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Invisible made Visible: The Value of Designing Tools for Internal Teams

October 2021

Article

Vandana Pai

You’ve probably heard the phrase “good design is invisible.” Well, that statement is certainly true of Spotify, where it’s the design team’s goal to create a flawless listening experience. Our designers work on a vast number of diverse and interesting problems, and unbeknownst to most, a large subset of that work is on internal tools that power Spotify under the hood. And the reason we place so much value on the teams that build these tools is because we know that creating an amazing experience for Spotifiers (as we call our employees) is necessary to create an equally amazing experience for our listeners.

Being on one of these teams has given me a new perspective on what it takes to build a successful internal tool and why it’s important to invest in them. We enable others to do their best work and maximize our ability to focus on our fans' unique needs. I’ll take you through my journey of learning about the challenges we face, the benefits of bespoke tooling, and why we show internal tools love across Spotify.

The responsibility of reaching millions of listeners  

When I joined Spotify, my manager told me that her goal was to create a world-class enterprise-grade tool that was so good, it could stand alone as a product. A tool that could power a pivotal feature like Wrapped, Spotify’s trademark end-of-year recap. 

Wrapped is one of the most anticipated annual campaigns and generates a ton of social media hype. Every December, more than 350 million users receive a snapshot of their listening behavior from the past year, so it’s key that it runs smoothly. When release day comes, millions of users receive communications about the exciting new launch. One tool we’ve developed to aid in ensuring the successful communication of campaigns like Wrapped is an internal marketing platform called Quicksilver. 

As an internal tools team, our primary customers are growth and marketing teams focused on engagement, retention, and conversion. They use a variety of channels available in the tool (like email or in-app messages) to send targeted communications to listeners. Marketing the Wrapped campaign is just one example of many. Others include: 

  • Recommending a new album or an upcoming concert

  • Promoting the latest episode from a listener’s favorite podcast

  • Encouraging new users to try a free month of Spotify Premium

  • Notifying users about their unique listening habits and being a #1 fan

This process of creating personalized campaigns to engage listeners with Spotify is made possible by our internal tools. If the tools Spotifiers use to do their work are too complex and unreliable, errors are likely: a test message can be prematurely activated, or listeners might receive messages in a different language than the one they prefer. Spotify sends millions of messages a day to listeners, and with that kind of reach a single mistake can have a cascading effect around the world. 

Brand reputation is sacred, and it can be tarnished more easily than it can be built. A single moment can affect a listener’s relationship with Spotify permanently, which can ultimately impact our targets for growth and success. We have to ensure our employees can always create high quality experiences that aren’t repetitive or, to put it bluntly, bland. We aim to embody Spotify’s vibrant voice in every touchpoint. Giving the same love to our internal tools as we do our core products is vital to maintaining a positive relationship between our listeners and Spotify.

The benefits of bespoke tooling

Why take the time to build an internal tool rather than use one that already exists? There are two main instances in which a company may choose to build its own internal tool rather than use one made by a third party:

  1. There is no effective third-party tool that meets all their needs

  2. They believe it will be easier or more cost-effective to create the tool in-house

While a startup may have to resort to a third-party service, Spotify has grown enough that it can invest the time and resources in building its own bespoke tools to meet the needs of our marketers, fans, and creators. 

Different teams tend to have very different needs, so trying to find one tool that does it all is difficult. Teams have tried to coordinate a hodgepodge of external tools in their workflow, which in the long run limits productivity. Plus, maintenance of all those external tools can become costly. We've found that creating a fantastic and holistic marketing experience only becomes possible when the tools are internally managed.

At Spotify, our tools often start as small projects that grow to serve critical aspects of the experience. For example: 

  • Editorial tools to create engaging playlist artwork

  • An analytics tool that visualizes and compares audience behavior across the world

  • A tool to build and manage thousands of unique playlists

Our goal is for Spotify to get to market faster and make our fans happier. Designing tools internally allows us to build features faster because they are custom-tailored to increase efficiency and productivity — we know that time wasted on processes hurts growth. It also enables us to gather and share information across Spotify seamlessly, which helps us to optimize our personalized listening experience, grow our product offerings, and keep Spotify as the number one audio company in the world.

Making room for internal tools

Embracing the creation and maintenance of internal tools doesn’t happen overnight. Understanding how to build collaborative teams around internal tools has its own learning curve. It requires a shift in attitude, a change in prioritization, and an emphasis on measuring success to ensure designers can maintain a high standard.

1. Show care for the tool and its users

In order of importance at most companies, internal tools are generally at the bottom of the hierarchy. There might be a belief that employees will just use whatever is built for them or that internal tools are less important because no users will ever see them, which cheapens the value of the teams’ work and can be demotivating.

