Distilling Product Knowledge

Chris Davis is a Sr. Product Designer at Trello, a communications/collaboration company in headquartered in New York. Trello is a tool for managing projects. It's an easy way to organize, track, share or store information with anyone.


Tell us a little about yourself!

Hi! I'm Chris Davis. I'm a product designer at a company called Trello. It's a remote company with headquarters in New York, but I live in New Albany, Indiana. We describe Trello as a visual project management and collaboration tool. This sounds all at once too fancy and too simple. I think of it as a digital brain; the perfect place to dump the clutter that can fill up my head.

Outside of work, I'm probably exploring some silly new hobby. Right now, I'm learning Spanish on Doulingo and chess on Chess.com. I also like to make kombucha, cook, code, and watch Netflix.

How would you describe your role within your company's product organization?

The role of design at Trello is an interesting one. I joined as the 6th designer. Since the team was so small, we wore a lot of hats. Is the work visual design, user experience, copywriting, research, illustration or strategy? We had to be competent enough to step up to the plate, regardless.

Over the last two years, the design org has matured to 12 designers, 2 managers, a researcher, and a UX writer. Research is mostly managed by our great researcher and all content is owned by our writer. These changes have freed me (and the other designers) up to focus on our individual areas. For me, that's monetization and helping Business teams get the most out of Trello.

When I first started in my design journey, if someone had told me that I'd spend most of my time writing; I would have laughed. Now, it's the part of my job I look forward to most. I've come to learn that creating great experience starts and ends with a great strategy. So, I spend most of my time in research, writing, mind-mapping, and documentation. Sometimes, I even draw some interfaces.

What are you working on right now that’s exciting to you?

At work, my team is responsible for owning some pretty huge monetization goals. It's an exciting challenge, but a scary one. There's little that I can talk about here, unfortunately. But trust me, I'm enjoying the challenge.

What is the most important part of your day?

If I can avoid meetings, the hours of 10:00 am to 2:00 pm are most precious to me. This is my sweet spot for focus. I can get my most thoughtful work done during this time, assuming that I can clear my calendar. Since most of my team is in Pacific or Central time, meetings usually run from noon to 4:00 pm. Remote work has few downsides, but this is one of them.

What drains you at work?

Sometimes we struggle to align with leadership on our roadmaps, and this can cause a tension in vision and direction.

Also, meetings. Meetings are the worst.

Product Leadership

Do you have a daily routine to stay organized or perform better at your job?

My to-do list (I use an app called Things) feels endless, and I can have a hard time prioritizing. About a year ago, I switched to a Post-It note system that I modified from Jake Knapp's book Make Time. Drawing it is my morning ritual, and I take great pride in checking everything off over the course of my day.

I wrote a Medium post about my process here if you'd like more depth and pics.

How do you go about gathering customer feedback?

At Trello, we have lots of methods for this. Usually, it depends on the need. Here are a few situations...

If I need to gut-check a flow, design, or experience, I'll turn to usertesting.com. It's the easiest way to get feedback on the way something feels or looks.

If I want to understand a user's frame of mind, I'll turn to one-on-one interviews. My researcher and I will work together to write a script and recruit participants. This is the best way to understand the mental models, use cases, and situations that drive actions.

We can also look at historical data to see how large groups of people interact or engage with areas of our product. This quantitative data is helpful for illustrating trends or effectiveness.

Although these are the routes that I use most, there are LOTS of ways to get feedback from users. Sometimes we'll even embed a link to a questionnaire in an experiment, so viewers can tell us how they feel about it. Sales and Support are invaluable feedback channels too.

Oh, and NPS. NPS gets a bad rap in tech companies, but that's often because (a) it's misunderstood and (b) it exists in a vacuum. When coupled with a quarterly happiness tracking (we use HaTS), you can see a fuller story. HaTS is great for showing what and why our users love Trello and the findings are always invaluable.

How do you make user feedback actionable?

Once again, it depends on why we collected feedback in the first place. If it's to gut-check a design, sometimes I'll treat the feedback like a thumbs up or down.

But most of the time, I'll need to share the learnings with a broader audience. Sometimes this is to sway opinions, get buy-in, or expand perspectives. In these moments, I've found that it is crucial to tell compelling stories.

There are two approaches that I'll take here, depending on the audience and the need.

