Welcome to the first post in our Collaboration Collection interview series where we’ll be highlighting how some of our most loyal customers use Nulab products to drive workplace collaboration. This week, we’ll be featuring Gabrielle Heller.
Meet Gabrielle Heller
Gabrielle Heller has been working in graphic design for over a decade, focusing on user experience (UX) design for a little over seven years. When you meet Heller, her curiosity and enthusiasm for all aspects of design become quickly apparent. She has a wealth of anecdotes from throughout her career ready to deliver with charisma and charm. What impressed us most during our time with Heller, though, is how exhaustively thorough she is with every project she approaches. Hearing about how our product Cacoo has helped to support these meticulous processes was fascinating.
How She Discovered Cacoo
Heller learned about Nulab about six years ago, just as she was getting into UX design and needed to facilitate her planning stages. She knows Adobe Illustrator like the back of her hand, but the new work she was doing required something different.
She first heard about Cacoo from colleague and former Instructor at Art Institute of Las Vegas, Mat Rosa. Rosa’s students had been recently researching usability tools and come across Cacoo. Rosa began sharing the tool with his classes and eventually told Heller about it. That was all it took: she was hooked.
Ever since she first used the program, Heller has been self-described as “Coo coo for Cacoo.” She has used it at every company she has worked for since and has even opted to pay for it out of her own pocket (on more than one occasion) before finally receiving approval from her managers to get the product financed by the company.
To date, she has introduced Cacoo to five separate companies and inundated her Cacoo workflow into each of those teams. She has gone from company to company turning skeptics into fellow “coo coo’s.” And as far as she knows, each company continued to use the product even after she left.
How She Works With Global Teams
At her previous role, working as a Senior UX Designer at Collective, a programmatic advertising company, her team consisted of about seven people in the US as well as another group of 10 in Bangalore, India.
“Cacoo has been essential for working with global teams,” explains Heller. “[The team in Bangalore] loved it because I would work on an application, and they could easily look at whatever I was doing and see the latest updates.”
Despite vast distances and time differences, the team would get together for ‘Show and Tell’s’ every week. The center of focus? A projection of Cacoo on each end. Team members would simultaneously flip through slides, actively discussing each page and deciding what needed to be done next. In real-time, members from different groups could leave comments and notes on the slides, make quick adjustments on the spot, and divvy out responsibilities for the coming week.
This wasn’t the first time Heller had used Cacoo to bridge international distances. The first time Heller used Cacoo, she was working for adMarketplace, an advertising technology company with teams in New York and Qatar. The next time, working with 24/7 Media—a digital marketing technology company that eventually merged with Xaxis—she had international team members accessing her designs from Singapore, Karlsruhe, London, and Pune. At Xaxis, she worked hand-in-hand on a daily basis with Product Managers and Engineers in London and Karlsruhe, Germany.
What Heller has discovered through working with all of these remote teams is that having a consistent visual to look at is imperative.
How She Uses Cacoo Today
Heller has spent most of her career working at startup companies with geographically dispersed teams. Her latest role at is going to be the most geographically concentrated team she has ever worked on—as soon as she gets the team up-and-running, that is.
You see, Heller just started working at her new employer about a month ago, but one of the first things she did was get approval from her new boss to expense Cacoo.
Unfortunately, we can’t tell you too much about what Heller is going to be doing at her new employment. She’s part of a brand new team (in fact, she’s the first!), and things are still pretty under wraps about how her advanced advertising team is going to turn the department on their heads. But it sounds like they’re gearing up for some great things. Her team, she explains, is going to act sort of like its own startup within the larger Corporation. We’ll have to check back in with her and all the beautiful Cacoo diagrams she creates once things start going public.
“I was brought on to build a team. We are building a new application,” Heller says. At this point, “We’re using [Cacoo] for mind mapping and mental modeling, so we can understand and define what the actual product is. I’m using it for some kind of flow charts. I’ll be using it for visual flow charts for understanding the front-end architecture of what we’re building, and I will then do all of my wireframing in Cacoo.”
