Innovation in Digital Experience

Multi-functional teams make for a greater customer journey

photo of Humberto Corona
Humberto Corona

Data Scientist

Multi-functional teams make for a greater customer journey

When I started in Zalando Tech, I hadn’t worked with a product manager before, and I had probably never seen a UX designer, a UI designer, a researcher or a business developer before either. My world was data science, more specifically, personalization and recommender systems. In this isolated bubble, data scientists often thought we could solve all problems without help, but in the last two years, I came to understand why we need to stop thinking that way. What follows is my journey of building a product, following the principles of discovery, definition, design, and delivery.

In 2016, just before our annual Hack Week event, I found myself trying to find Christmas presents for my two sisters, but I had no idea about their fashion taste, what their favourite colors were, or which brands they preferred. Long story short, with three days at the hack event and a really small team (of two people), we hacked a product to solve that problem. This personalization product –as yet under wraps– allows customers to discover and explore fashion content in a newly personalized way, putting a smooth and intuitive customer experience first. It got really good first impressions and we received a Hack Week Award.

I really wanted to bring this product to our customers, so I started talking with our Innovation Lab to be part of [Slingshot, our incubation program. Together with Slingshot, we started building a multi-functional team, did all the discovery and definition work we needed to, and pitched the idea to senior management who decided not only to sponsor our Slingshot round, but also gave us the go ahead to start building the product! At that moment, it felt like a dream come true.

We built a small team of really great people with all the functions we thought we needed: a UX designer, UX researcher, UI designer, mobile engineer, product manager, the design]( sprint master, and me. We talked to at least 15 different teams to learn about our customers, similar projects, and future collaborations. For the first time ever, I got to design and deliver something without writing a single line of code, and most importantly, we put it before the eyes of real customers in just four days.

During these two weeks, I learned that dreams don’t just happen; you work, really hard to achieve them. Being responsible for a product for the first time was really challenging. Some days we felt we made no progress, or discovered others had tried similar ideas and failed, but we followed the Design Sprint Framework, made decisions, and kept moving forward. I attribute our success to having highly-diverse teams with a range of functions, backgrounds and experiences. We had people from three different Zalando locations ( Berlin, Helsinki, Dublin) and six different nationalities.

After a successful Slingshot round, we created a multi-functional team in Helsinki to build this product, and my role was product manager. Even with no previous experience, not taking this challenge didn’t cross my mind. In the team, we followed the 4D principle to build this product. So, from a customer-centric perspective, we engaged in discovery, definition, design and finally, delivery. Something that seems linear on paper is in actual fact, cyclical, so while we worked forwards to build our first feature, we had cycles within the journey where we iterated on discovery-definition-design for new features and the broader product vision.

During this process and in ongoing projects, I continue to learn about team dynamics, how to communicate with stakeholders, how to work with people doing other roles in the organization beyond engineering, and many other matters. Every job seems easier when you look at it from the outside. Having the opportunity to work in a diverse and multi-functional team, I understand everyone’s role much better now. While still being a data scientist at heart, this process taught me how to be a better one; by focusing on the right problems, finding collaborators, and always keeping a customer-obsessed mindset in my work.

This year I was part of a team that won another Hack Week award. This time I was not the person leading the vision, but I am proud to see more people in Zalando growing their ideas and getting the support to bring them to life. You will see both products really soon; all part of Zalando’s digital experience.

Interested to hear more? Humberto will be giving a talk at our Helsinki Tech Hub on Thursday March 1st at our Zalando Helsinki Play Night on “Platform and Personalization in Product Management.” Grab one of the few remaining seats here.

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