A Sneak Peek Inside Sigma’s Product Design Process
Product Designer at Sigma
Every company has its own product design and development cycles. Designers know that these processes tell you a lot about a company’s culture and values. Sigma has always had a very open and transparent work culture. A mindset to iteratively experiment and build is deeply ingrained across teams.
As someone who’s worked at Sigma as a Product Designer for almost 3 years, I’ve seen these values in practice many times during my experience designing workflows for nearly every aspect of our product. I’ve contributed to projects that involved defining and improving user experiences for data modeling, analyzing, charting, dashboard building, scheduling exports, materializing views, and platform-related administrative configurations.
To help shine a light on Sigma’s uniquely creative, iterative, and customer-focused culture, I’m going to share the process my team and I underwent to build one of Sigma’s more recently released features: Templates.
The Problem We Needed to Solve
The process of building a dashboard in Sigma consists of many steps. A new user has to tackle challenges like finding the right raw data, doing analysis in the worksheets, and creating visualizations.
Once that’s done, users need to assemble their insights for others by placing the visualizations onto a dashboard. This multi-step workflow requires that the user understand how to use the tool before they can get any value out of the product.
Project Goals and Guidelines
We wanted users to get value out of Sigma from day one. That’s why we decided to introduce dashboard templates to accelerate insight generation. We hypothesized that this would in turn improve our active user retention rate.
First we aligned on what content our ICP (ideal customer profile) wants to see. We narrowed down the common questions our ICP usually asks, the data they have, and the insights they need.
Stipo, our Product Manager (PM) engaged with our Solution Engineering (SE) team to create some example dashboards from sample data. In the meantime, Stipo and I did competitor research on how other products tackle similar problems.
Our north star for this project was to enable anyone to create a one-click dashboard. Data access was our first problem to solve. What if the required data didn’t exist in the users’ cloud data warehouse? What if the user didn’t have permissions to access the underlying data? Would users know how to find the data they needed to create the dashboard?
Next, we assembled a full team for this project: Stipo (PM), a backend engineer, a frontend engineer, and me (product designer). The engineers started by scoping how many 2-week sprints would be needed to enable the system to detect whether the template was compatible with existing warehouse data.
However, the time required to deliver this step was too long, so we reduced the scope of our minimum viable product (MVP). Rather than automatically determine whether data existed in the warehouse, we decided to require Sigma admins to take one extra step and manually select the required data tables themselves from their warehouse.
Constraining scope helped us in two ways:
- We delivered an end-to-end flow without any data access issues — organization admins in Sigma have access to all the data.
- We had time to beta test the feature with customers. Based on their feedback, we iterated and improved the experience so we could then release it to a larger audience.
How COVID-19 Impacted This Project
Four weeks into the Templates project, the global COVID-19 pandemic changed everything, including forcing us to work in ways that we weren’t used to. As a culture, Sigma is very collaborative — we constantly talk about ideas, problems, edge cases, and solutions while standing around a whiteboard.
At Sigma, designers are also free to choose the tools we feel comfortable working with. One tool I’ve used extensively — both before and during the pandemic —is Lucidcharts. This is a great tool to quickly create task flows and get everyone on the same page. Lucidchart also helps me get the team’s attention on questions that I need their help answering.
With work-from-home upon us, we turned to remote collaboration tools like Slack and Zoom to help us work better together from a distance. We created a private Slack channel for the team where I would drop workflows after Zoom brainstorm sessions. Everybody gave feedback on what I missed, any edge cases I should have considered, if something wasn’t feasible, etc.
Prior to the pandemic, we used a combination of Sketch, Invision, and Invision DSM for our design work. However, this tool stack created feedback and iteration delays in our “new normal” — designers worked alone in Sketch and uploaded a static set of mockups to Invision. We needed to be more nimble and collaborate live, as if we were together in front of the whiteboard.
