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Inside Research – Interview with Alastair Simpson, Head of Design at Atlassian

May 18, 2019Research7m read

Atlassian builds software that helps teams organize, discuss and collaborate on their work. The 17 year old Australian software company boasts 130,000+ customers in 165+ countries around the world, ranging from Spotify and Lyft to NASA and Verizon.

Atlassian’s design and research team has grown immensely in the past few years since their 2015 Initial Public Offering (IPO). They now have over 370 people in research, design, and product roles, working across more than a dozen products.

We spoke with Alastair Simpson, who leads part of the design team at Atlassian, to learn more about how Atlassian approaches design, user research, and talking to customers.

Alastair Simpson, Head of Design (of some teams) at Atlassian

What’s Atlassian’s mission?

Alastair: Atlassian builds software that helps teams organize, discuss and collaborate on their work. We have more than a dozen products, but the most popular are:

  • Jira Software – Our flagship product, the #1 tool for planning and releasing software.
  • Confluence – A shared workspace that enables information sharing and discovery.
  • Trello – An intuitive, super-simple project management tool for anything from home remodelling to managing a supply chain.

We firmly believe that behind every great human achievement, there is a team. From medicine and space travel, to disaster response and pizza deliveries, our products help teams all over the planet advance humanity through the power of software. Our mission is to unleash the potential of every team through open work. Solving team collaboration is an incredibly interesting, challenging and rewarding domain to work in.

‘Club Tropicana’ at Atlassian’s office in Sydney, Australia

A couple of legends standing in front of a whiteboard at Atlassian

How does your design team work with user research across the organization?

Alastair: Our design teams are embedded into our different products and they sit alongside product managers and engineers. We also have some of the research team embedded alongside these cross-functional teams so they can effectively partner on product specific research efforts; for example task based testing of new features.

Putting the customer at the heart of everything you do is essential to building great products … everyone on a project should have regular exposure hours with customers and increasing the hours teams have to interact with customers is vitally important.

We also have a dedicated set of researchers organised around the ‘Top Tasks’ of our customers. This follows the Gerry McGovern methodology of ‘Top Tasks’. The benefit of this for Atlassian is that this allows us to focus on the problems our customers have versus how our products have chosen to try and solve that problem. Putting the customer at the heart of everything you do is essential to building great products.

I know our Head of Research, Leisa Reichelt and myself are both fans of this term: “Research, as a team”. It flows through into “Design, as a team” and even “Roadmap, as a team”. Everyone on a cross-functional group who are tasked with solving a particular problem should all work together as a team throughout the project. Regular collaboration versus long periods of siloed work will definitely lead to a stronger result.

This also means that everyone on a project should have regular exposure hours with customers and increasing the hours teams have to interact with customers is vitally important. It helps everyone align and get a shared understanding of the customer problems they are trying to solve.

Some more legends drawing on a table in front of the camera at Atlassian

What software does Atlassian use? What have you tried in the past? What’s been working well?

Alastair: We obviously use the Atlassian suite of products quite extensively as you would imagine. My teams use Jira, Trello, and Confluence everyday. We also use design tools like Sketch, InVision and Framer. Communication all happens via Zoom and Slack.

One of the interesting things I learned when I joined Atlassian was that each team planned their work and used our tools in their own unique ways. Some teams would follow a loose Kanban workflow. Some may run more traditional Scrum. Some teams document everything in Confluence and others rely on Jira issues or Trello cards. Teams are free to work the way that best suits them.

Two Atlassian employees sitting in front of a laptop with Trello on the screen

For recruitment specific activities we use tools like Calendly to schedule sessions with participants. Most customer interviews are conducted and recorded via Zoom and then saved to our central repository of work and sometimes in Dovetail. The whole organization also uses UserTesting for unmoderated usability testing.

The research team have also started running cross-company training with every discipline at Atlassian. This helps everyone at the company conduct better quality research work and ensures we base product decisions on high quality insights from our customers. You can read more about the changes to how we have setup our research organisation in this great interview by our Research Ops Lead, Kate Towsey.

As our design and research teams are distributed across multiple office and home office locations across the world, they rely heavily on tools like Mural to collaborate on analysis across timezones. Sharing of findings—other than the direct in-person sharing sessions that happen throughout projects—is achieved via Confluence. Atlassian has a thriving Confluence setup where pretty much everything is stored and communicated.

The central staircase in Atlassian’s office in Austin, Texas

What’s changing about how you interact with customers at your organization?

Alastair: Atlassian has always had a strong sense of listening our customers, but traditionally we have always spoken to a specific type of customer: the administrator who sets up the Jira or Confluence instance inside an organisation. Whilst this type of customer remains hugely important for us, we have also started to listen to the end users of our products more since they are the ones who are using our products day in and day out to manage and track tasks. This is what has driven a lot of the simplification of our products that has been happening over the last few years.

Generally you will find that the interesting problems to solve are being tackled by companies that have a strong mission and set of values as their foundation.

Some researchers have also been organised around a set of core “top tasks”. This was a big change for us as a company from a purely embedded model of researchers inside of products. But having a set of centralised researchers going deep on customer problems has been enormously impactful for the entire company and our product teams.

In terms of both qualitative and quantitative data: we are on the journey that most companies are on. We are trying to triangulate multiple reliable data inputs and turn them into actionable and meaningful customer insights to help us build better products for our customers. This is an easy sentence to state, but incredibly hard get right at scale.

People in a meeting at Atlassian’s Sydney office

Why do you do what you do?

Alastair: When I think about why I work anywhere, I follow a relatively simple framework:

  • Who is the person I am working for?
  • Who are the people I am working with?
  • What problem are we trying to solve, and therefore what impact can I have in the world?

I think people often make the mistake to follow a particular vertical (e.g. banking, entertainment) or a fast growing trend (e.g. mobile). I know I did early on in my career. When really most of what we all do day to day is solve problems with people. And so it makes sense that the type of problem you are solving you are passionate about, and you enjoy working with the people who are alongside you and helping you solve that problem.

Generally you will find that the interesting problems to solve are being tackled by companies that have a strong mission and set of values as their foundation. This attracts a diverse and interesting set of people who you can learn from and grow your own career. Certainly, this is what keeps me at Atlassian.

Atlassian’s Sydney office

Any advice for new designers or user researchers?

Alastair: There are many many places to start for new designers and researchers, My first design book was the classic, Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman. For great research specific updates, folks should subscribe to Leisa Reichelt’s email newsletter.

The other advice I give anyone starting in design and research, is to just do the work and find a strong mentor to give you direct feedback. You will learn more by doing and then listening to feedback on how to improve from peers you respect.

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