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QuillBot: Raising the quality bar

At Course Hero, QuillBot's parent company, we strategically acquired European writing firms Language Tools and Scribbr, subsequently integrating them under the QuillBot brand after a year of independent operation. The unexpected launch of OpenAI's free AI service resulted in a 30% revenue decline for QuillBot. Prior to this revenue impact, our designers were often rushed into solutions due to a lack of scheduling rigor from PMs. In response, the product management team underwent a minor restructuring to reinforce our commitment to higher standards. Anticipating these challenges, my manager and I proactively initiated a quality shift months earlier to enhance our team's skills. We also focused on transforming product management from an output-driven mindset to an outcome-focused approach, ensuring our strategies were not just reactive but visionary in driving sustained excellence.

Responsibilities

  • Own design ops

  • Train PMs and designers on the power of mapping

  • Define individual and team growth opportunities

  • Developed trust principles to influence design decisions

  • Improve IC communication skills across the team

Goals​​

  • Improve product sense 

  • Make mapping a workflow habit

  • Implement more prototyping and UX research

  • Improve communication skills

Impact

  • Improved coordination and alignment between design & PM

  • Workflow Improvements: Mapping and prototypes became standard practice improving product designs

  • Improved design quality: Research sessions significantly improved when prototypes replaced static wireframes to review, and will overtime IC product sense

  • Communication confidence improved when product designers increased facilitation and collaboration opportunities

Challenges

English fluency varies widely among our team, creating challenges in collaboration with PMs who are inexperienced in leading design workshops. Many product designers lack strong foundations in UX/UI principles, mapping experience, and UX research, as they come from engineering backgrounds rather than design schools. Additionally, the lack of confidence in English communication hinders product designers from facilitating opportunities, preventing the design team from fully leveraging its impact across the organization.

Solution

Improved design and product management alignment

The new VP of Product Management recognized the issues stemming from PMs focusing on outputs rather than outcomes and lacking clear release schedules. After numerous discussions highlighting these challenges, it became evident that PM-led brainstorms were ineffective. As a result, designers have now taken the lead in all brainstorming sessions and quarterly planning meetings, significantly contributing to the product roadmaps. This improved coordination and alignment between design and product management leading to a more cohesive and efficient workflow.

This FigJam board shows the results of a Q2 product roadmap exercise. Annu, a design lead, facilitated the workshop to demonstrate the steps to running a brainstorm to product designers. After the brainstorm, Annu ran a retrospective to the differences of being a participant to a facilitator.

Enhancing quality of design through mandatory prototyping

Workflow improvements have significantly enhanced our product designs by requiring interactive prototypes for all reviews. Designers now thoroughly consider zero states, end states, and edge cases, understanding their critical importance. While some designers have questioned the necessity of prototypes, occasionally resulting in lower-quality solutions, others have fully embraced this standard, leading to a substantial improvement in overall design quality.

Empowering designers with research skills

The designers we hired transitioned from engineering backgrounds into design roles, many supported by UX design certificates. Despite their technical expertise, most initially lacked fundamental research skills. Developing working prototypes helped mitigate their apprehension towards testing their work. Guided by UX researchers during the initial studies, product designers gradually built the confidence to conduct their own research independently. This process enabled them to gather valuable qualitative data, complementing the quantitative insights provided by tools like Amplitude, and also freed up the researchers' time to focus on higher strategic initiatives.

Enhancing Design Critiques through Structured Coordination

Design critiques were significantly improved by appointing Crit Coordinators to manage activities, assign timekeepers, and designate note-takers. This approach challenged nearly every product designer, many of whom were working in a language that was not their native tongue. I guided all designers through the Osborne-Parnes creative problem-solving process to establish a consistent workshop framework. Subsequently, I requested that all design managers coach their teams to run brainstorms or workshops, facilitating groups of six or more to understand the distinct roles of participants and facilitators. This structured method not only fostered better organization but also promoted effective collaboration and creative problem-solving among the design teams.

Crit enhancements.png

Outcomes

The collaboration between design and product management saw significant improvements in coordination and alignment. Workflow enhancements, such as the adoption of mapping and prototyping as standard practices, led to more refined product designs. The quality of design increased notably as research sessions improved with the use of prototypes instead of static frames, fostering a better understanding of product design. Additionally, the confidence in communication among product designers grew as facilitation opportunities expanded, resulting in a more cohesive and effective design team at QuillBot.

Strategic Design Leadership

Design Intrapreneur

Implementation of mandatory mapping and prototyping practices produced high quality solutions influencing the product and design culture to become more nimble. 

Design Visionary

Shifted the product organization towards an outcome-focused approach, enabling designers to explore a wider range of solutions. 

 

Strategic Unifier

Identified that designers must assume responsibility for facilitating team workshops to guarantee that the outcomes are effective and actionable and that the best solutions are delivered through partnerships.

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