Featuring:XO Group

How design thinking enables XO Group to build products for life’s most meaningful moments

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Installing a mindset to drive creativity and empathy


Brent Tworetzky

Brent Tworetzky is the Executive Vice President of Product at XO Group. His 50-person group spans product management, design, and user research across TheKnot, TheNest, TheBump, and GigMasters, category web and app leaders helping couples navigate their biggest life events.

You may not have heard of XO Group, but if you’re married or have friends who are, you’ve almost certainly come into contact with one of its brands. The company’s most renowned product, The Knot, is the leading wedding resource, app, and marketplace connecting couples to the right products, services, and local professionals needed to pull off their perfect wedding day.

The organization embraces ‘design thinking,’ a methodology for identifying and solving customer needs throughout a defined journey. Thanks in part to frameworks like design thinking, the organization has achieved remarkable results: 8 in 10 couples today plan their wedding on The Knot. How’s that for engagement?

“Design thinking is really a way to put the couple first when we think about how to build our products,” says Eben Levy, Director of Product Design. “We want to make sure that we’re meeting people with the right mental model when we’re thinking about the problems that they need solved.”

Levy is charismatic and doesn’t hide his emotional investment in the brand and mission. “When I think of myself as a designer, my job is to advocate for the person who’s getting married, or someone who is pregnant or trying to conceive,” he explains. “Part of what I loved about coming to this company is that we really solve for the biggest moments in life.”

Those moments span from getting engaged to having a baby. In addition to The Knot, XO Group operates The Nest, for couples starting a home together; The Bump, for couples planning to have a baby; and GigMasters, for booking entertainment when celebrating all of life’s biggest moments. The New York-based company invests heavily in educating its product teams on design thinking, enabling them to apply the framework to a range of challenges and opportunities.

Design thinking is a layer of creativity that runs throughout all of product management.

“We think about the skills of product people in a very structured way,” says Brent Tworetzky, Executive Vice President of Product. He emphasizes three core competencies: strategic thinking, execution, and user science. “Whenever someone joins our product organization, we have a specific onboarding multi-day exercise to help them grow in each of these areas. We put them through something called Product University, which attacks the basic elements of all of these areas.”

Tworetzky categorizes design thinking within “user science,” a term he coined to unify and formalize best practices that he’s learned throughout his career leading customer-focused organizations such as Udacity, Chegg, and Mint. “Product management is the discipline of bringing products to life,” Tworetzky says. Design thinking is a layer of creativity that runs throughout all of product management.


Design Thinking in Four Steps

For product teams at XO Group, design thinking manifests itself through several tactics:

Customer journey mapping: Understanding the steps and processes involved when an engaged couple or other user group tries to solve a specific problem today.

Design studios: How XO Group’s functional experts generate and explore a range of ideas that potentially solve a specific problem.

Design sprints: How XO Group’s functional experts hypothesize, test, and validate a single big idea to solve a specific problem.

User story mapping: Determining which aspect of the solution is most important to the end user and should therefore be prioritized

Design sprints rose to prominence after partners from GV (formerly Google Ventures) published Sprint in 2016. The book details five days of exercises that they introduced to their portfolio companies as a way to get stakeholders together to brainstorm and solve high priority challenges. While design thinking concepts have been used across the design community for over a decade, the book received widespread praise across the broader product community and elevated the topic beyond designers.



Running Effective Design Studios

Applying design thinking throughout the product lifecycle

For XO Group employees, design thinking is heavily integrated throughout the product lifecycle. The company has made design studios in particular a highly accessible and relevant tool.

“Design studios for us are cross-functional ideation sessions where we focus on solving a user problem,” says Madeline Vu, a Senior Product Designer at XO Group and a frequent facilitator for the program. “Design studios happen at a point in time when a team wants to kick-off a new project or do discovery.” Vu says that a team might do a design studio four or more times per year.

The format varies but is largely based on the same foundation. “The goals of a design studio are to understand, diverge, and then converge,” Vu says. She provides a slide deck with the three sections along with corresponding team exercises when relevant.

Understanding emphasizes a common appreciation for existing user perspectives and problems in and outside the product. This section also defines current performance and success criteria.

