An Interview with Babbel’s VP of Product Design, Scott Weiss
Babbel’s VP of Product Design Scott Weiss is an industry leader in user experience. From learning machine code as a teen to writing the world’s first textbook on mobile user experience, Scott was at the forefront of product design years before the term was coined. Since joining Babbel two years ago, Scott leads two cross-functional teams of designers and engineers. As a mentor and champion of Babbel’s flat hierarchy, Scott’s accomplishments are best evidenced by the time and care he devotes to his quickly expanding teams.
What first got you interested in design?
It was the launch of Macintosh back in 1984. I was a student in high school, and the Mac was a supercool new computer that completely changed the way computing was visualized. I got the opportunity to use one of those early Macs for an entry I submitted to a national science contest, and was immediately hooked. I dreamed of working for the Macintosh team. I got my chance a few years later, when I was lucky enough to have my resume forwarded to the the Macintosh Human Interface Group. My internship at Apple started just a few weeks later, which led me to study Human Interface Design at Stanford, which really shaped my career.
What inspired you to join Babbel?
My Babbel story is one of my favorite “getting-a-job stories” ever. I arrived in Berlin back in 2016 and stayed in an Airbnb. My host knew that I was studying German, so he invited me to dinner one night with his friends. He asked how German class was going, and I told him that I was thinking of using an app to study. He then asked me if I had tried Babbel, which I hadn’t, so I tried it out. I started the demo and fell in love with the product instantly. Four months later, I met Babbel’s CEO Markus Witte at a trade group event that happened to be held at Babbel. It was exactly like when I fell in love with Macintosh – I fell in love with the product and then found the opportunity to work for the company who made it.
You wrote one of the first books on mobile interface design, or the design of users’ experiences with handheld devices. What compelled you to write it?
I started a usability and information architecture agency in New York City back in the late 90s. After the dot-com bust in the early 2000s, business got really tough and I explored new avenues to try to find clients. I became fascinated with the Palm Pilot and other personal digital assistants and looked for books on mobile UX design. Finding none to buy, I started compiling notes and realised that I had a book-writing opportunity. I had no idea how to go about it, but figured it was worth a try. Over the next six months I learned a lot while writing Handheld Usability, and it was the key to landing clients for my team.
How did your book change the industry?
The book gave people a starting point, a place to learn about how to design for these devices. There are some special cases for mobile design: you have to think about the small screen, the type size, the constrained input. These things are obvious today, but back then it was all quite new.
Where do you see product design at Babbel heading in the next 3-5 years?
I see the team growing. We’re covering the entire user journey, and more and more of the company sees the value of product design. I also see a team of specialists — people who have ownership of a particular area of what we call the user journey, which is the story of a user’s experience during a session with the product. We’re training up on different types of experience design, namely voice UX, and we’ll need more of that as new technologies come out. We’ll bring in more people focused on innovation and are already working on new concepts. I see incredible opportunity. I also love having direct contact with everybody on the team, so we’re experimenting with ways to keep the hierarchy flat.
What’s the focus of your design team at Babbel?
We always start with personas, which are fictional profiles of our users. We build scenarios around them and map those scenarios to user journeys. In other words, we’re doing our best to paint a picture of our users’ interactions with our product. So the focus is always on the learner’s journey and their learning success, rather than on just the business problem we’re trying to solve.
How do you mentor your team?
My mentoring style is very personal. I like to share anecdotes about my own experiences. It’s essential to understand both the problem and the issues around it, so that we can prevent future problems. I also really like to coach my team on how to solve things themselves. We do a lot of roleplays. And if we get an idea from outside the team, we try to celebrate the idea and turn it into something great. It’s important for us to inspire other people’s creativity, because we can’t come up with all the good ideas. It has to be a cross-functional effort.
For example, we recently launched an update to the “Lesson End” page for French learners. The visuals were a few years old and in need of a refresh, so my team went back to the drawing board. They worked with our teaching experts in Babbel’s Didactics team to include more learning opportunities and a richer reward system.
We also collaborated with our Wording & Translations department and came up with feedback in French for different score levels. Finally, we had Analytics and User Experience researchers measure the project’s success. Soon, the page will be launched for all languages. The design is super cool, with encouraging phrases and beautifully illustrated landmarks from the cultures of the learning languages.
What qualities do you look for in your design team members?
I really look for creativity, for excellent soft skills, and for an understanding of the craft. Also, I look for a passion in some aspect of design or research that they get excited about. We’ve hired some great people in the past few months, and we’re currently looking for UX and UI product designers.