Ben Holland-Arlen on how the Salesforce UX team is working remotely

Leading tech companies are often the first to test out innovative methods of work (like Agile), so it’s no surprise that they’re also beginning to hire remote workers and organize distributed teams. This approach allows them to attract best talent while reducing costs. We talked to Ben Holland-Arlen, an experienced UX leader, and asked him about his experiences with distributed teams and the best practices used at Salesforce.

Building a design team at Salesforce: guiding principles and challenges

We definitely work remote—we have people all over the globe. On my immediate team (the 7), it’s all designers and copy / content folks. But we are always also working with devs, product people, business analysts, sometimes researchers, and many others. I would challenge the “7” number as that’s just my “Journeys” team which I am part of, It’s more like 150–200 people who I work with, depending on the project. We do a lot of partnering with other groups, so we’ll swell as we have people working on projects temporarily, and get smaller again when they finish.

I currently work as a senior UX designer for the customer success group, which is for the group that buy products, our job is to teach them how to use the products that they have, so they stay happy and continue being our customers.

Most roles at Salesforce, especially on the products side, are very focused on a particular product and Salesforce is such a big company, it has tens of products, and within those main products, there are sub-products.

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Profile


Ben
Holland-Arlen

is a Senior User Experience Designer at Salesforce and the Head of Design and Founder at the UX + Product design Agency, Futureorbit. He’s worked everywhere from small startups to the New York Public Library. In his current role at Salesforce, Ben designs for the customer success group, where his role involves educating customers about how to get the most out of the suite of Salesforce products. To learn more about Ben, follow him on LinkedIn and Twitter.

My work is interesting because we work across the board for all the products. It never gets dull, because you’re always learning a new product, and all the products are very different. Especially since a lot of them were mergers and acquisitions, they were built on a completely different stack. Just because you know Sales Cloud, that doesn’t mean that Marketing Cloud is going to work in a similar fashion. I can see that if it’s really frustrating for me to understand it with a lot of technical knowledge internally since I work here, it must be much more frustrating for a customer. So that keeps me fresh.

It’s a challenge for me when people hire UX designers because someone told them they needed one, and they often don’t know what to do with them. It’s tricky, because the executive sponsors that hired you want you to be innovative and think outside the box and all those clichéd terms, but it’s not how the organization works. Things like design thinking are not often part of the organization. Even with that, there’s this physical buy-in that they are paying you to be employed, but there is still a mental shift that needs to happen. That’s basically where I find I spend a lot of my time—on that eternal mental shift of just educating the why, and holding people’s hands, “This will create better experiences, and better experiences turn into more money!” And then you’ll look like a rockstar to your president/CEO.

The keys
to managing
a remote team

Achieving alignment

I’ve worked with a lot of remote teams. I run teams with developers in India and Brazil and all over the place. Alignment is key. It’s like a big game of telephone, basically. I specifically ask my developers, “Do you understand this?” They’ll say “Yes, yes, yes.” And two days later they’ll come back with “No, no, no.” They’ll produce something that is not at all what the creative vision was. That’s super frustrating, and also gets expensive.

Come see Ben in SF at the UX meetup on Feb 27!

We’re excited to be hosting a live event that is a part of our “Reshaping teamwork” series for the Bay Area UX design and research community on February 27. “Fostering a Collaborative UX Team: Tips from Salesforce, Upwork, Copper Inc., and Zendesk” will take place at the Upwork HQ in San Francisco from 6–9pm. You’re invited to join Ben and other UX leaders for a lively panel discussion, networking, and light bites. Save your spot here!


A big part of achieving alignment involves thinking about different cultures, because different cultures work differently. For instance, I’ve observed through working with many teams overseas that there is this “yes” culture, where the say “yes” to your request even if they don’t really understand what they are saying “yes” to. But the result is not what you expect. So the lesson is in empowering your team to be okay to say they don’t really understand something. It happens so often where people want to please others, so they want to say yes even if they don’t understand something.

