Casey McKinnon shares how FreshBooks regained its design groove at Product Hunt Toronto

Product Hunt Toronto

To an outsider, FreshBooks looks like one of those startups that can do no wrong. In just the past year, the company secured a $30 million funding round, and moved into a spacious new office inside of Toronto’s Junction Triangle neighbourhood.

Of course, appearances can be deceiving, and no one knows this better than Casey McKinnon, the company’s head of product.

On Wednesday night, McKinnon was the keynote speaker at the fourth Product Hunt meetup in Toronto. McKinnon was there to talk about implementing a Lean UX approach to product design, but the more interesting part of his presentation turned out to be the story of how FreshBooks lost and subsequently regained its design groove.

FreshBook's Casey McKinnon

According to McKinnon, FreshBooks lost its design groove about five years in a period he describes as the company’s “Dark Time.”

Prior to the company’s recent design reinvention, every FreshBooks product that made it out of the door had to go through multiple design approvals. While this process worked relatively well while the company was small, it broke down as FreshBooks grew. McKinnon says that the company’s product team became paralyzed in endless approvals, and they eventually started to build products they knew would get approved, instead of ones they thought their customers needed or wanted.

“You need to get out of the building and talk to customers,” McKinnon said to the audience. It’s what FreshBooks, in its so-called dark time, had consistently failed to do.

So the company decided that things needed to change, and challenged themselves to build their next product four times faster. What proved instrumental in achieving this goal was the concept of the design sprint, created by Google Ventures.

“You need to get out of the building and talk to customers.”

The design sprint essentially involves condensing the full design process into a one-week cadence. It’s an approach that emphasises speed and functionality, instead of perfection and aesthetics.

One the most important changes to come out of FreshBooks adopting the design sprint is that they now host something called ‘Testing Thursday’ every week. Once a week, three or so of the company’s users come into the office to try out the latest product the company has been working on. McKinnon says that while getting that many people to come in each week is difficult – getting customers to come in has become the part-time job of one of his colleagues — the decision to do so has paid massive dividends.

According to McKinnon, since adopting the design sprint, FreshBooks has been able to produce consistently better-designed products. They’ve also shipped faster and with more confidence, and, perhaps most importantly, McKinnon says his product team has become more engaged as a result of the culture change.

Of course, changing how the company went about designing its products was not without its challenges. The company had to create a culture where its designers were facilitators, not rock stars. “At FreshBooks, there are no Jony Ives,” he said.


Igor Bonifacic

Igor Bonifacic is a Toronto-based writer interested in exploring the intersection of technology, entrepreneurship, and life.

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