Switching to Agile and leading a team

I joined Ableton to work on an ambitious new service they were building for the web, one that we didn't end up shipping. As part of finding a new goal for our web team, the company leadership asked me to take the role of product owner for the web team. This was a switch that required me to learn, fast. I'd come from an environment where I was given tasks from a prepared project plan, to a team new to scrum where I was learning about stand ups, grooming backlogs and project plans as I was going along.

Helping musicians make music

Our team was looking for direction, for a strategy, so I did what I was taught designers should do and looked at users' needs. That meant talking to existing teams around the company and users to find where we could have an impact. Our conclusion could be distilled down to three needs:

  • Help. With things that didn't work or that they didn't understand.
  • Inspiration. Ideas and motivation to get them started and keep them moving.
  • A palette. Sounds and devices to make Live and their music feel like their own.

These insights helped to focus our work on features like help and learning resources, a blog and better structure and browsing for our packs content. Which isn't to say it all worked perfectly, there were mistakes that I also learnt from. A key one was we overestimated the importance of keeping our learning content on our platform and underestimated the cost of building our own question and answer feature. This meant we wasted time building tools, when we could have adopted something like Zendesk sooner and invested more in creating resources.

Collaborative sketching and wireframing.

A new website for Ableton

The drive to make a "new" Ableton.com came from a few different directions. We were working with Made Thought to create a new brand for Ableton and it was clear that the website would need to make major changes to fit with this. Input from people at Ableton and research was telling us we wanted to improve our product communication and store pages. Technically, we wanted to clean up our home-rolled frameworks and better leverage open source tools like Django.

To do this all together was the largest project I'd every been responsible for. I was product owner for two development teams (including other designers) and worked with many stakeholders across Ableton. It was also more than the Ableton web and communcations team could handle on their own, so we worked with two agencies (Made Thought and Edenspiekermann) plus freelancers. It taught me how important it was to manage risk in large projects. It also taught me the different ways you can approach working in parallel and how you can utilise techniques like prototyping and pairing to share knowledge throughout teams.

Our work contributed to Ableton’s most successful product release ever. It also helped deliver a design and technical foundation that made Ableton's web team significantly more effective.

Home page of Ableton.com for the launch of Live 9 and Push.

Telling the story of Live 9 and Push

As part of the launch of Live 9 and Push I worked with our Head of Documentation on the stories for Live and Push for Ableton.com. We wanted to tell the stories of the two products in a much more human, personal and musical way. We also wanted to set ourselves apart from the norm in the music industry, one that’s often dominated by a focus on features, exaggerated superlatives and flashy synthetic visuals.

To do this we built on Made Thought and Edenspiekermann's art direction with a copywriting approach that focused on what musicians could do with each feature, not how the feature works or what it does. As part of this we simplified our navigation and product comparisons. This was helped by a parallel effort to simplify the differences between the products themselevs (and taught me that sometimes it's easier to make the product simpler rather than explain it better).

Although it is a big claim to make, I believe the website and product stories we built for Live 9 not only set a direction that Ableton is still building on today, but set a direction for the music instrument industry that still influences peers and competitors today.

UI Lead