Participate agile product company

Transforming Participate into an Agile product company — and boosting active users 43%

Participate came to us in early 2017 looking for help with UX. But that was just the start. VIF, a professional development organization for teachers, had just acquired Participate, a chat product it needed to connect educators and help them share resources. VIF rebranded, adopting the Participate name and essentially becoming a software product company overnight. Now they needed to learn how to operate like one.

“Most of us were really skeptical that we could change things, but in a couple of months, we did it. It felt like a complete impossibility, but with the leadership of Table XI, we’ve effected tremendous change throughout the organization and on this product itself.”

Lauren Hanford, Head of User Experience Design at Participate

When we came on board, the product was muddled, new feature requests felt arbitrary and developers were hopelessly overworked. By doing lean user research, running a Product Strategy Workshop and instituting Agile design and development to get it all built, we were able to transform both the organization and the product.

Today, monthly active users are up 43 percent and continuing to grow steadily. And even though the relaunch happened during the summer, when teachers are off school and Participate is at its most quiet, new user signups are up 58 percent over the previous version of the product.

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Making the shift to a product company

In a product company, how you make products influences and is influenced by how the rest of the company operates. Participate was still operating under a traditional organization structure, with management dictating product decisions based on what they thought was best.

We went down to Participate's headquarters for a three-day UX process audit. After meeting with the product team, the organizational pain points were immediately clear. It wasn’t a lack of talent stopping Participate from creating an awesome product. It was a lack of communication, clear goal setting and product management.

And then there was the number one issue: a lack of user research. Customer-centric products are only successful when customer needs directly lead the design, yet features were coming from salespeople and management. The result was an ineffective platform that struggled with user acquisition and engagement. Fixing that was our first hurdle.

Bringing the users into the process

We knew we needed to infuse the product with user-centered design, so we recommended kicking off the engagement with a lean user research sprint. At the time, Participate was trying to help educators share resources and collaborate on lesson plans. Without a UX team though, they had no way to discover what users needed. Instead, they resorted to replicating Twitter chats functionality, since that's what teachers had been using. 

Participate User Mapping

Mapping out a new path for users.

A lean user research sprint flips that, interviewing users to find out what works and doesn’t work so you can build a new and better product. We had to introduce that approach to Participate, making us something between practitioners and teachers — showing by doing and coaching the team through the each step. That approach was critical to ensure Participate would be able to continue this work after we were gone. It also helped us to establish trust, which we relied on as we pushed organizational changes throughout the course of the project.

By talking to 15 representative users, we learned what was lacking and what we could do to improve collaboration among teachers. Then we translated those findings into a prioritized list of problem areas for which we could design solutions.


Using a Product Strategy Workshop to get everyone seeing the same problems

It’s great when you know what needs to change, but to make it happen, you need everyone else to agree. A weeklong Product Strategy Workshop allowed us to create that shared understanding, so we could all work together toward the same goal. The workshop gives us four days of exercises to help share information across teams and brainstorm new directions and solutions. On the fifth day, the design team translates all of that learning into a recommended plan the product team can execute.

We used video to jolt everyone into accepting that there were problems with the existing product. It’s very hard to watch people suffer through using your product, and when you see it, you can’t not believe it. Showing users getting frustrated with Participate gave everyone deeper empathy for the end users. Now we could all see problems from the users' perspective and bring our unique skills to solving them — whether it be technical expertise or design vision.


“The Product Strategy Workshop just shortened the space between developers and end users. It started to build empathy, and it gave the developers a much bigger feeling of ownership. It also and created visibility and credibility for the new UX process.”

Lauren Hanford, Head of User Experience Design at Participate


The Product Strategy Workshop let us establish shared knowledge across the product team in a very short period of time, so we could all take a user-centered approach to the product. The second step was bringing management stakeholders into the same conversation.

Building trust and improving communication across teams

To build the best products, you need tech, design and business all working together. But Participate’s management team was still struggling to articulate what the business goals were. Ultimately, we can’t prioritize user needs without knowing their potential ROI.

We coached Lauren, the head of the UX practice, and Arne, the product manager, on using their newly learned user research skills to draw out management’s goals. Once we had them, the whole team was able to articulate features based on business results, giving us a much better foundation for building a product.

“This is the most powerful thing about working with Table XI — they roll up their sleeves and get down in the mud with you. With other consultants, it can feel like it’s coming from an ivory tower. With Table XI, there’s so much more learning that happens because you’re working side-by-side and really collaborating.”

