Designing Asana: A day in the life of a product designer
January 23rd, 2017
The Product Design team at Asana works cross-functionally with engineers, researchers, customer operations, and many other teams to bring our product roadmap and vision to life. They balance their visual insights and strategic thinking to deliver a polished product that is powerful, simple to use, and beautiful. Here’s a look inside our Product Design team and the work they do each day.
We met with a few product designers to learn about their backgrounds, what a typical day looks like for them, what kind of work they do, and how they connect with the rest of the Design team every day.
Meet Adam, Greg, Paul, and Ryo:
Tell us a bit about your background.
Adam: Most of my experience leading up to Asana was in the agency world, where I developed an early propensity toward web and interactive design over print work. Over the course of my 5–6 year tenure at agencies, I got more experience in web design, started doing responsive web design, and transitioned into more product-focused roles designing apps—or portions of them. I really enjoyed that work, but eventually came up against the natural constraints of working at an agency: there’s work you wish you could do that you can’t, simply because of budget or engineering resources.
Paul: I started out my career as a print designer, then became a web designer, and then I was the sole product designer at a startup in Madison, Wisconsin. While there, I was responsible for designing the entire product.
Ryo: I spent the last two years leading and building out design at a Chinese payments startup in Shanghai. Prior to that, I co-founded a couple of startups and received my degree in Computer Science and Biology from McGill University in Montreal.
Greg: I grew up pursuing fine arts and photography, but never took it too seriously, or formally—I actually studied finance and political science in college, and worked as a financial auditor for four years.
After that, I attended my first year of law school, but realized being a lawyer wasn’t for me. I had the idea to start something of my own, and a friend and I launched an Airbnb management and concierge service. That’s where I picked up my product chops and put my love of art and design to work. But after some time, we realized it wasn’t something we were passionate about, so I began freelancing for early-stage startups.
That’s where I started doing everything from research to development and refining products. However, what was missing was the full loop of working on a product in-house: the research and discovery, the planning and roadmapping, the designing, building, shipping, analysis, and revamping. I was looking for a mission-driven company, and ended up at Change.org for two years. Then I made my way to Asana.
What led you to Asana?
Paul: I discovered Asana in my previous role, as we were developing a feature related to task management. I evaluated a whole host of task managers and, through the process, learned about Asana and its culture and product. The company values really vibed with me, and the fact that the company was still pretty small, really flat, and that designers had larger decision-making capabilities was really important to me.
Adam: Funnily enough, one day I was watching a Creative Mornings video—the episode featuring Ben Blumenfeld from Bridge on managing career transitions—and I tweeted him because I liked what he had to say (he was talking about mindfully managing your career transition, which is what I was going through at the time).
Well, he responded to me and told me about the Bridge program. I looked into it, but didn’t think I’d have much of a shot at being accepted, especially coming from an agency background. The whole world of product design felt inaccessible, particularly within Silicon Valley—like trying to break into a tight-knit bubble where I had no prior experience. But I saw the program as a way of getting into the bubble, so I applied—and the rest is history!
Ryo: Amanda Linden, Asana’s Head of Design, reached out to me on Dribbble. I was really sold during the interview process — it was really fun. I remember thinking how everyone I met with was competent and that I could grow a lot on this team.
What is unique about the Asana Design team?
Ryo: Feedback is a huge part of our process. Every week we have Design Critique, where we review each other’s work and provide feedback for iteration from designers and PMs. It also makes it feel like you’re involved in everything that’s going on, not just your projects.
Adam: The whole team embodies a message of design empowerment—designers here have a lot of influence over the product. Designers here have a serious seat at the table. We also have a really balanced mindset, which is something that I found was lacking in previous jobs. Working on a team that’s almost zen-like in their focus has been really refreshing.
Greg: We care not only about our mission and the work that we’re doing, but also about one another as designers—and about the entire company. Everyone here is able to galvanize support and execute.
Paul: It’s a truly collaborative team effort to design our software. This is mostly amazing, but comes with its challenges—like, you can’t make decisions based on what you think is right all the time. I’ve become a much better designer because I’m constantly being pushed by a team of designers whom I deeply respect. I also work really closely with engineers and PMs. Engineers will often come to me with edge cases and we’ll talk through solutions together. With PMs, we bring a balance of visual sensibility and strategic thinking. We all complement each other really well.
What’s the most interesting design challenge you’ve faced at Asana?
Adam: I work on the Track Anything team, which tends to touch many areas of the product. Building Custom Fields, we had to consider all of the places where things are affected by the feature across the entire product and make everything feel as integrated as possible. That was a huge challenge.
Paul: I’d have to say the redesign—so many pieces of the puzzle came together over the course of six months. Contributing to that was really challenging and rewarding, not just because of the sheer quantity of work that went into the rebrand of Asana and the redesign of the app, but also because we faced the challenge of the two systems diverging. I acted as an advocate for a more cohesive system between product and marketing, which led to things like our corange plus button and how we use gray across product and marketing.
On using Asana while designing it
Adam: I would prefer it that way; it’s ideal. Having that closeness to what you’re designing is really important. At the same time, we tend to use it in a totally different way than our customers do. Our team gets a ton of feedback externally, but also internally because we’re constantly dogfooding our product. There are people who write to us regularly, and that kind of feedback is really important.
Greg: Coming from Change.org, I was used to working on a tool that empowers people on a daily basis. Asana follows this up by empowering any team of people to get things done—including everyone at Asana! It’s an exciting challenge to be building something that I use everyday, but also know there’s a diversity of teams that rely on us to understand and respond to their needs. Every time I tell someone I’m a designer at Asana, I love when they say, “I use that!” and then I wait for their inevitable feature request.
A day in the life of an Asana Designer
The team usually eats breakfast together between 9:30–10:00am.
Weekly meetings are spread over different days, giving designers and relevant stakeholders a chance to gather and review recent work, provide feedback, and ideate.
The entire design team tries to eat lunch together, especially since product designers sit with their program teams and communications designers have their own space. Eating together gives us a chance to build camaraderie while chatting about 80s movies, new music, our hobbies, and weekend plans. We believe that having strong relationships between designers on different teams improves communication and collaboration.
Afternoons are usually spent between heads-down design time and program meetings or syncs. Product designers sit with their program members: engineers, PMs, and other designers, which makes collaborating off the cuff easy. Taking mental breaks between design flow time, designers often hang out in our design studio space, play retro video games, or chat over coffee at our in-house coffee bar.
We’re excited to announce that we’ll be partnering with Bridge—a professional development program for exceptional designers—again this year. Through Bridge, designers apply to become Fellows, join a partner company (like Asana) and become part of a supportive group of influential designers. Bridge Fellows meet weekly on Tuesday evenings for family-style dinners, workshops, and inspiring talks from leading creatives. Each program explores craft and leadership skills, then dives deep into one focus area. If you’re interested in learning more about the Asana design team and Bridge, check out the Bridge website. Apply before March 1, 2017 to be eligible for the Product Design Program.