On this episode of the RemoteTechPodcast series we interview James Barr, Senior Product Designer at Digital Creators. James shares insights from the different stages of the product design life cycle and explains how he collaborates with his team and his clients entirely remotely. Hope you enjoy the interview!
Here you can source all the things we have talked about in the podcast whether that be books, events, meet-up groups and what’s new in the Newcastle tech scene.
Leaving a positive impact
Working on trends
Get in contact
00:00:01:01 – 00:00:25:15
Well that I’m Andy Howard from RemoteTechPeople. And joining me today is James Barr from Digital Creators. James, welcome to the show.
00:00:25:20 – 00:00:26:11
Thanks, Andy. It’s good to be here.
00:00:26:24 – 00:00:36:14
Yeah, great to have you. So digital creators is a product and innovation studio. Can you tell us about what does digital creators do?
00:00:37:04 – 00:00:52:13
Sure. So Digital Creators is a venture studio and we do a lot of impact work. So a venture studio is an organization that builds an MVP or works on an early stage start ups products or services.
00:00:53:04 – 00:01:02:20
Yeah. Okay. So Digital Creators is just focused on that early stage MVP with the majority of the work that that you do.
00:01:02:24 – 00:01:09:18
Yeah, exactly. We do a little bit of growth work as well, so taking your product to the next level. But most of the work is that early stage stuff.
00:01:10:08 – 00:01:26:03
Yeah. Okay. And when you say products, you’re talking digital products and you’re describing MVP. So these are the first version of a digital product to be launched by any sort of company or organization.
00:01:26:07 – 00:01:41:07
Yeah, exactly. There’s a lot of new companies that form and then come to an agency and look to build that first vision for their product or service. And usually that’s a mobile app or a website or a web app, and that’s where we can help. Yeah.
00:01:42:02 – 00:02:00:05
And could you give me some examples of the sort of work that that digital creators does? I know there’s some that you probably can’t talk about just yet, but can you just give me some examples of the sort of projects that either digital creators might have done in the past or maybe some things that that you’ve been involved with already?
00:02:00:10 – 00:02:28:22
Sure. A great example that comes to mind is a project for a UK client, and we’re building a wellness app. So meditation and breathing and lots of that nice stuff that helps you or helps a person sort of take control of their lives and be healthier version of themselves. So that’s a great project. That’s a long term project that’s been going for about 18 months already and we really try to focus on that kind of impact work.
00:02:28:22 – 00:02:46:11
So that’s a big part of the DC culture and our business plan is working on what we call impact. So working with organizations that try to leave a positive impact on the earth or on people, and that’s that’s a key focus area for us.
00:02:46:12 – 00:03:10:17
Yeah, awesome, awesome, great mission. And so if I’m understanding where a venture studio fits in and what MVP means in this context, then this meditation client, they come to digital creators with this mission of creating this entirely new digital product, and digital creators is their partner to bring that to life. Is that is that how it works?
00:03:10:17 – 00:03:43:23
Yeah, exactly. So of course all clients have different budgets and different expectations, but this client in the UK, they didn’t exactly know what they wanted. So they’ve been the dream client in that sense. They’ve had a good budget and they’ve come to us and really partnered and we’ve explored through that discovery phase what they need. And mind you, I haven’t been there for most of this, but I’m just recounting the story that they came to DC and we’ve worked out what needs to be done together, tested that with customers.
00:03:44:03 – 00:03:52:20
It’s still testing. It’s just going through a pilot stage now, but it’s really getting very exciting in that iterative approach and hoping, hoping for a launch soon.
00:03:53:12 – 00:04:00:08
Awesome. And so you’re you’re a senior product designer. Can you tell me what that involves?
00:04:00:15 – 00:04:31:14
Sure. So product design is a little bit different in every company. For us, it’s a mesh of UI design, UX design and some product thinking. And I come into it with a bit of engineering background as well, which really helps. We’ve got four product designers at the moment and we’ll probably expand that in the next little while. The product designer, generally speaking, will work with the client to understand what their objectives are for, for a product or a project or service.
00:04:32:03 – 00:04:55:05
And then we do some discovery work. So interviewing customers and understanding their needs and their experiences in what we call the problem space. The more I come up with a product prototype and will validate that test it, iterate on it, and then eventually will get into an engineering phase where the product designer will help the engineers implement that design.
00:04:55:18 – 00:05:30:18
Well, so you’re all the way through the line. Everything from having those initial engagements with the client to understand what their objectives are and what sort of impact they’re looking to have through to doing research with customers and understanding the, I guess, the customer need that you’re probably hearing through what interviews and surveys and research methods like that, and then taking those findings into user experience design and user interface design and then going back to the customer and testing to ensure that the product is on the right track.
00:05:30:18 – 00:05:35:04
You’re doing that. You’re doing that whole product lifecycle as a product designer.