When asked what kind of mental models she’s using, she explains “I do what you call ‘skyscraper mental models’ which is sort of an assessment of major tasks and minor tasks. It’s very visual.” She uses this visual model to identify repeating patterns in users actions and then turn them into components in an app. She also looks at what data or information needs to be pulled in order to carry out each task. All of this helps her think about what capabilities would be most useful to the end user.
Her Cacoo Workflow
In these beginning stages especially, she loves the flexibility Cacoo provides to her workflow.
“I love how easy it is for me to copy and clone existing documents, so I can do a lot of version control.”
She sees her workflow as broken up into two parts. The first, “I use it, one, as just a simple brain dump. Any kind of idea I have, little components, I’ll put it all over the place.” She starts by making multiple mock copies until she gets a better sense of what ideas she really wants to pursue.
Once that happens, “I’ll usually start a new design in a different version. I’ll start a more defined graphic or a wireframe. When I get to the point where we actually have to do all the interaction designs, we use it very much like you would a paper prototype.”
Her ability to use Cacoo for each of these stages is important. “It has the flexibility of working really well for both information design and wireframing design. Which is the two kind of hats that I wear a lot.”
The process is meticulous and requires painstaking attention to detail.
“I’ve had Cacoo documents that have had 60 sheets in it that are actually showing ‘on hover’, ‘on click’, ‘on focus’, ‘off focus,’ all the different interactions that I would need to see so that you can actually click through and see every single step.”
For Heller, this in-depth process helps her and her team identify steps they might have otherwise missed, and it gives them a more realistic idea of what a user might anticipate if they were looking at the screen in completion.
The most valuable part of her approach is that it leaves little up for misinterpretation once it’s time for Engineering to step in. “The engineers like it too because there’s no guessing of what the application’s going to be. I’m actually showing [them] what the application is going to be.”
Communicating effectively with Engineering is an important aspect of her role and one that will often determine the success of the final product. “I’m UX/UI, but the user experience part of me.. is to be sort of a bridge between Engineering and Product. To make sure that that actually works. That we’re saying the same thing.”
Her words resonate with an old industry saying, “Crossing the Chasm.” When asked, Heller admits, “Cacoo help me cross the chasm.”
How Her Team’s Feel About Cacoo
Heller has met her fair share of skeptics along the way, each one trying to get her to use a different program—Balsamiq, Visio, InVision, even PowerPoint—but through the years, she has always insisted on Cacoo. And her colleagues are grateful for it.
“My colleagues love the fact that I’ve introduced some of them [to Cacoo]. I’ve mentioned [coworkers] who were previously using Visio. They think [Cacoo] is a lot more flexible, easier to use, a lot more fun to use,” explains Heller. She notes that her team has especially come to appreciate the fact that they can create private documents in Cacoo, work on them until they are ready to present and then share. As soon as any team member ready for the rest of the team to see the draft, all they have to do is change the permission to public, and everyone automatically gets a notification that there’s a new diagram for them to look at and review.
“We’re part of an integrated team. When it’s ready to share, you just change a permission as to where the document is, and boom; they get a notification, which they have enjoyed a lot.”
The automatic notification system saves Heller and her team a lot of time. Instead of having to email, message, or hold a meeting to deliver information about recent changes, her team receives notifications of her updates without any additional steps. And in return, Heller gets immediate notifications when they leave feedback in the form of comments.
This transparency keeps team members on the same page, a goal that has proven difficult in the past.
Heller has worked with a lot of talented engineers over the years, and one of the most common issues she has seen working with engineering teams is that engineers are often kept in the dark about what they’re building, and more importantly, why they’re building it.
Her approach is unique in that she brings Engineering in from the start. She gives Cacoo licenses to each engineer from the onset, so they can see her updates as they’re happening as well as watch the entire process as it unfolds.