If available, Vu shares competitive research and benchmarks in this section for the team to rally around. Teams frequently instigate design studios when it’s clear that there are areas for improvement.

Diverging encourages participants to explore as many ideas as possible. One exercise aptly named “Crazy 8s” requires each person to sketch eight ideas within five minutes, before selecting their favorite three and spending one minute explaining each aloud.

Ideas that are too complex to express as single sketches are instead storyboarded, meaning they are depicted in a number of drawings corresponding to a workflow.

Converging gets the team back on the same page after ideating in literally hundreds of different directions. This section involves ‘zen voting’, where each participant gets three stickers to place on prototypes they find compelling.

The most popular ideas are moved into a testing queue where Vu’s team will create rapid prototypes that range from low to high fidelity, and then generate customer feedback. Those insights are shared internally, and the product team then decides what features to invest in.

According to Tworetzky, XO Group has deployed design studios in a number of scenarios that have enabled the company to rapidly adapt to an evolving industry. One trend that posed a unique challenge for The Knot’s product team was the increasing popularity of cash registries. “Cash is a very sensitive subject, so we weren’t sure what words to use,” Tworetzky recalls. By running a design studio, the company tested different messaging and framing with couples.

“A blank check felt a little hollow and shallow, so we asked couples to imagine what they’d use the cash for,” Tworetzky explains. “We discovered that it needed to be along the lines of $100 for scuba diving lessons accompanied by a photo of scuba diving. Asking for cash in these terms is experiential and lot more personal.” The design studio paid off, as cash gifting has become one of The Knot’s most popular offerings.


Building Stakeholder Alignment With Design Studios

A silver bullet for stakeholder alignment

The impact of a design studio isn’t only felt by users though. By packaging design thinking in a highly collaborative experience, XO Group also has a profound and positive effect on the participating product team’s morale and cohesiveness. “Design studios help us get alignment around a problem or opportunity,” Levy expresses. “It’s fun and people enjoy it.”

Jen Garfield, a Senior Product Manager focused on enhancing The Knot as the ultimate wedding planner for couples, reinforces Levy’s take on design studios. “They give people a voice that may not remember that they have a voice,” she explains. “I love that you bring in different stakeholders that have different core competencies.”

Design studios bring people out of their shells, to come up to the board and share ideas that move the team forward

Those stakeholders enthusiastically share similar perspectives. During a design studio at XO Group, members of the team are careful to simplify highly technical arguments for others on the team. Acronyms are carefully defined as team members discuss personal experiences and share ideas they’re passionate about.


Running Effective Design Studios

The atmosphere is disarming – topics and viewpoints that might otherwise be confrontational and political are instead reasonably discussed until a conclusion is reached. A groundbreaking feature idea might be shelved for a future design studio, while a rebrand takes priority. Or a frustrating technical limitation might mean that an engineer agrees to consider moving to another service provider. Decisions that can consume months of deliberating at many companies instead take minutes, allowing XO Group to deliver value to the market faster and more consistently.

“Design studios bring people out of their shells, to come up to the board and share ideas that move the team forward,” says Levy. “That’s been really exciting.”

How to bring design thinking to your organization

XO Group offers insight for organizations that want to leverage design thinking to infuse creativity and empathy into their product development processes.

Make design thinking accessible

For many companies, design thinking is a multitude of academic concepts exclusively appreciated by design teams. That’s a missed opportunity. By adapting design thinking’s core principles to actionable exercises like design studios, you can enable anyone at the organization to contribute to the innovation process.

Continuously iterate on programs

Design thinking is a fluid methodology, and companies should be sure to continuously iterate on their own approaches to leveraging it. Designers are in the most ideal position to stay up to date with best practices, and so should have the autonomy to experiment. At XO Group, every design studio is facilitated a little bit differently, and the designers regularly share insights with each other.

Follow through with validation

Ultimately, design thinking is a methodology designed to help your organization deliver more value to customers. Although team morale is in of itself a worthwhile benefit, design studios must be more than mere ‘innovation theater.’ It’s absolutely critical to follow through on your investment by testing a design studio’s resulting ideas with real users, and then disseminating the data internally to inform decision making. XO Group has achieved industry-leading results by doing so, and your organization can too.

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