Alation 2020.3: Discussing Customer-Centric Design with Colin Poindexter, Alation’s Product Design Lead
By Nolan Necoechea
Published on October 6, 2020
Nolan Necoechea, Director of Marketing: With the release of Alation 2020.3, the user experience has seen some big changes. Can you talk about those changes?
Colin Poindexter, Design Lead, Alation: With the launch of Alation 2020.3, we’ve worked closely with our customers to implement their feedback and ensure that they are delighted by the experience and inspired to explore and contribute to their company’s data culture.
We launched a new homepage that is easier to customize. We have found that Alation becomes an integral part of how our customers work with data and being able to use their own branding and navigation makes the experience more welcoming — especially for business users, who might be turned off if the catalog looks overly technical.
We implemented a new design that puts search front and center in the experience. Our customers love Alation search and are using it for much more than a way to get from point A to point B. The update to full-page search makes it easier for our customers to leverage search for everything from data discovery to curation and more.
Along with these additions, we completely revamped the user interface: new typeface, new bespoke iconography, and cleaner overall design. These changes make Alation more approachable for data consumers, particularly business users. Even if you aren’t familiar with data tools, you can open Alation and feel like this is something designed for you.
Nolan: Alation was already well known for its intuitive design. When user experience is already strong, what fuels the drive to keep improving?
Colin: We focus on customer feedback and on making the product accessible to a broad range of personas. We constantly talk to our community, customer champions, and solicit feedback through our Alation Insiders program, which provides a way for our end users to have a direct impact on the design.
We listen to our users’ wants, needs, and likes and balance that feedback with our own vision. Our design principles are really their design principles, and because the way our customers use Alation continues to evolve, we continue to evolve the user experience.
The team also takes a great deal of pride in the craft and in delivering a beautiful, delightful experience for our customers. We really do sweat the small stuff, every single little detail down to the pixel level.
Nolan: Can you discuss the process for taking that customer feedback and turning that into design elements?
Colin: The process for the changes that you see in 2020.3 started with a conversation on our customer community site.* We asked, “if you had a magic wand, what would you want to see in Alation’s user experience?” That led to a really really rich discussion.
That feedback combined with the ongoing conversations we have with customers and end-users gave us some ideas. From there, we created a few different options and shared them with our Alation Insiders for more refinement and conducted rigorous usability testing, giving us a pretty clear direction on where we should go with the user experience.
This process of gathering and testing customer feedback is incredibly important, and underlying that process is our internal design system, called Fabric. Fabric makes the UI modular and allows both our designers and engineers to make changes faster. With Fabric, we can iterate and incorporate feedback from customers, much faster. We did a redesign of the entire data catalog in this release. Without the design system in place, that wouldn’t be possible.
Nolan: You were the first design hire at Alation. We’re there any “ah-ha” moments along the way?
Colin: I’ve been at Alation for more than six years and was employee number twelve. We have always made design a priority. Design was also one of our founding pillars. Our Co-Founder Aaron Kalb is a designer and previously worked on Siri at Apple, and he and the other co-founders recognized early on that the more people who used Alation, the more valuable the data catalog would be. Alation isn’t something that one or two people use, and so, we really focus on creating a delightful experience that people will want to return to again and again.
Even though design was part of our roots, we still had to work to hone our design thinking as more and more customers began using Alation — and that led to a very key revelation. Four years ago, we realized that Alation’s design would need to be able to change as our customer base grew, as the persona of the Alation user expanded, and as the ways in which our customers used Alation evolved. Because of that foresight, we developed our own design system, Fabric, and that has allowed us to be nimble and incorporate customer feedback very quickly.
Nolan: What are your thoughts about the future of Alation’s design?
Colin: The user experience will definitely continue to change, but the goal will remain the same: to continue making the most powerful and most beautiful, delightful data catalog, a data catalog that people want to use.
Nolan: Anything you would like to add?
Colin: I want to recognize our hardworking design team: Megan Matsumoto, who worked on full-page search; Meredith Johnstone, who developed the new homepage; Ian Teroka, who assisted me on the UI; and Andy Rivera, who led all of us. This is a phenomenal team of product designers, and they bring the design to life. And of course, all of the customers who engaged in the design process with us. We are excited to hear more feedback from our customers on the new user experience.