Giving engineers a greater understanding of the purpose of what they’re building, Heller believes, is what keeps engineers more engaged in the process and helps them make better engineering choices. “People take more ownership when they know what they’re building,” Heller states.
When making the final wireframes, before officially passing things off to Engineering and eventually Design, she tries to make each page look as much like the actual prototype as possible. This practice reduces the risk of Engineering or Design not understanding the intention behind her UX. She loves that Cacoo allows her to use the exact HEX values she needs as well as to integrate SVG graphics.
“I like the flexibility and freedom of your product. It’s sort of like Illustrator on steroids.”
The fact that anyone can log in and bring up her wireframes without her having to be there to present them is handy at this stage. Her managers especially appreciate this feature, since they can bring up her wireframes in meetings whenever they need.
The workflow that Heller has instilled across these companies has been so successful that upon leaving, her managers often want reassurance that the team will continue to use Cacoo even when she’s gone. They enjoy the transparency it gives them, and they fear losing it if their resident Cacoo Evangelist isn’t around anymore. And so far, each team has gone on to continue replicating her workflow after she has left.
Examples of Her Work
There should be no doubt at this point: Heller is good at what she does. If her confidence and vast knowledge don’t convince you, her actual Cacoo diagrams certainly will.
The second she shows us an example of her mental models, we’re blown away. These are more than diagrams; they’re art.
She starts each mental model with a general flow chart, just to get a feeling for the general flow and structure of information. When she begins her mental model stage, she also starts including information gleaned from user interviews. Her final drafts reflect hours of analysis put forth to unearth repeated actions, information, and intentions.
The output, as you’ve seen, is both highly functional and incredibly visually appealing.
Why Collaboration is So Important
“My favorite thing about [Cacoo] is how easy it is to share,” Heller says. “The collaboration is a huge selling point, and that’s why my colleagues like it. [It’s] what makes it essential.”
Collaboration is crucial for any successful business. As Heller sees it, “Without collaboration, you can’t have business.”
“Without everybody [working together,] you can’t build anything. If one person thinks we’re building a shanty and another person thinks we’re building a mud hut, and another person thinks we’re building a tower, that’s not good. Having a way to collaborate and have everyone have a unified vision of what it is you’re trying to build is far more productive.”
Some details can be figured out later, of course. “You don’t need to know what color the door is going to be if you’re building a house, but you do have to have a good understanding if you’re going to have nine floors,” Heller explains. But you need to have everyone understand the structure and meaning of what you’re building. “The foundation of any application is correspondence and communication, and Cacoo enables that,” says Heller.
Efficient collaboration becomes even more important when you consider the types of challenges modern businesses face today.
What are the biggest challenges? “Time,” Heller answers immediately. “We’re all busy; we’re all going to different places; everyone is scheduled to be someplace else. Finding the ability with everything we have to do in our busy lives and the focus to get everybody together is hard.”
Most modern workers can empathize with this assessment, which is why finding new ways of collaborating outside face-to-face meetings is so important.
For Heller, Cacoo is a huge part of solving this problem of making collaboration more efficient. And she’s been thrilled with the results. “Would I recommend it to a friend? Definitely. Would I recommend it to every company I’ve ever worked for? Yes. And I would continue to do so.”
Here at Nulab, we have almost 60 employees globally. With headquarters in Fukuoka, Japan, an 11 person office in the US, and individuals spread across Kyoto, Tokyo, Singapore, and Taiwan, we not just building tools for companies that need help collaborating across huge distances: we’re using them.
As we continue to grow, we use our personal experiences with Nulab Apps to find unique solutions, come up with new features, and offer new tools that help teams collaborate more efficiently around the world.
What tools does your team use to collaborate?
The Collaboration Collection series asks Nulab customers to share their expertise, workflows, insights, and more. Know someone who would make a great feature? Email Brandi Gratis.