challenges with different time zones, different languages, etc. We make it work. That’s one of the really fascinating things about InVision. As a fairly large company, we’re retaining our startup culture when we’re in all different parts of the world.
In-person meetings are key for relationship building. We have 12 product teams throughout our company that function as partnerships between product and engineering. There’s a product designer and a product manager along with an engineering manager on each team. We call them our spectrum teams because they’re named after colors. Once a quarter, each of the spectrum teams does an offsite… We should really call them onsites since everyone is remote. We give them objectives and tasks to work through as a team. Having a good three or four days of in-person time together is the goal. It does a lot for productivity once everyone has returned home and back behind their screens.
C. Todd: How would you categorize the way your team works? Agile, waterfall, something else?
Billy: We have done it all at this point. We’re in a constant state of iteration on our process. The industry is changing as our team is growing. I’ve seen InVision go from seven people to 300 in the last four years, with different departments in the organization, including a whole product and engineering organization. Due to our rapid growth as a team, we continue to iterate and refine our process. Right now, we’re fairly Agile and we’re incorporating proper Design Sprints, which is working well for us.
C. Todd: Thinking about that accelerating growth, how has that changed InVision as a whole? You’ve been there since 2013, there must be a lot of evolution of the culture. How did you manage creating products during this change?
Billy: When I started, we had one designer and three engineers. We had a Trello board titled “Engineering” that we populated at the end of every week and would follow up on the following week. That evolved to something with more structure in JIRA and GitHub as we built up engineering. For the longest time, we didn’t have any product managers. The product design team was defining features and handing them off to engineering. It was very waterfall for a time and since we were so small, it worked.
As we grew and matured, we created a scalable process that empowers our teams to guide their own roadmaps and define the products they’re building.
C. Todd: You mentioned roadmapping. How does your team define a roadmap and how do you use a roadmap when building products at InVision?
Billy: We don’t tend to roadmap too far ahead. Quarter by quarter we take a look at the major initiatives each team is working on. We paint a big picture of where we’re going, the goals we have, how we’re going to get there, and how each team is involved.
We avoid defining a feature too far ahead. Each one of our product teams, even though they have their own focus, are all working together toward the same vision. We stay aligned on the bigger picture and define themes for the year or the next couple of quarters. We’re working on creating a better artifact that also contains how each team is mapped out against the bigger vision.
C. Todd: Was there a time where the roadmap really helped in developing a strong product, or on the flip side, a time where something that was on your roadmap got removed because you realized it wasn’t the right thing to build?
Billy: Inspect is a good example of that. We defined Inspect as a design-to-development feature and fleshed out the scope over a year ago. It was a fairly big task for engineering to take on. We defined the personas we were targeting, the basic feature set, and once some of our systems got to the right place, we shipped a V1 that closely resembled its roadmap.
From there, the team went into iteration mode, listening to the advisory groups to influence the product. We focused deeply on the needs of the developers. That’s what’s really shaping the roadmap of our future, identifying our user’s biggest needs and prioritizing appropriately against our business goals and objectives.
C. Todd: As data and data science increasingly play a strong role in product design, how do you use data to inform InVision’s products? And how are you building products to help other designers harness data?
Billy: Craft was our first leap into designing with data, the first-ever “in-app” Sketch and Photoshop plugin that allows users to enrich mockups with real data in their prototypes. We’re also working on ways to help users gain insight into how their audience engages with their InVision prototypes. We’ve made some early moves in this direction with our UserTesting integration.
As we’re continuing to shape our product team and our company, we’re starting to invest heavily in data science and engineering. We brought Dr. Manu Sharma on board last year to lead this effort and he’s been an incredible addition to the team. The insights we gain from data and usage is so powerful for making product decisions and interpreting other metrics.
C. Todd: What’s missing from the product and design conversation? What are we not talking about that we should?
Billy: There’s a tendency for designers to jump right into design-mode before fully thinking through the strategy, goals, objectives, and forming a strong foundation of the problem they’re solving. Designers should focus on understanding the problem before tackling the solution.
I also think there should be a focus on connecting with stakeholders and other business units who can help with understanding the problem and ultimately shape the solution. Often times, these stakeholders are looped in at the end and not through the iterative stages in the product design process—which is too late. Designers need to bring this diversity into the mix more often to help understand core user problems before rounding out solutions. That’s really the power of collaborative design—and InVision’s strength. We’re seeing that grow in organizations that are investing in design.
C. Todd: What advice would you offer someone who is looking to move into the world of product design?
Billy: Don’t shy away from wearing multiple hats. I learned that early in my career at my design studio. That’s the nature of product and how you find your specialty. Even when I joined InVision, I was coding up marketing emails and designing ads, even some print work. As the team grew, we were able to specialize in different areas. Eventually our design team broke off into marketing, product, and various roles in between. That continued to evolve within our product team, creating research and product management functions.
Everybody’s goal here is to constantly evolve and reshape. If you have the opportunity to dive into a space that may be outside of your comfort level, whether it’s product management or data science, don’t be afraid to jump in and help out.
C. Todd: Where do you think product design is heading?
Billy: We’re starting to see design and product design happen at the component level. There’s value in creating micro-experiences and how they affect the overall customer experience. Establishing a set of patterns is allowing designers and design teams to think through bigger problems and richer user journeys rather than simply how polished the visuals look.
We’re designing customer experiences, or journeys, for our product. The medium, or how the user will interact with a device, will be in a constant state of flux over the coming years as we move from iPhones to Androids to tablets and everything inbetween. Our goal is to create the best possible experience in how a user accomplishes something.
C. Todd: Cool. Well, that’s great. On that note I want to thank you so much for spending some time chatting Billy and for being our product hero.