A blog about productivity, workflow best practices, company building and how to get things done with less work.


Entries Tagged “Product Development”

Design Studio Zapier

At our recent team retreat in Colorado, I led Zapier through a quick brainstorming exercise known as a design studio. It's an organized method for harnessing massively parallel feedback from every team member in a way that can actually be absorbed. It’s a very effective technique that I haven't seen discussed online, so I'm here to share one of our secret tools!

I first ran a design studio a few years back at a workshop I organized called Toolbox. I also ran a few design meetups while the company I co-founded participated in Y Combinator's Summer 2012 session. It was a great way to validate potential designs in a fast-paced environment and I thought the timing was right for Zapier to do a session as well.

First though, let me examine the problem with traditional brainstorming techniques.

Whiteboarding Re-examined

Brainstorming via whiteboards is usually seen as an indispensable technique for businesses to discuss strategy, hash out ideas, or nail to specific designs. It's even glamorized in movies and TV whenever a geeky hero has a sudden insight—they'll grab a sharpie and start writing to capture their eureka moment.


So as a remote team, does Zapier miss out on this valuable tool? Or does whiteboarding only exist amongst the select few of us that are near each other, which generates work that others dutifully execute?

It turns out neither is true. One of the dirty secrets of business (even startups) is that it's 90 percent execution and is less about inspiration or random strategizing. Constant whiteboarding is a sign of a distraction, not of productivity. Our team is comprised of "armies of one" that are responsible for generating ideas for work but most of the time are busy getting shit done.

Even worse, whiteboarding has a few flaws that make it less valuable than most people think.

One practical matter is that whiteboarding is not versioned—once you've wiped away some ink, it's gone forever. Even capturing it on your phone isn't that great, since it's never the same fidelity as the original and usually squirreled away on a single person's device.

Another problem is that whiteboarding is often very single threaded. The format is single participant and many listeners, which isn't the most conducive for everyone expressing their opinion.

The worst aspect of brainstorming is a cognitive one: if everyone has a Sharpie and is working together, it still doesn't solve the problem of groupthink, since they're working on a single whiteboard to create consensus around a lowest common denominator.

There's even research studies backing this up—groupthink is the typical team dynamic and the results are inferior to solitary thought by individuals.

So what's the solution? It's a simple exercise that requires notebooks and pens, a stopwatch and a few ground rules.


Any solution to replace whiteboarding would have to improve upon it and have the following goals:

  • Create divergent ideas and convergent decisions - i.e. idea generation vs synthesis. This new technique would have to both come up with a variety of ideas as well as organize them without spinning off into useless orbits, which can seem like opposing goals.
  • Balance individual contribution with group insights - The technique is an automatic failure if it's no better than just thinking about a problem by yourself, which only encourages silos of activity that might be hard to integrate later on.
  • Quickly express visual ideas - It must be visual so that it's not a boring functional spec that creates an illusion of agreement, and it has to be done rapidly so that ideas can be expressed fast enough to evolve them in a loose conversational manner.
  • Be extremely multi-threaded - It would be ideal to crank through ideas for several projects simultaneously, rather than walking through each concept linearly.
  • Be easily archived - Using paper instead of whiteboards makes it ideal for flipping back through past ideas, instead of being stuck on a single drawing.
  • It has to be fun - There's a reason why everyone feels comfortable grabbing sharpies and drawing rough sketches, so anything to replace it has to be equally approachable and engaging. It also has to be something everyone can do and doesn't require the skills of a designer to visualize the hard parts.


On a Sunday afternoon, I acted as moderator and fired up a short Keynote presentation to explain the overall goals and format of the design session. I listed a handful of topics that had been floating around as potential projects and we voted for the top three that we thought were most immediately relevant to our company goals.

Then, our 10 person company split into three sub-teams to tackle each of the projects. From there, we went into a highly structured session of sketching and brainstorming. Here's how it worked:

We did three rounds of activity. Each round was 10 minutes long, with 5 minutes of sketching designs on the pads and 5 minutes of discussion.

Here's the really important bit: every round has a different format of sketching:

1st Round

Every person sketched silently by themselves, without talking to anyone, to get out their initial ideas. To help them come up with several concepts and not get locked into a single approach, I had everyone do what's called a six-up by dividing their first paper into six evenly-sized boxes, which they had to try to fill up with as many different concepts as possible.

Then at the end of the 5 minutes, each subteam got 5 minutes total for each member to take a minute to describe the various ideas they had.