Instead, the mindset we hold is that every product, whether it is external or internal, is customer-facing. I learned very quickly that building an internal tool is the same as creating an enterprise software tool. The use cases are complex and tailored for people in a specific role with specific needs. The tool itself is likely to be used routinely on an everyday basis, with a high number of touchpoints by Spotifiers. Internal or enterprise tools need to help people get their job done in an efficient way to help a company move its business forward. Our colleagues’ jobs and their individual success depends on these tools. 

How do we make our tool enterprise-grade? We run design sprints to innovate on new features and imagine how people will use the tool. We own a design system for our tools to improve efficiency and create a cohesive experience. We undertake extensive discovery processes, vetting the problems and use cases with our key stakeholders, other Spotifiers in the product, marketing, and creative teams. We conduct user research and testing with rigor. We maintain and update a support center with detailed documentation on how to use the tool. Upholding this standard has been essential for the success of our stakeholders, and therefore the success of the experiences they are creating for Spotify fans.

2. Prioritize upkeep

If an internal tools team doesn’t care about the tool or its users, it becomes impossible to make the best prioritization decisions. It can be tempting for some to deprioritize design investment to improve the experience because “it’s just an internal tool.” 

As a designer, this is a soul-crushing phrase to hear. Our job is to build empathy for our users and solve their problems while maintaining a high bar for design. We’re trained to ask “who are we designing for?” Luckily, I’m designing for those around me, and I can kick off a user research session with a simple Slack message. There are hours that I schedule just to understand my co-workers' difficulties because they happen to also be my customers. Just recently I was testing a tool’s new feature with a Spotifier in Brazil, who exclaimed with joy that she was “geeking out” because of how much easier it was to complete her task now, saving her hours of work each week. 

Without a doubt, Spotifiers’ problems are real and tangible. To them, it’s not “just an internal tool,” but a tool they have to use daily to get their job done. The most important question to ask as an internal tooling team: what is the tradeoff of not prioritizing this feature or use case?

At Spotify, we know that a lack of technical upkeep leads to downstream problems later. “Quick and easy” tools that were meant to only support a few people will see their user base grow as the needs of the business change. Neglect and a lack of adequate documentation of these tools will create enormous amounts of tech debt and user errors. Tradeoffs add up, so, we’ve adequately resourced and staffed teams to maintain and grow these tools so they are continuously optimized. 

3. Measure and track success

While it’s difficult to quantify the domino effect neglect can have, it can be equally as difficult to measure the value and impact of an internal tool. With external-facing products, it’s easier to measure a metric like MAU, revenue, or engagement. These are specific metrics that have a direct correlation to the core product. There may also be more weight to them as they’re highly visible and shared publicly as indicators of success. 

So how do we tie an internal tool’s impact to the company’s growth? How do we know whether to continue to allocate resources and time to it? How do we prove the value of the tool? 

Many internal tooling teams’ best measure of success is qualitative metrics, like how efficient the tool is or how satisfied users feel. Some typical questions internal tooling teams may ask:

  1. How often are users performing a task or using this tool? 

  2. How much time is spent to complete this task or on this tool? 

  3. What is the cost for them to currently do this task on other tools?

  4. What has the tool allowed them to do that they couldn’t otherwise? 

  5. Are they more productive with the time and effort saved by using this tool? 

These are important metrics to measure to learn whether additional features or improved user experience are helping stakeholders to do their jobs better. We can define our success criteria with these measures, however, it still may not feel as “impactful” in the traditional sense. Implicitly, we know that the listener experience is better if our stakeholders are making fewer mistakes and creating more personalized experiences. However, it’s difficult to measure if the internal tool made a direct impact on revenue. It is not as easy to track and gauge. 

Each team handles this problem differently. On my own team, we recently went through an ideation exercise of all possible quantitative metrics that could be used and tracked through their internal tool. We later worked closely with data science and engineering to implement tracking for metrics including click-through rate, time spent, and listener engagement. Another team went through an exercise of forecasting the possible revenue that could be generated if certain features were added to the internal tool. 

We’ve seen user satisfaction go up with classic NPS tests and efficiency scores increase with feature updates to internal tools. We’ve seen a workflow that originally took a user seven different tools to complete over the course of weeks be reduced to a matter of days with a single tool that was built internally. We’ve seen the cost of outsourcing a workflow to external agencies be reduced tremendously by internal tools. Productivity, while seemingly intangible, is an important value that internal tools have an impact on that are critical to the success of the business. 

Conclusion

We want Spotify products to be seamless for listeners, and this isn’t possible without enabling Spotifiers to have a seamless working experience too. The investment we make in ourselves shows. There are so many different teams at Spotify working on challenging problems that all ultimately create an incredible audio listening experience for our fans: whether that be to help our teammates upload a new song; create new playlist artwork; study how Gen Z listening behaviors are changing; record a new podcast ad; or piece together the Wrapped campaign. All of these are made possible for Spotifiers, by Spotifiers.

Credits

Vandana Pai

Senior Product Designer

Vandana is a designer on the Freemium team. You can find her (mostly) in NYC, or somewhere else exploring the outdoors.

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