That’s not good in the long run, because it causes more problems and expense and frustration. It takes some learning to be a manager and say, “I’m not going to be mad if you don’t understand something. I’d rather you ask for clarification if you don’t understand up front, rather than say you understand and come back with something that was not at all like what was supposed to be designed or built.”

Recurring rituals in the
Salesforce remote
UX team:

 Sprint planning 

 Standups with a product team twice a week

 UX team standups focused on creative work


How Salesforce
UX team is working
remotely:


“A big part of achieving alignment involves thinking about different cultures, because different cultures work differently.”

“The key is that standups should be no more than 10 or 15 minutes, even if you’re working across the globe. I don’t care where you are, have your camera on and actually stand up.”

“RealtimeBoard really helps me because it’s like a democracy. Maybe you’re a little louder if you have a neon-colored Post-it note, but overall, the gray post-it note is just as powerful as the bright yellow one.”

Daily standups

I believe in doing daily standups. The key is that standups should be no more than 10 or 15 minutes, even if you’re working across the globe. I don’t care where you are, have your camera on and actually stand up. The actual act of standing up makes for a more concise stand-up. It sounds silly, but it’s really powerful.

Keeping your camera on

If you’re working remotely, don’t be afraid to just keep your camera on all the time. It might be a little weird, but if your team is all over the place, it will keep you focused, and it makes it so much easier to say to your developer across the globe or wherever, “Hey, will this work?” Instead of having to do all the old school methods. Like, screw email. If you can avoid email, even avoid Slack, and if you can get direct communication, it will make your product better.

Using RealtimeBoard

RealtimeBoard is my favorite of the collaboration tools. Especially where I sit in the UX role upfront, where you need alignment. I’ve been using RealtimeBoard for maybe two years or more on my own account. It’s been very helpful. I’ve found people were a little resistant at first because we have so much stuff we use and every team seems to have a different thing. The initial response was, “Oh, another piece of software to use?” But when they actually saw it, they understood why I was pushing it so hard, because it does exactly what it’s supposed to do.

It’s showing everyone’s input in real time, which is great. I fight really hard and it’s exhausting to stop groupthink, or whoever has the loudest voice wins, and all this stuff. RealtimeBoard really helps me because it’s like a democracy. Everyone has the same voice. Maybe you’re a little louder if you have a neon-colored Post-it note, but overall, the gray post-it note is just as powerful as the bright yellow one.

We mainly use RealtimeBoard for brainstorming at this point. Feature definitions, or products overall, sketching out wireframing… “Okay, these are the features, and now we’ll do an affinity map and cluster… Seven out of twelve people all agree that search is important.”

RealtimeBoard
use cases at Salesforce:

 brainstorming

 wireframing

 affinity mapping

 user story mapping

 user flows

 personas


Work culture
at Salesforce

There is definitely the culture of giving here at Salesforce. We don’t just sit here and make products. Our CEO Marc Benioff really wants us to get out of the building and volunteer, and use our skills and remember that we’re not just a giant corporation and that we’re giving back to people. We’ll do team volunteer events. That was actually one of the first times we just had our cameras on and stayed in a group hangout all day. We were working on the redesign of a British website that connects high-level professionals with people who want a job, but because they have various life-threatening illnesses, can’t work full-time anymore.

It’s just really powerful to have a day where we’re working, we’re doing our job but we’re doing it as volunteering and giving back, instead of the day to day where it can get really tiresome and feel like, “It’s just another job.” But everyone felt re-energized, doing the same work they do, but for good, instead of for profit. Just doing that is really helpful. Other things are getting out and going to events, encouraging people to go to design events and things where they can learn and grow, that’s important. Creating a work environment where people feel comfortable to explore and take risks is important. You can’t create new things if you feel limited or scared that someone will treat you differently if you think outside the box. Also, don’t say “outside the box.”

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