The focus of this round is divergence—to come up with as many different approaches as possible. Three team members all drawing six thumbnail sketches each pretty much insured that there would be at least a few surprise curveball ideas.

2nd Round

Everyone went back to 5 minutes of sketching alone without talking again, but this time with new instructions: they were required to steal at least one idea from one of their team members that they had just heard about.

Then the subteams got another 5 minutes for everyone to share their work. The focus of this round was to begin to switch from divergence to convergence - to start picking the best ideas from the crop and evolving them.

In practice, the ideas are firing rapidly and it's hard to get people to shut up at the end of the 5 minutes to move on to the next round. That's a good sign! It means the ideas are flowing.

3rd round

For the final round of sketching, the sub-teams now had a new task. Instead of sketching individually without talking, they had to do the exact opposite: now they had to sketch a single set of interfaces as a group and talk their way into consensus.

Then the sub-teams all presented to the other sub-teams and got insights into the different projects everyone was working on.


We found that people naturally and organically gravitated towards the sub-teams where they had been thinking about the most. For example our support team had a lot of thoughts to share about our onboarding process, the developers clustered together to talk about the platform for third-party integrations, and our marketing folks tackled app discovery and exploration.

So it ended up that there was at least one person on each sub-team that will go on to work on implementing ideas on the related project.


Our team members seem to really like it, too. "It was a fast and effective way to braindump a ton of information pretty quickly and also reach a broad consensus at the same time," said our CEO, Wade Foster.

So that's how you run a design studio! Feel free to ask any questions in the comments if you want to run one with your team.

About the Author

Al Abut is a Product Designer at Zapier and owner of two adorable chihuahuas.

99% of the time buying is the best decision for a startup. That may be a slight exaggeration, but the sentiment is true.

For instance, a startup would be silly to not to pay for an email service like Mandrill, MailGun, or SendGrid when it comes to sending transactional email. Or to slap down $40/mo for live chat on Olark rather than building their own live chat. Probably.

But rather than just defaulting to slapping down money on a commercial solution it makes sense to think about whether or not buying really is the best solution.

When Does it Make Sense to Build?

At Zapier we use two pretty simple rules to decide whether we should build a solution or whether we should buy a solution. Both conditions must be true for us to build.

  1. The problem we are facing needs to be tied closely to our core value proposition and thus a great solution will enhance the product or make us more efficient at selling the product.
  2. Existing solutions are not specific enough to meet our needs.

When Have We Built Instead of Buying?

Zapier makes it really easy for non-technical users to integrate over 100 different web applications. Because Zapier is a broad utility we attract a diverse user base that is solving vastly different solutions.

This presents unique challenges for supporting diverse use cases and for communicating with diverse users.

Problem 1: Building Help Docs

There are lots of nice help doc, knowledge base solutions. All of them are static and aren't easy to bake into our own product. Because we need to support n^2 support instances where n equals the number of services we support, we need an easy way to dynamically change the help docs presented to the user in the core application.

No one will likely build that solution except us. That solution allows our users to more easily support themselves and drastically cuts down the time we spend on support.

Problem 2: Drip Campaigns

There are also a few nice drip campaign solutions out there, but we found most of them (at least at the time) have limited segmentation features, were unreliable, and didn't give us the control we needed for who we send email to.

So we built a simple drip campaign tool in Django that lets us segment off any piece of information we have in our database so that we can send the right emails to the right customers at the right time.

Note from Bryan: We're planning on open sourcing the Django drip campaigns soon!

I'd Rather Buy

Given the opportunity I'd much rather buy. We spend money on more than a dozen services each month like live chat, help desk, forms and more just because they get the job done quickly and easily and we can spend time on other things that better enhance the value of our company.

Given the opportunity buying is likely the best solution for the rapid pace at which startups need to develop. Rather than just defaulting to that though, think for a few minutes about what your situation is and whether building might make sense.

About the Author

Wade Foster is a Co-founder and CEO at Zapier. He likes to write about process, productivity, startups and how to do awesome work.

This morning we are super excited to announce the launch of the Zapier developer platform. Service providers already building on the platform include HubSpot, Podio and 12 others (see below).

The Zapier developer platform lets users and vendors easily add their own apps to Zapier instead of waiting on us to build them out. App developers can instantly hook into the 60+ apps we already support plus any new ones added by building one integration rather than building out all those integrations themselves.

This saves app developers weeks to months in developer time building integrations and lets an app developer spend more time focusing on their own apps.