00:05:35:07 – 00:05:56:03
Exactly. Yeah. So it’s a really exciting role and the fundamental parts are constantly going back to the the customers or real people, we call them, and understanding whether the product works and if the service is working for them. And if it’s not, then we get it right and we try to find another solution or we just keep improving that solution until it does work.
00:05:57:00 – 00:06:22:23
And you mentioned you’ve got an engineering background and the the jumping off point that you talked about is as a product designer, you go through that whole product lifecycle and then you get to a point where you’re working with engineers to implement this product. Could you touch on your engineering background and how that may help or not help you in in your life as a as a product, as auto shop?
00:06:23:05 – 00:06:55:11
It’s really interesting. I think in the early noughties, early 20 tens, there was this real siloing of roles and UI designers, that UI, and that’s all in UX design as just do the research in the wire framing and that’s all. And developers just develop and that’s it. But I think in the last few years there’s been this improvement to the whole tech world, and now roles are much more broad and it really helps having that diversity of the skills.
00:06:55:24 – 00:07:36:12
So I find I spent about five years as a front end developer, just as a front end developer and in a design developer hybrid role and it brings a lot to my product design experience now, which is great, you know, fills me a lot more perspective on what’s possible. A Feasibility is a big part of what I can just inherently bring to the process, and I know it’s very much appreciated from the engineers doing a hand off or helping them implement and just taking a lot of their concerns in in the early stages of the project rather than getting to the end of a handoff or something like that without exploring how that affects the
00:07:36:12 – 00:07:39:03
engineering budget and resourcing and time.
00:07:40:15 – 00:08:04:23
Yeah, absolutely. So none of that. No, that all the methodology that you’re describing where things were just lobbed over the fence for for engineers to address is all get solved much earlier on in the process. And can you can you talk us through. So you’re describing collaborating with with clients and you’re talking about co-designing and testing with real people, as you call them, the customer.
00:08:05:10 – 00:08:27:06
You’re also talking about collaborating with your colleagues. All of this is happening remotely. Digital creators is a 100% remote organization. Can you talk us through firstly how you collaborate internally with your colleagues and then we’ll get onto what that looks like with, say, customers and and also the client.
00:08:27:17 – 00:08:48:00
So internally at DC, there’s a number of ceremonies we go through each week where we all check in with each other and we, we participate in some activities that sort of help define the culture and uphold the culture that’s been defined. We use a number of tools to help us get through that. So Slack is a big part of how we work.
00:08:48:09 – 00:09:15:00
We use Zoom, of course, like like every organization we use Zoom for our video conferencing for meetings and things like that. We use design collaborative design software, so Figma and Mirror really help us to collaborate on project sites, especially these design. I’m not sure what your audience has seen of the modern design tools, but they’re quite amazing in their capabilities for remote work.
00:09:15:00 – 00:09:46:20
So a big part of it is being able to see other people in the same files. Now, just like in Google Docs or slides, so that’s makes it a lot easier. You can actually just collaborate directly in the documents with commenting and even voice messaging within the apps. So that’s really cool. A big part of communicating at DC and upholding that remote culture, I think, is that the management team, the leadership team of DC have defined and designed what it means to be a remote company.
00:09:47:01 – 00:10:12:12
So they deliberately went about defining what it means to be part of Team DC and, and they uphold that through ceremonies. They hold it through check ins. In normal meetings, we could be working on a client project. The first 5 minutes of the meeting might be genuinely checking in with everyone on the call and asking them how they are and how they feel capable to work today and things like that.
00:10:12:22 – 00:10:37:11
And it was really eye opening moment for me to come in and see that I hadn’t experienced it before. It was really cool. And every three weeks we’re checking in regularly with that clients and doing a showcase at the end, and there’s regular check ins each week as well to support those. Okay, So we’re always understanding what’s being worked on at the time and Sprint goals and working towards that, which really helps bring a lot of structure into the process.
00:10:37:18 – 00:11:01:24
So for doing the research for our product design, we’re using the same tools. Again, we’re using Zoom a lot of the time to conduct it, and then we’re showing Figma prototypes and doing validation testing. We might be using other tools to help test qualitative quantitative parts of the process and making sure that our designs are validated and yeah.
00:11:02:15 – 00:11:39:09
Got it. Got it. And so you’re someone who’s very experienced with working on premise and throughout your time with digital creators and for some time before that, you’ve been working remotely when when you’re running these collaborative sessions, whether it’s with the team or whether it’s with clients. Have you found any tools which may have replaced or I guess are are the are an equivalent of all being in the same room and throwing ideas around and whether it’s whiteboarding or blackballing or whatever?
00:11:39:20 – 00:11:45:17
Are there any tools out there that have had that same sort of feeling to you? Like it feels like everyone is in the same room?
00:11:46:08 – 00:12:16:15
I think Mirror is the big one. That is an amazingly powerful tool for running workshops, for whiteboarding, for diagraming, for building out user flows, for building out really low fidelity wireframes. We use it for crazy eight sessions or ideation sessions. There’s a timer built in. It’s pretty amazing what you can do just by building a few boards and post-it notes and discussing collaboratively on an idea.
