The Missing Links
LinkedIn's New Look Forced Project Teams To Alter The Speed At Which They Deliver Change
From left, Ranjit Dhaman, PMP, senior staff technical program manager, and Jennifer Brackett, design program manager, user experience design, LinkedIn, Sunnyvale, California, USA
BY NOVID PARSI PORTRAITS BY VANCE JACOBS
The world moves fast—but LinkedIn wasn't keeping pace.
“We were building a foundation for future product innovation, and a quick turnaround time was needed to keep up the pace with daily product releases.”
—Ranjit Dhaman, PMP, LinkedIn, Sunnyvale, California, USA
The largest professional social networking site hadn't overhauled its desktop user interface once since launching in 2002. While other social media sites pushed constant makeovers, LinkedIn's 467 million users were stuck in the past. So one month after it unveiled a new mobile app design, LinkedIn launched a project last year to transform its desktop site.
“We heard our users loud and clear—that it was very difficult for them to navigate the website,” says Ranjit Dhaman, PMP, senior staff technical program manager, LinkedIn, Sunnyvale, California, USA. “They were not getting the value out of it that they were getting out of their mobile experience.”
Rebuilding the user interface—and LinkedIn's reputation as an innovator—demanded a makeover that streamlined and simplified navigation. For instance, the project team consolidated the location of the most-used features to allow users to immediately make connections, send messages or monitor notifications—whether they were on the home page or viewing someone's profile.
But the changes couldn't stop there. LinkedIn simultaneously had to revamp the site's infrastructure so developers would be able to seamlessly fire off instant upgrades for years to come. “We wanted to make sure that in the future when we launch a new feature on mobile, we can quickly launch it on the desktop as well,” Ms. Dhaman says.
For project team members, the one-year project meant a change of pace. In an organization used to sprints and fast-track developments, project managers adopted an agile/predictive (waterfall) hybrid approach so they could carefully incorporate user and stakeholder feedback—while retaining a sense of urgency. For instance, after it collected feedback, Ms. Dhaman's team divided the building of new features into multiple sprints.
“This hybrid approach enabled us to define requirements at the beginning of the project and provided the needed flexibility and transparency to adapt to the fast-changing requirements,” she says. “We were building a foundation for future product innovation, and a quick turnaround time was needed to keep up the pace with daily product releases.”
“We were able to understand how experiences and expectations might differ or are the same in various regions.”
—Jennifer Brackett, LinkedIn, Sunnyvale, California, USA
Project teams needed to engage with users around the world to ensure that all changes would be universally accepted. Ultimately, the exercise was essential to eliminate the risk that users in, say, Latin American or India would reject a design color template change that users in all other regions endorsed.
“We were able to understand how experiences and expectations might differ or are the same in various regions,” says Jennifer Brackett, design program manager, user experience design, LinkedIn, Sunnyvale, California, USA.
User experience researchers collected feedback throughout planning and execution via surveys, focus groups and one-on-one interviews, and the results were shared with developers for immediate brainstorms. For instance, user feedback revealed that it was difficult to find the edit options for user profiles, so the redesign grouped the edit options together and moved them to a prominent position in the upper right-hand corner on profiles. Feedback also helped the team decide to add a “notifications” tab that alerts users about recent activity in their network, such as new job opportunities or when someone comments on something the user shared.
The team also gave user groups access to a prototype website that added new features and layout options as new feedback was translated into design changes. “Knowing what users value on one page is beneficial, but we had to have a fully functioning prototype to deliver the full user experience,” Ms. Brackett says.
In LinkedIn's fast-paced environment, one year was a long time to devote attention to a single project. So project managers had to ensure that team members from all departments—and all executives— maintained a laser focus on strong communication. Ms. Dhaman knew that longer projects increased the risk for disagreements, so she took steps to foster collaboration from the start.
December 2015: LinkedIn releases its mobile app upgrade.
January 2016: LinkedIn launches a desktop redesign project to make the site align with the mobile app.
March 2016: A prototype website is created to help designers and engineers envision the final product.
September 2016: LinkedIn launches a redesign prototype for user groups to test drive.
January 2017: Project is completed. Newly designed desktop goes live.
“We had to figure out the optimal level of communication for a project of this scale to keep people, from top to bottom, informed but also engaged during the project life cycle,” she says. “The less time you spend managing and resolving internal conflict, the more time you have on moving the project forward.”