Learn How to Add Your App to Zapier

## Developer Platform Launch Partners
Obviously a developer platform isn't a platform if there aren't any developers. So we want to give a special thanks and point out some of the cool things that developers and vendors have already been doing with Zapier. These vendors have helped us debug and iterate our developer platform while it was in private-testing.
### Hubspot [HubSpot][hs] offers an all-in-one marketing software platform for small and medium sized businesses. > "HubSpot is an easy, integrated and powerful marketing software platform with tools for lead management, lead nurturing, email marketing, landing pages, marketing analytics, and more. Zapier makes it possible for our customers to integrate with dozens of other services, opening up exciting new possibilities around lead management and content creation." - Jeffrey Russo at HubSpot HubSpot supports triggers for new contacts, leads, blog articles and actions for new contacts and blog articles. [View on Zapier][hsz]
### Podio [Podio][p], now part of Citrix, is a collaborative work platform with a new take on how everyday-work gets done. > "Businesses often use Podio's collaborative work platform together with dozens of other web applications to get work done. Now, Zapier allows individuals to decide how they want information to flow between these different systems, finally enabling everyone to work the way that they want to work." - Jon Froda, Podio co-founder Podio supports actions for new tasks and notifications. [View on Zapier][pz]
### Instant Customer [Instant Customer][ic] offers a completely integrated multi-channel lead capture, follow up, sales and marketing system. Instant Customer supports triggers for new subscribers and actions for creating subscribers. [View on Zapier][icz]
### ActiveCampaign [ActiveCampaign][ac] combines all aspects of email marketing into a single & easy to use platform. > "ActiveCampaign + Zapier allows you to establish your own integrations with other products you use and love without writing a single line of code." says Matt Thommes of ActiveCampaign ActiveCampaign supports triggers for new subscribers and actions for creating subscribers. [View on Zapier][acz]
### AgileZen [AgileZen][az] is a simple, visual, and collaborative way to manage your projects. Whether you're on a team or flying solo, AgileZen helps you stay organized and always know at a glance the tasks at hand. > "AgileZen is project management software that helps you collaborate with your team and organize your work visually. Our integration with Zapier lets you work with stories, comments, and tasks through a variety of triggers and actions. This lets you integrate AgileZen easily with other applications, so you can work more efficiently." says Jayme Davis of Agile Zen. AgileZen supports triggers for new story cards, projects and actions for story cards, comments, and tasks. [View on Zapier][azz]
### Sign-Up.to [Sign-up.to][sut] offers social, mobile & email marketing in the cloud. Add Subscribers from other apps. > "This integration is a big leap forward in simplifying [our customers] data capture methods, simply set and forget. Your Zaps will run in the background keeping your marketing database in Sign-Up.to up-to-date and ready to go." says Brenden Rawson of Sign-Up.to, Sign-up.to supports actions for adding new subscribers. [View on Zapier][sutz]
### EmailDirect [EmailDirect][ed] is an email marketing tool for medium sized businesses. Coupled with traditional email marketing features, Purchase Behavior Targeting, Workflows, Advanced Filtering and Segmentation makes EmailDirect a great tool for any business. EmailDirect supports triggers for new publications and subscribers and actions for new subscribers. [View on Zapier][edz]
### Ronin [Ronin][r] is online invoicing and time tracking for small businesses and freelancers. Ronin helps you get paid quicker and painlessly helps you manage your staff and projects. > "[With Zapier], You'll never have to go through the hassle of manually syncing clients from another app by CSV ever again." says Lu Wang of Ronin. Ronin supports triggers for new invoices and clients and actions for new clients and expenses. [View on Zapier][rz]
### Totango [Totango][tt] analyzes in real time customer engagement and intention within SaaS applications to help you grow your business. > "Using the Totango Zapier integration, online businesses can more easily integrate realtime user and usage insights into customer facing business processes. User intelligence alone is not enough. You need to act on it. Open APIs such as provided by Totango and Zapier make this possible in realtime", said Guy Nirpaz, co-founder and CEO of Totango. Totango supports triggers for new lists. [View on Zapier][ttz]
### OnePage CRM [OnePage][op] is simple CRM software that produces amazing results. It combines a proven sales methodology with the elements of CRM to greatly increase sales. > "The cloud has enabled SMEs to choose their business apps "a la carte". As such, Zapier ensures any new contacts created in other business apps appear in OnePage. Sweet." via Gosia Jasiewicz of OnePage CRM. OnePage CRM supports actions for new contacts. [View on Zapier][opz]
### Findmyshift [Findmyshift][fms] lets you create and share staff schedules from anywhere, any time in any web browser. It gives your employees 24/7 access to their upcoming shifts and can keep staff up to date with built-in text alerts. > "Zapier's "integrate once, link to many" model provides an ever expanding set of features to our core system, without the ongoing maintenance; our customers directly benefit from a range of features added by third party apps, whilst we get to focus our efforts on enhancing our own services." says Mark Feldman of Findmyshift Findmyshift supports triggers for twenty different events and was the first to implement webhook functionality. Major props to them. [View on Zapier][fmsz]
### Sazneo [Sazneo][s] brings together elements of instant messaging, group chat and online communities into an enterprise group messaging application for your business. > "The partnership with Zapier will enable Sazneo users to rapidly integrate with a wider choice of platforms with no coding. This brings notifications and information from other platforms and services right into your Sazneo conversations, enabling immediate real-time team discussion and problem resolution." via Sazneo CEO Brett Davis. Sazneo supports actions for posting messages to your group chat rooms. [View on Zapier][sz]
### TriggerApp [TriggerApp][ta] is cloud software for project management, collaboration, and time tracking. > "Allowing our customers to choose exactly how TriggerApp interrelates with the rest of their online toolset means everyone gets a custom fit. Integrating with Zapier was an easy decision." says Dan Sowter of TriggerApp. TriggerApp supports triggers and actions for new tasks, companies and projects. [View on Zapier][taz]
### Catchwind [Catchwind][cw] lets you send SMS messages through a shared short code. Use List Send to burst up to 40 msg/sec. Use Single Send to send direct messages to deliver direct to mobile phones. > "Text messaging is the most widely used form of communication on mobile phones and the best way to deliver your message. Catchwind is carrier-grade technology, which means messages are delivered quickly and reliably." via Joe Vande Kieft of Catchwind. Catchwind supports actions for both broadcast sms and direct sms. [View on Zapier][cwz]