If the audience is decisive, business-focused leaders, I'll highlight specific opportunities. I'll rarely prescribe the exact next steps, though. UX leader Jared Spool once said:

"Which is more compelling? If I tell you to do seven things, or if I tell you how someone else got amazing results by doing seven things well? If I tell you to do seven things, you'll find every reason to do none of them. If I tell you that someone else benefited from seven things, you'll say, 'well...I could probably do at least three of those.'"

Equipped with compelling feedback, illustrating an ideal future state can stimulate great conversations.

For a broader audience, I'll usually talk about exact challenges that our users are having, and why these challenges are worth noticing. Instead of tossing out features, ideas, or solutions, this approach builds understanding. I've also found that it can spark creative problem-solving ideas within other teams.

What is something you've done recently with your product that was a huge hit with users?

Last year, we made it easier for new users to personalize their Trello boards by suggesting that they add a background photo. They could choose our default landscape photo or explore a huge library of free pictures. Not only did we see an increase in new users engaging with Trello, but people also told us how much they loved the feature! One of my favorite responses was from the team at Growth.design.

Best of all, the functionality has existed for a long time! It was just hidden in a menu. Surfacing it earlier in a new user's journey seemed to boost confidence. A win for Trello!


What advice would you have for someone who is hoping to grow in their product-focused role?

Being a good visual designer isn't actually that important. Don't get me wrong, it's a really strong muscle to build. But at the end of the day, people are looking for things that scratch and itch and fill a need. So get good at talking to users, learning the root of problems, and having fun playing with the opportunities that you find. Play as a team, always. As the ol' African Proverb says: "If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together."

What’s a lesson that you learned the hard way, but would never take back?

I've heard it said that we judge others by their actions, but we judge ourselves by our intent. I can be impatient, hotheaded, and egotistical. I've hurt some workplace relationships because I acted without assuming positive intent. Through those experiences, I've come to learn that my team is my number 1 asset. Building trust in relationships can take work, but it's work that pays off. Over the years, I've learned to calm down and spend more time understanding the people around me.

What is one piece of advice that had a big impact on your life?

Breathe. It sounds silly, but it helps.

Give us one piece of product advice in 20 words or less

Everyone is a designer, so the role of Designers is one of idea facilitation.

Rapid-Fire Questions

If you could wave a magic wand and fix something about one of your favorite products, what would it be?

We live in a weird time nationally and globally. Thanks to technology, we have access to more information than ever before. We also have more misinformation than ever before. If I had a magic wand, I'd make it easier to get historical information about anything political at a glance. Snapchat for archival knowledge, if you will. Oh, and if we could also see some "trustworthiness" scores alongside the content, that'd be a double win.

What is one product or company being built in in your region that you think more people should know about (other than your own)?

I think Unitonomy will be on of Louisville's next big companies. It's hoping to fill a very underserved space that connects a company with its people. They'll be huge, I swear.

Also, Roth River is invading a very high-touch and traditional space with the power of big data. Their approach is a very human way, and it has the opportunity to disrupt the entire whiskey industry.

What is a book, podcast, or website that you think more people should know about?

I've given away 5 copies of I Will Teach You To Be Rich, and I couldn't recommend it enough. Many of us are afraid to talk about money or don't have the right language to approach it. Frankly, the financial world thrives on people who don't know how to take ownership of their money. In this book, Ramit Sethi demystifies some of finance's biggest questions. Yeah, the title's pretty spammy. But the book is pure gold. You should seriously get a copy.

What would you do with your time if money was no issue?

I'd probably travel and get better at coding. I have so many ideas that I want to pursue and tinker with, but I'm roadblocked by my own technical skills. It's something that I'd like to overcome, but who's got that kind of time? Especially in a world full of endless Netflix, Hulu, HBO and more!


Is there something that you want to plug?

Sure! I'm working on a few side projects right now. A few years ago, I started Curious Friends Club with some friends. It's a means of organizing all the silly projects that we have planned. This is one of those projects!

Up next, I'm building an iOS app for finding moments of mindfulness. It's called Wavefully, and should be coming out this year (hopefully). After that, I'll work on an app for bibliophiles.

If you're a podcast person, my wife and I will be launching a podcast called Question This?! shortly. It's our second foray into podcasting, in which we go deep on our reactions to current events.

If you're interested in following along with any of these projects, subscribe to the Curious Friends Club periodic and sporadic newsletter.

How can our readers keep up with you?

I'm pretty quiet online, but here's what I'd recommend:

  • I'm on Twitter as Obvious Unrest
  • I'm on Spotify, mostly listening to music that sounds like angels yawning
  • I periodically post pixels on Dribbble
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