00:12:17:01 – 00:12:37:08
Behind that. We’re also using Zoom so that we can be talking to each other at the same time. Whether that’s camera on or off doesn’t really matter. Once we’re in the mirror, we’re just chatting to each other. We’ve got this goal and I think what what’s critical is having someone lead the meeting, lead the workshop and following an agenda.
00:12:37:21 – 00:12:46:15
That’s the biggest thing to keep the workshop moving and make it feel like it’s cohesive and a replacement for the in-person sessions.
00:12:47:23 – 00:12:59:16
So you recently started at Digital Creatives and that was actually your second time being onboarded remotely. Can you talk me through remote onboarding and what makes it work well for you?
00:13:00:06 – 00:13:26:01
Sure. Yeah. It’s a really interesting experience. The first time I experienced it, it was very new and foreign and scary the second time, not so much. And there were pretty different approaches to remote onboarding. But I’ve had to roll through this last two years and I think my key takeaway is that we really need employers to design that onboarding experience.
00:13:26:01 – 00:13:47:15
That first 9 a.m. meeting with your manager that first day and what you want that person to be doing. Because when you’re not in the office, you don’t have people just shuffling around your desk. It can be a little bit anxiety inducing, you know, a bit confusing. You don’t know what you’re meant to be doing. There’s just a lot of silence when you’re on Slack, but nobody knows who you are yet.
00:13:48:02 – 00:14:21:04
And you’re on Zoom, but nobody’s calling that sort of stuff. So I think it’s really critical to define and design that first day, that first day for the new employee and give them some opportunity to learn about the company and learn about the projects and learn about what they’re meant to be doing and help them get there. I think another big thing is potentially not just about the projects, but helping them make introductions to other employees in the company, telling them who they should meet and when and why.
00:14:21:09 – 00:14:38:09
So maybe there’s five company employees that they should meet in the first week because they’re critical to their success in their role. And then perhaps in the next two or three weeks they can meet some of the wider team. I think having that structure is really critical in a remote onboarding experience.
00:14:39:05 – 00:14:50:20
Yeah, great share, great share. And and just related to that, while we’re talking structure, what helps you stay productive when you’re when you’re working remotely?
00:14:51:11 – 00:15:17:21
MM It’s a really interesting one. I think maybe I take a different approach to the remote work thing for me. I try to implement basically a 9 to 530 workday and I’ve heard a lot of other people have a slightly less structured approach. Perhaps they try to start at I finish at six and try to put a few extracurriculars in the day, maybe duck out for a surf, do the shopping.
00:15:18:06 – 00:15:32:21
I just try to do it a normal workday. And I think that helps me switch on at nine and switch off at 530 or six and really just have my my evening to myself, my morning to myself and then dedicate my best self to work through the day.
00:15:33:18 – 00:15:35:19
And keep that keep that separation.
00:15:35:19 – 00:15:58:05
It sounds like I think the separations really important. I’ve got some friends that have done some remote work or most of my friends have now done some level of remote or hybrid work through the last two years. And of those that don’t don’t like it, don’t see it for them, I think they perhaps didn’t take that structured approach to their day.
00:15:58:11 – 00:16:08:01
I don’t want to write them out, but I think everyone will find that hybrid or remote work can benefit their lives. I just don’t know if they know how to do it. Yeah.
00:16:09:07 – 00:16:18:06
And where do you see that heading over the next few years? What do you see the the future of work looking like from an employee’s point of view?
00:16:18:24 – 00:16:39:18
From my point of view, I think it’s going to be hybrid minimum. I mean, I don’t think it’s nice to have anymore. I think I’ll be looking for hybrid or remote work for the rest of my career. I don’t think it would be a optional or nice to have for most employers in the tech space. I think this is a pretty good guide.
00:16:40:01 – 00:16:47:23
I think everyone in the text based designers and developers and product managers are going to be looking for pretty similar things as I am.
00:16:49:14 – 00:16:58:09
And what do you think that is? What is it about tech? Do you think that makes remote work such a good fit for for these different roles that that you’re describing?
00:16:59:22 – 00:17:39:06
I think because we’re at the forefront of technology and a lot of the software that comes out for tech is aimed at productivity. I think the tech space is well situated, well-positioned to benefit from the hybrid and remote work benefits. I do know some friends that work in architecture and building and planning and some of those industries have, of course, components of them that need a lot more in-person than even for their workshops and that that tools, that design software doesn’t have the same collaborative features being built in.
00:17:39:20 – 00:17:55:00
I think that’s one of the big things Figma, Miro, whimsical, all of these tools are getting these amazing features that allow you to collaborate, but I’m not seeing the same level of collaboration built into things like Arches or AutoCAD. Those things.
00:17:55:13 – 00:18:03:05
Interesting, Interesting. Well, that’s been a really great discussion and thanks a lot, James. Thanks for coming on the show.
00:18:03:13 – 00:18:05:00
Thanks, Andy. It was really great to chat.