Learn How to Add your App to Zapier

About the Author

Wade Foster is a Co-founder and CEO at Zapier. He likes to write about process, productivity, startups and how to do awesome work.

Building a product from scratch that will support you, a co-founder and your collective families is hard. Really hard.

One of the most comprehensive guides I have seen for doing this is the Thoughtbot Playbook which covers building and growing a product from start to finish.

But after reading a playbook like that you can easily be overwhelmed. After all the playbook has 60+ steps and each step is quite easy to simply not do at all.

So the instinct is to pick and choose articles you see on HN and imitate the darling tech companies we know. Eventually ours brains are stuffed with things like:

  1. If our stack is as good as Instagram's we'll be able to handle scale.
  2. If we can build product as efficiently as UserVoice we can eliminate waste.
  3. If we can manage and encourage growth like Facebook we'll be unstoppable.

All good things. But if you're a two or three man startup with zero customers none of this matters.

So how do you get to a point where these things matter?

Do things that don't scale

This advice has been beaten like a dead horse, but I still see startups every day trying to over optimize their startup in the beginning for scenarios that may or may not ever exist.

[Sidenote: Are we really sure that the process we are trying to optimize can't scale? Zappos managed to scale personalized customer service which I never would have thought to be possible. So maybe some things that feel like they can't be scaled actually can?]

Instead do things that help you learn more about your market. Learn about your customers. Learn about how your business might actually work.

  1. Email your first 1000 customers
  2. Cold call businesses to find early adopters
  3. Know what is core to your business and what isn't

Why we sent 25,000 messages to users and what happened as a result.

At Zapier we had a guess based on building our own web apps and conversations with a few people who used multiple SaaS apps that integrations might be a pain point. Past that we didn't know much.

It would have been easy to build our version of the ultimate integrations machine. But from the very beginning we insisted customers be a part of the conversation.

So we added Olark to our site and we started chatting with users who somehow stumbled across our site. We had one conversation, then ten conversations, then a hundred conversations and we started realizing that our version of the ultimate integration machine isn't what was needed.

The conversations were so valuable that we ended up sending over 25,000 messages to users before we launched while trying to get feedback by iterating on problems and features, and taking conversations to Skype where we could hand build integrations for first time users.

Our vision of the ultimate integrations machine turned into a simple way for businesses to create an integration between 48+ web apps and automate their businesses.

We might have eventually figured it out ourselves, but thousands of conversations with users made it way easier.

So for us doing things that seem to not scale was the most efficient way to build our product. Maybe it will be for you too.

About the Author

Wade Foster is a Co-founder and CEO at Zapier. He likes to write about process, productivity, startups and how to do awesome work.

Get help