During the project's first few weeks, Ms. Dhaman and a small group of engineers and designers met with leaders at LinkedIn to educate them on the project and ask for their cooperation. The project team also held daily sync-up meetings as well as weekly meetings where designers, engineers and user experience researchers shared their work.
“We have a very open culture at LinkedIn, and people at all levels are expected to act as project owners,” Ms. Dhaman says.
When breakdowns happened, project managers moved quickly to resolve them. For example, after conducting the first quarterly survey to gauge organizational understanding and engagement, it became clear that more communication was needed with the C-suite on the project's scope and urgency. To bridge the gap, Ms. Dhaman initiated twice-a-month status meetings with the CEO and his staff.
Project leaders also invited all company employees to biweekly socials for informal project updates where the team gave status reports, showcased its work and held Q&A sessions so anyone could ask questions or offer input. All employee suggestions were tracked in a spreadsheet, and the team explained why those suggestions were ultimately accepted or rejected at subsequent socials. “This made people feel heard and included,” Ms. Dhaman says.
“We were able to shift resources within a matter of days because we had the full support of the leadership.”
—Ranjit Dhaman, PMP
The project teams also established an internal site available to all employees to keep the entire organization on the same page. Ms. Dhaman placed all employee feedback and project documentation—from weekly meeting notes to stakeholder charts— on the site. The site also was used to help onboard new team members. “It allowed them to come up to speed within hours, instead of weeks, because all the information was in one place,” Ms. Dhaman says. “Having this knowledge base is important for us as a company. It helps us grow and get better.”
PMP, senior staff technical program manager, LinkedIn
Location: Sunnyvale, California, USA
Experience: 17 years
Other notable projects:
■ Google's business intelligence platform, which was completed in 2015. Ms. Dhaman served as technical program manager, leading the project's design and rollout.
■ IT business transformation program for storage and data management firm NetApp, completed in 2014. Ms. Dhaman served as a project management consultant.
Career lesson learned:
“Communicate, communicate, communicate. You'll think you communicated something in a weekly meeting, yet you'll later find people surprised by it.”
“We have a very open culture at LinkedIn, and people at all levels are expected to act as project owners.”
—Ranjit Dhaman, PMP
While communication and engagement increased ownership across the enterprise, having everyone's input also increased the threat of scope creep. To mitigate that risk, the teams set clear boundaries around scope. They established processes to help prioritize must-have features over nice-to-have features so the original scope stayed intact, Ms. Dhaman says. For instance, within the first few months of the project launch, the team decided that any project change—whether from a team member or any other LinkedIn employee—could only be approved if user research supported it.
But scope creep wasn't the only risk. A blur of constant change requests could have become unwieldy, but keeping precise track of the project status helped ensure changes that came from user feedback were completed efficiently—whether it was an icon's size or the content of a particular page. At one point, Ms. Brackett learned that team members were having difficulty keeping track of the changes. Designers and engineers had to open and scroll through various PNG files to see what changes had been implemented. To speed up reviews, Ms. Brackett designed an internal-only prototype website that presented the same files in a web browser so team members would quickly get a user's perspective.
“Before, there was some confusion as to what user feedback was taken and worked on and what user feedback was just dismissed,” she says. “The prototype helped move the project forward because team members were able to envision what the redesign looked like and people understood where we were in the process.”
Project leaders had to practice creative resource management to solve another potential crisis. When the project started to get behind schedule because of the need to develop the tech infrastructure that would deliver future upgrades, the leadership team in September authorized the project team to temporarily reassign some engineering resources working on interface redesign and implementation phases to help complete the back-end tech tasks.
“We knew that if the tech foundation is not at its best, it won't matter if we add hundreds of new features,” Ms. Dhaman says. “We were able to shift resources within a matter of days because we had the full support of the leadership.”
“The prototype helped move the project forward because team members were able to envision what the redesign looked like.”
After focusing on the back-end tech for a few weeks, team members then returned to features—and both components were completed on time. When the new site was unveiled in January, LinkedIn's makeover even won over Silicon Valley's harshest critics—including Wired magazine, which called the redesign “cleaner, faster and a whole lot easier to navigate.”
“We now have one experience across mobile and desktop,” Ms. Brackett says. “We reduced clutter, and we made the desktop more intuitive and more focused so users can discover the news and topics they care about.” PM