My Journey at Peak Democracy: From Design Leadership to Product Management

The purpose of this post is to outline my journey at Peak Democracy, to share what I’ve learned and express my enthusiasm at the next stage of my career as I take on a new role as Product Manager & Lead Designer at Peak Democracy (now a part of OpenGov).

Backstory

In March, I began consulting for Peak Democracy—a company on a mission to build public trust in government. Their business centers on a web-based product called Open Town Hall, which is widely considered to be North America’s leading online civic engagement platform.

Open Town Hall was built over ten years by a small team of developers with no design input. They’d leveraged Bootstrap as a front-end framework with very little to no customization.

I was amazed how successful their company had been without any designers on their team. It made me challenge my assumptions about what is necessary when building a digital product. A small remote team at Peak Democracy had built a successful SAAS (Software As A Service) company over 10 years with no design input. They’d also built up a lot of usability and technical debt, but they manage to maintain a customer-centric business without ‘design’. Imagine that…

The problems presented by their lack of design input finally built up to a critical mass. Customers were complaining to the point of leaving, citizens were frustrated and the company decided to act.

I was brought in to solve problems that centered around usability. There were a lot of technical constraints around the product and a myriad of complex risks that we needed to mitigate. This project fit perfectly at the intersection of my career niche: design, technology and social good.

It was the first time I’d ever worked in a fully remote team. I’ve learned more in the past six months working for Peak Democracy than I have in any other span of my career. Here are some of the highlights of my journey as Lead Product Designer for Open Town Hall 2 at Peak Democracy:

  • Addressing Usability Problems
  • Finding Product Opportunities
  • Mitigating Risk
  • Moving from MVP to Beta
  • Defining a Pattern Library & Improving Quality of Output
  • Enter OpenGov Stage Right

The Journey

Addressing Usability Problems

As soon as I kicked off my first design sprint, I realized I needed to develop a new set of skills. While I had facilitated project kick-offs, workshops and usability sessions in-person, I’d never done it remotely before. The remote component was entirely new and I was excited to wrap my hands around it.

I didn’t have much time to step back and learn about remote design work before diving in, so I did what I usually do and learned by doing with supplemental support from books (Remote and ReWork by 37Signals), courses (Remotify by Hanno), and mentorship (my design mentor James Box).

I read The Sprint Book by Jake Knapp in the days leading up to the first sprints, and I was able to try out Jake’s version of the Design Sprint, albeit remotely. If you haven’t read the book, I highly recommend it.

We quickly narrowed in on a basic design direction that had been evaluated with real users which afforded us a sufficient level of confidence about committing the designs to code. Looking back, I think we may have jumped too quickly into building out an MVP in code. There were other ideas we could have explored, specifically around complex interactions. The basic flow was validated, but I don’t think we invested enough focus in specific areas.

Finding Product Opportunities

As we began building out the MVP I quickly began fulfilling many roles of a Product Manager and Scrum Master. I had to learn how to use Pivotal Tracker (not my favorite tool in the world) and come to terms with Peak Democracy’s flavor of Agile development.

Peak Democracy had always built software in small increments with multiple releases a week. Suddenly we were building an entirely new UI from scratch—one that needed to use the same database as the existing app, support the same ‘jobs to be done’ but make it easier to use and more delightful.

This presented particular challenges, but also new opportunities about redefining product language, redesigning mental models and clarifying value propositions. There were opportunities to improve the way Peak Democracy supported its product, the way it measured the success of design and development efforts and several others.

I was fortunate enough to have the autonomy and authority to set my mind to addressing these problems. Hats off to the executive team at Peak Democracy for fostering a work environment where this is possible.

Mitigating Risk

I learned a lot from Peak Democracy’s founder and CEO Robert Vogel in this time. Among many things, he taught me how to identify risk, define principles to mitigate it, and maintain high-quality communication to execute on those principles.

In much of my life I’ve been an optimist and an opportunist. Working with Robert taught me the value of focusing on risk as well as reward, weaknesses as well as opportunities.

This unfolded in the project in a variety of ways, most resembling a basic pattern of what developers call ‘encapsulation’. This is where you define a problem or a risk and ‘encapsulate’ it with a particular container such that if the risk / problem does occur, it’s effect is only as widespread as the container in which it lives.

For example, we decided to focus on the Admin UI of the application first. We built the MVP for the Admin UI and released it to Peak Democracy’s Client Services team first. They use Open Town Hall more than anyone and know their customers needs best. We ran usability sessions and iterated based on those learnings.

Moving From MVP to Beta

As we built upon the learning gained from the MVP, we began defining a greater scope of functionality that would allow us to invite ‘Early Access’ client admins to begin using the new tool. Now that we had a foundation of software beneath us, we began moving into weekly release cycles.

This pulled me further into the roles of a Product Manager because we needed direction about where we were heading in the long-term in order to prioritize short-term efforts. I started spending more time working on our roadmap and less time pushing around pixels and committing front-end code. I maintained my focus on speaking with clients and evaluating the product, but it soon became clear that we needed more resources to support our design and front-end development efforts.

Defining a Pattern Library & Improving The Quality of Output

After exploring a large number of options for fulfilling our design and front-end void, we finally found the right solution. A former Clearleft employee named Paul Lloyd had just finished working at The Guardian and was returning from some time off. Paul is a world-class designer and front-end developer. I jumped on the opportunity to bring him on board and thankfully the project was a good fit for him so he agreed to consult with us to help define an accessible pattern library for the new tool.

Paul and I kicked off the pattern library project in-person at 68 Middle Street — Clearleft in Brighton.

Enter OpenGov Stage Right

A couple weeks after we kicked off the pattern library project, the announcement was made to Peak Democracy staff that we were going to explore a potential partnership with OpenGov—a venture-backed Silicon Valley tech startup on a mission to enable more effective and accountable government. OpenGov flew a handful of us out to their headquarters and we explored this potential collaboration with them in an immersive setting.

By the end of our time with OpenGov it was clear that joining forces was the best path for Peak Democracy to continue its mission to build public trust in government. OpenGov’s end-to-end government cloud enabled government agencies to manage their entire budget process, maintain fiscal transparency and open data infrastructure. Open Town Hall allowed governments to engage with their citizens on issues ranging from budgeting to planning and specific policies. It seemed like a perfect fit. Even the product name testified to this.

Moving Forward

I’m super excited to collaborate with the brilliant folks at Open Gov and to further the mission of building public trust while enabling governments to become more effective and accountable. The two missions seem to be a logical part of the same system

If we continue on our laser focus of unmet human needs, I think we have a unique opportunity to use design and technology as a force for social good—to bring people together rather than rip them apart. We can continue to partner with brilliant government organizations that are driven to make the world a better place.

I’m excited to grow in my capacity as a product manager and further my maturity as a designer. Hopefully I’ll be able to pull myself above water every so often and share what I’ve learned…

One Last Thought

There’s so much more that we as creative technologists can do together. We can do more than build ‘Like’ buttons and social feeds. There’s more than advertising and artificial intelligence.

There are so many tools out there and so much need. I want to base my career on the pursuit of helping create positive social change. If Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning is right, you probably have a similar desire to apply your skills to something bigger than yourself.

Please feel free to reach out and let me know where you’re at on your journey. I always appreciate hearing from other people and sharing ideas. I’m available via Twitter and email: john@john-ellison.com.