This year, Ekos launched a new user interface (UI), Ekos Boost. Boost represents the future of Ekos as a platform, and it makes the experience of using Ekos faster, easier, and more intuitive.
We wanted to get the inside scoop on how Ekos Boost was designed, so we went straight to the source: the Ekos product design team! In this Q&A, we chatted with director of product design Will Hortman, user experience (UX) architect Arwen Varner-Howland, and product designer Hannah Luc (who we will refer to as “Luc” below).
How did this project get started and what were the goals?
Will: The Boost project was originally a replatforming effort [upgrading the architecture of the Ekos platform]. It was primarily a much-needed engineering project to improve both the performance and scalability of the platform, but we realized there was also an opportunity for the design team to incorporate some important usability improvements. So, we were able to step in and add a complete UI uplift and a new navigation structure.
Take me through the design process at a high level.
Will: The creative process is messy and chaotic. At first you’re just trying to get ideas out. One of the things I’m thankful for is that we work for a company that allows us space to let that creative chaos inform design direction. We start with conceptualization, where we may already know our constraints but we still allow ourselves room to explore and think big. Then, later on, if it turns out that our big ideas aren’t within the scope of the project, we can always pull it back. But we have to always be pushing beyond what we think our capabilities are as a company, because otherwise that means we’re holding back.
On the process front, one great outcome of this particular project is the design system we’re using now, which came out of a one-month sprint we did in January. With this design system, every time we create a new feature or component, we ask ourselves, “Can this be reused?” And if the answer is yes, we pull that into the design library. And every time we do that, it speeds up the creation of what’s next. It also ensures, to a certain degree, that when a user sees a new feature, they’re not seeing something brand-new every single time. The components and the way it’s put together are all familiar.
Why is that consistency so important from a user’s perspective?
Arwen: It’s all about cognitive load. It’s about making things familiar, straightforward, and obvious. It makes things that used to feel really painful, confusing, and stressful now feel easy and effortless. It’s a huge mental strain when you have to spend energy figuring out how to use a product when you’ve already got so much stuff to do. Here’s one example of how we strive for consistency in Ekos. We have a lot of processes where you go through multiple pages in the product, so for consistency, the buttons are always blue when you’re in the middle of the process. And when you reach the very last page, it turns to a blue-green gradient. It’s a consistent way of letting you know that you’re on the final step.
Will: One of the things we hope for is that users can figure things out in Ekos without having to contact support. It’s a complex system, and we don’t expect that we’re going to do such a great job as designers that our implementation or support teams won’t exist. And our support is top-notch, so it’s weird to say I’m trying to reduce emails to them, because they’re so good. But discovery of all the features and capabilities in this, frankly, amazing piece of technology shouldn’t be something users have to call to figure out. If we’re doing our jobs right, they should be able to just try something out and see how it benefits them, and even experiment a little.
Luc: It should be a fun experience!
Will: Are you saying business management software should be fun? Hell yes!
Besides the user experience, what kind of impact can good product design have?
Arwen: It makes you more competitive. A mistake companies often make is they only prioritize the number of features a product has, because you can market that. The problem is, if those 100 things are so difficult to figure out that a user has to call for support every time they use them, effectively your product only has, say, 10 features. In other words, if your features are so painful to use that people will not use them, they might as well not exist.
Will: In this day and age, product design and the user experience are the differentiators between companies and their competitors. Although, to some extent, we [as product designers] don’t care what our competitors are doing. I care because I don’t want customers leaving us to go to a competitor, but I’m not going to look to them for design inspiration. There are only two sources of information I care about — the main one is the customers themselves, because design has to be all about the user. But for inspiration, I look at the absolute best digital products out there, even if they’re not in our industry, because we know they’re delivering a good user experience and we can bring that into Ekos.
What are some of those sources of inspiration?
Will: The Starbucks app. They have a floating action button in the bottom right corner, and the animation on it is really nice. Whenever someone “treats me nice” in their digital applications, I notice.
Arwen: There’s a spreadsheet app called Airtable that Luc and I both like. That’s a great one.
Will: Miro and Figma are a couple of tools we use as a team and the way they handle product announcements and notifications is really nice. What I love about Figma is that every time I’m about to get annoyed by something or notice a bug, they fix it. In some cases, they’re releasing new features before I even know that I need them. That is the pinnacle of product design and engineering.
Arwen: I literally keep a folder of “good design” and “bad design” examples organized by type of feature, so I have inspiration going back almost a decade.
When you think back on Ekos Boost as a project, what are you really proud of?
Arwen: I’m really proud of how we worked together on it. The product design team had only spent a few months together at that point and we jumped right in and were really collaborative.
Speaking of collaboration, as a team, would you say you each have different strengths?
Will: Arwen and I think more architecturally and technically. And that’s why, when we were looking to add someone to the team, we needed someone who was both a generalist (because we’re a small team) and a naturally talented visual designer. And that’s Hannah Luc. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that what you actually see in Boost is probably most influenced by Luc, the most junior person on our team.
Arwen: One way that we would partner up is that I would help with organization and figuring out what components we should even have, what they need to do, what options they need to have, where they will be used, etc. And then Luc will go make it happen and make it look super crisp and clean and stunning. Her skills are so powerful for a product like Ekos because our product does so much and has so many features. Luc takes things that could be overwhelming and complicated and makes them look straightforward.
Luc: Will and Arwen always give me a foundation to start with, like a doodle, and I’ll try to take that and add some life to it.
Will: Going back to what we’re proud of, I’m also really proud of our work on accessibility for this project. We started paying a lot of attention to color contrast and color blindness simulators when we’re choosing colors or playing around with a gradient. We’ve baked a lot of that into our process, and when the front-end developers are coding, they’re also keeping accessibility in mind.
What’s next in the world of Ekos product design?
Will: I think of Boost as the starting point. Everything we did in Boost is being carried over to the next project. We laid the foundations for our design system and our UI, and we’ve already been applying that to other projects. What’s really amazing is that we’re doing work at a level where other companies want to know about it. Luc and I recently did a presentation for an international group of UX and product designers about how we put together our design system, and the genesis of that design system was Ekos Boost.
Want to See Ekos Boost in Action?
Ekos customers can toggle over to Ekos Boost from within the existing platform (here’s a support article to help you find where). Not a customer? Check out this quick, self-guided product tour to get a sense of what the product design team is so excited about!