Lauren Hanford, Head of User Experience Design at Participate

We also trained the team to continue framing their conversations around user needs. The exercises we taught them in the Product Strategy Workshop —  empathy mapping, user journeying, mental models, etc. — can be used at any phase to stimulate thinking, and we consistently reminded the team to return to those practices when they were feeling stuck.

Re-envisioning the product through new lenses

To start applying all of these new learnings and methodologies to the product itself, we focused on a total redesign of the chat feature. Over the course of seven Agile sprints, we worked with Lauren to rethink how the chat feature should work, starting with the user needs that had the highest potential return for the business. Our goal was to create trust with educators and build an environment that would entice them off of Twitter and onto our platform.

The original chat experience was chaotic — users complained that it was hard to keep track of the conversations and the resources shared in them. There was also a major pain point around not being able to find chats that had already passed. To fix it, we streamlined the overall chat feature. Then we rethought how chats were archived and retrieved, coming up with new search functionality and and a new way to view chat histories.

Participate UX design change

By focusing on users, we were able to transform the experience of the app and increase monthly active users by 43 percent.

Coaching Participate into an Agile company

Great products aren’t made in isolation. They require an organization that’s structured top-to-bottom for great product making. When we came to Participate, it wasn’t a design-first company, and no one knew how to work in Agile. After we got stakeholders clearly providing insights and articulating goals, we needed to get them doing all of that in a cadence that allowed for Agile design and development.

Our goal from the beginning was to train the product team and establish methodologies that would slowly transform the organization. We repeated most new processes at least twice, coaching the product team so they could do the work themselves. And we worked to slowly weave those ideas and techniques into the entire company.  

Showing results is the best way to institutionalize a new approach, so we put metrics in place to measure what impact the Agile transformation had on both Participate and the product. For the team, we created two surveys — one for the beginning of the project and one at the end — that quizzed the product team on how happy and effective they felt.

Even though there were only four months between surveys, the change was dramatic. The team reported a 45 percent increase in satisfaction with UX and a 19 percent increase in confidence that they were building in a cohesive style. And because the rest of the company is now better able to communicate what they need, the product team also reported a 36 percent reduction in hours spent reworking features and tickets.

Creating a system to keep deployment Agile and test each feature

Working Agile clearly made Participate’s team happier and more effective. But it still required a lot of adaptation — their systems weren’t built with Agile in mind. Take deployment. Developers were merging all of their work into a single deployment before sending it to the quality assurance team. If there were issues with feature A, it would hold up the release of features B and C, which were all tied together.

The most recent work we’ve done with Participate addressed this issue by creating a copy of Participate’s app for each feature that’s in progress and ready to be tested. Feature A would live in an isolated copy of the app, as would features B and C. The second they were ready, B and C could go straight to production without needing to wait on fixes for feature A.


Table XI and the Participate team working together to brainstorm solutions.

The work we’ve done with Docker and Kubernetes make this not just possible, but elegant. Docker allows us to bundle Participate’s app and its dependencies into an independent container, while a Kubernetes cluster distributes these containers efficiently across Participate’s infrastructure. All of this is built directly into Circle CI, the continuous integration system Participate already uses. It automatically creates a copy of the infrastructure in Kubernetes for each Git branch, then deletes those copies once the work is accepted by QA and deployed. Using this system for QA gets Participate comfortable with Kubernetes, which opens the door to using it elsewhere — including in production where it would allow for additional flexibility.

Keeping the results coming with ongoing coaching

The effect we had on Participate’s product is clear. The dashboard we helped them create with Google Analytics and Mixpanel shows the phenomenal improvement they’ve made since adopting Agile and focusing product development on user needs. After an initial bump in user signups of 185 percent, Participate continues to add new users at a steady and growing clip, with a 58 percent sustained increase. They’re also seeing far more engagement, with a 20 percent increase in meaningful interactions with the redesigned chat feature and a 43 percent increase in monthly active users.

We still keep in touch with Participate, providing a few hours of coaching each month. The best part is seeing the change in how the product leads operate. Lauren is regularly meeting with the CEO to communicate user feedback and research, and all product features are now filtered through that lens.

The new features they’re working on show how transformative user-centered design can be. When something is a well-thought-out response to a user need, it can’t help but look awesome. Participate is now just a delightful product overall. The impact was immediately visible.

“We are a 1,000 miles from where we were. The value Table XI has provided is tremendous. We knew we needed UX, but now spreading to other products in our organization. It's all-encompassing. And it's exciting.”

Lauren Hanford, Head of User Experience Design at Participate

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