Enter Figma. In Figma we found a live collaboration tool that cut out all of the delays and isolation. With Figma, the whole team can participate in the design process at once and move together effectively as a unit.
For the Dashboard Templates project, my initial design iterations were messy, quickly drawn wireframes. My main focus was to nail the user workflow flow prior to thinking about aesthetics. The final designs were always team decisions and were never black box.
Figma iterations where the team gave feedback that helped to improve the designs.
An instance where I shared a design to ask about technicalities in about our mapping interface. I got an answer within an hour that brought all of us on the same page.
Business as Usual…
With a remote-friendly workflow in place, it was time to get down to the visual design of the feature. Visual appeal was of critical importance for this project so I closely collaborated at every step with Stephen, the Visual Designer on the team. Stephen keeps our UI consistent with our design system and also ensures the aesthetics are top notch.
Design critique and approvals
Our design team holds bi-weekly design critique sessions where we showcase our work and solicit feedback from one another.This is where I got critical feedback and brainstorming support from my design teammates.
In parallel, I also worked on getting my designs approved by our product leadership team, including our VP of Design, Julie, and our co-founders, Jason and Rob. We iterated some more after their review, making sure we stayed true to Sigma’s design principles as well as technical and industry best practices.
One amazing thing about our executive reviews is that none of these stakeholders say “no.” Instead, they’re there to help us build better solutions together. At Sigma, everybody works together across levels and departments towards the same goal: the best experience for our customers.
What do users actually think?
At Sigma, we drink our own champagne — some of the heaviest users of our product are our employees! That’s why we often involve members of the sales, marketing, and solution engineering teams in our design review processes. It’s always helpful to bring in a fresh set of eyes to help “see” what I missed and spot potential issues before we put any changes in front of customers.
Sometimes our UX Research team will also do external user interviews to inform our designs. In the case of Templates, once the end-to-end flow was implemented and in our test environment, PM set up 1:1 testing sessions with beta customers and invited them to try the templates feature for themselves. We then collected and incorporated their feedback before moving on to the next phase.
Since frontend engineers always have access to the designs in Figma, they know what the UI is going to look like. They start building without having to wait for a final design approval. I love how our frontend engineers are willing to try out different (and sometimes crazy) ideas!
We got two big pieces of feedback from the first release:
- The template catalog on the homepage needed to command more attention. A simple text list went unnoticed on the homepage.
- The flow to select tables to map to templates needed to be simpler and should only be seen by users if the system failed to initiate smart data-to-template mapping.
I started iterating with our Visual Designer on improving the Templates Catalog screen. We also added indicators that would let users know which template-compatible tables were found in the user’s warehouse.
In parallel, I worked with PM to jot down best to worst case scenarios to avoid having to show the data mapping UI only to those users when the system is not able to automatically detect templates.
We released V2 with smart data mapping, following the iterative processes I described above. We have already started working on future changes for templates based on new feedback.
Ship, Track, Observe for Impact
We track all events connected to every feature we release. This is an example of how we drink our own champagne by building analytics on top of the telemetry data we capture.
Even after the V2 Templates release, we are nowhere close to done. We have started marching toward our next objectives. For this, we look forward to gathering customer feedback and usage data first to see what improvements we need to make.
Our main goal for the next version is to make the feature available to all “author” account types who have the ability to create documents in Sigma. In parallel, we want to add more templates for various analysis use cases. This will enable our sales and solution engineering teams to appeal to a broader user base.
What I love about our process is that we don’t let perfect be the enemy of good. We try ideas out, build things quickly, and engage users for feedback. In the meantime, we shipmany micro releases on a weekly (sometimes daily) basis. I have not operated this way as a product development team anywhere else in my career.
There are many people involved in making every feature a success. We work collaboratively and seek to hire teammates who are single-minded in helping users of our product succeed in their quest for data insights.
Our team is growing and we are looking for more people who love to solve complex problems and build a world-class BI product. If you think you’re up for the challenge, come work with us — we’re hiring!