One of the tricky parts of running an agency is finding the right balance between client work and internal projects. At Nansen, we put our clients first, and we’re proud of that—but we also believe strongly in giving team members freedom to explore, learn new things, and contribute to our internal needs, even when our client roster is busy.
Carving out space and time for exploration is one of the primary functions of the Nansen Product Lab, a division of Nansen dedicated to innovation. Working in teams of three, the first two Product Lab rotations followed the design sprint model to turn interesting, non-client-related ideas into working prototypes in just five days.
The third cohort put their own spin on the process. Inspired by the presentations they saw by the first two Product Lab groups, the Rotation Three team decided to brainstorm ahead of time, and started their week with an idea in hand.
Meet the Team: Nansen Product Lab, Rotation Three
For the first time, an all-developer team entered the Product Lab: Nansen front end technical lead Patrick, back end junior developer Alex, and front end junior developer Betsey.
Patrick, Alex, and Betsey had decided to work on a longstanding wish among the Nansen leadership team—one of those internal needs that so often gets deprioritized at an agency. Specifically, the third cohort wanted to create an application for skills assessment and cataloguing, on an individual and company-wide basis. They were inspired, in part, by imposter syndrome, which Patrick says is all too common among developers, who often underestimate and undersell their abilities.
By the testing phase on Day Five of the Product Lab, the Rotation Three team had created a basic working prototype of a “Skills Matrix” application, designed to provide visual, actionable data and guidance to both individual team members and managers. Here’s how they did it.
Day One: Bringing the idea to life
The Skills Matrix concept that Patrick, Alex, and Betsey brought to the first day of their Product Lab sprint was an application that would build on existing software offerings but make significant and meaningful improvements. Most tools for skills assessment were, to their estimation, unengaging and “top-down.” Rotation Three wanted their application to deliver visual charts, not spreadsheets, and to be accessible and usable to everyone within an organization, not just the managers and executives.
At the beginning of Day One of the Product Lab, the third cohort knew the basic functions they wanted their app to deliver. The Skills Matrix should allow companies to “inventory” existing skills among their workforces, and also help employees understand and improve their own skills.
Because they had already completed the normal first step in design sprints—picking an idea—Patrick, Alex, and Betsey spent Day One exploring possible features for their Skills Matrix app.
Next, the team narrowed down their feature ideas into lists of short-term and long-term goals. And finally, they identified three specific features and functions that they would prioritize for their initial prototype.
The process of honing in on the absolutely essential parts of an idea was one of the most impactful parts of the Product Lab experience, the team later reported. Breaking down a task into bite-sized pieces—and avoiding getting overwhelmed by the job to be done—is a skill this cohort says will help them deliver even better work for Nansen clients.
Day Two: Researching and designing workflows
Patrick, Alex, and Betsey returned to the Product Lab for Day Two with a strong idea and even a list of features they wanted to focus on. So the big questions for the day would be around user journeys, workflows, and user interface (UI).
The Rotation Three cohort spent time on Day Two exploring “blockers” and tweaking their plans to address those challenges and questions. For example, how can a visual tool be accessible to people with disabilities, including low or no vision? What happens when a new tool comes to the market, and a skill that never existed before needs to be added?
By the end of Day Two, Patrick, Alex, and Betsey had decided on a look and feel for the app and outlined their workflows. They were ready to start coding and designing.
Day Three: Building UI and coding the app
In order to achieve the most complete prototype by the end of the week-long design sprint, the Rotation Three team decided to “parallel path” their work on two different tracks starting on Day Three. Alex and Betsey jumped into Figma to start working on the UI for their different users and workflows.
Meanwhile, Patrick started coding, putting the actual application together using Vue. The team really wanted their test users at the end of the week to be able to explore the key features they were imagining, so they pushed themselves to build out a functional application.
Days Four and Five: High fidelity design and user testing
On Day Four of the Product Lab, the team focused on refining their prototype on both the front and back ends, readying the app for testing from sign-in to self-assessment to chart and summary creation and more.
Given the short timeline of the Product Lab design sprint process, there were of course ideas that the Rotation Three team had for the Skills Matrix that didn’t make it into the initial prototype. Setting up integrations with other platforms where skills are logged or certified, like LinkedIn, is something the team would like to see added in the future, along with allowing recommendations for new or different skills, “weighted scoring” of skills with multiple inputs, and, of course, a Dark Mode option.
But the prototype was ready, and on Day Five, it was time for real Nansen team members to try the Skills Matrix. Betsey had created outlines for two user journeys: one “user profile” flow and one “admin view” flow, which included a wide variety of modals and interactions for testers to react to. In just a handful of days, the team had turned their idea into a real, working app.
Skills Matrix: the prototype
Patrick, Alex, and Betsey used their time in the Nansen Product Lab to bring a long-neglected internal project to life in a remarkable way. The Skills Matrix prototype they produced illuminates the passion for exploration and the pure technical talent within this team.
What did the users who tested the prototype have to say about it?
This application would help me to visually identify the strengths and weaknesses of my personal development better. Especially if someone who is a senior would give their input on my skill levels as well.
This application could help to facilitate open and honest communication between Nansen employees.
Being able to filter employees by who knows what technology can be helpful. Sometimes there are new tech I'm learning and it would be nice to know if someone else has experience with it.
We expect there will be more news about this exciting project in the future…