Shamsi Brinn is a design leader with over 15 years experience, passionate about closing the gap between product and engineering.

User needs are the northstar of a united team. I use my diverse experience in project management, design, and leadership to build great products with great teams at less risk. Below are select examples of my work and process.

Leading teams with No Handoff

At the heart of processes like agile, XP, Lean, and Dual Track, is risk reduction through iteration. It has transformed software development, but has left critical parts of the process out: discovery, design, and user experience. No Handoff addresses that by bringing product and engineering together, iterating on the same deliverable in shared cycles.

We have been artificially fragmenting processes like research and design into their own silos for a long time, with outputs from the Product team usually built around an entrenched handoff process to Engineering.

Design has a strong tradition of iteration, too. The Double Diamond process dates back to a UK Design Council study from 2007. However, Double Diamond and Agile proceses are rarely seen overlapping.

Traditional projects have entrenched handoff between Product and Engineering teams.

No Handoff closes the space between product and engineering teams by iterating as a team. The grounding principles are:

  • Foreground user needs as our northstar
  • Iterate together, and
  • Prototyping is key
With No Handoff, all team members contribute to the same deliverable in shared cycles.

Prototyping is a simple (not easy) catalyst for transformative change. User needs are our true northstar and work must be measured against that yardstick. That means presenting our ideas in a way that all stakeholders understand without interpretation or leaps of imagination: a working application.

Prototypes incrementally improve. They are living frameworks for eliciting high quality feedback.

Prototypes are the vehicle for interdisciplinary teams to regularly iterate on a shared deliverable. It is the project source of truth, leapfrogging misunderstandings. It is the sum of our interdisciplinary work, and we can directly measure its success with user testing.

Software development has long matured far beyond bringing flat visuals to life, and discovery and design need to adopt the process of iteration. Prototyping is the catalyst for product and engineering to truly become one team and move beyond project handoff. In my work, No Handoff has proven to be more efficient, enjoyable, and user focused… and much less risky.

Re-branding to protect a legacy institution

Starting in spring of 2021, I led a diverse international advisory group on a re-branding journey. arXiv (pronounced ‘archive’) is the world’s leading open-science repository for research papers in STEM.

We had just learned that arXiv’s identity had long entered the public domain and was not legally defensible, leaving this critical scientific infrastructure in danger of misappropriation by commercial interests.

I led our group to explore arXiv’s legacy and discover our northstar (“arXiv Connects”), then worked with a design team to build a meaningful and protectable identity around it.

The ‘Chi’ mathematical symbol at the heart of arXiv’s name is created from intertwining arms representing the connections and catalyzing of ideas that this service enables.

The new branding came to life in time for arXiv’s 30th anniversary and was featured in Amazon’s Pi Day celebration in Times Square.

arXiv logo
Amazon billboards in Times Square display the arXiv logo on Pi Day

UX Research: making academic papers more accessible

thumbnail of research paper

Research papers across academic fields have extremely low rates of accessibility, leaving many scientists without equitable access to the research content they rely on. Leading a team of students and staff, I set out to understand the experiences and barriers faced by STEM researchers who rely on assistive technology, and the technical challenges that any solution will need to overcome.

After conducting 46 user interviews and running a survey with users of assistive technology, we analyzed and gathered our findings into a paper to share with the academic community.

We found many of the accessibility issues stem from the monopoly of the PDF format in scientific research, and would be remediated by offering HTML. Despite the significant technical and cultural challenges to be overcome, an impactful solution is achievable with the technology available today.

Read the full paper at https://doi.org/10.48550/arXiv.2212.07286

Co-creating new customer support tools

This internal Customer Support team needed a single interface to accomplish all of their tasks, replacing a collection of legacy tools and bandaids that had not kept pace with their growth. Applying No Handoff principles, we began with an intense research phase that involved the customer support team and all other stakeholders who would have decision-making power over the project.

A screenshot of a whiteboard with sticky notes

After briefly defining our goals and primary targets, we dove into wireframing. Whiteboarding rough mockups focused each discussion around functionality in a language that everyone can understand.

  • Whiteboarding wireframes can include notes and feedback from stakeholders, captured for future reference.
  • As wireframes become more refined, final layout is not the goal. We focus on content, hierarchy, and documenting functional needs.

From mockups we moved directly to prototyping. Iterating on a functional prototype from early days allows both product and engineering to contribute to the same product and iterate towards releases together.

  • In an early prototype, layout decisions are focused on basic functionality and content hierarchy.
  • In a later iteration, stylistic elements are layered over existing functionality.

By making incremental improvements that involve the entire team AND the end user every step of the way, there are no surprises to throw off steady progress. Cycles of feedback, iteration, and testing progress seamlessly, without handoff between product and engineering.

And by centering a prototype as the source of truth—which everyone can understand without interpretation—the experience of the end user guides the work done at every stage.

Building an accessibility user journey… that is also accessible

This user journey is based on research that in large part came from scientists who rely on assistive technology and were encredibly generous with their experiences and insights. The least I could do was to share what I had heard back in an approachable format.

This user journey uses a simple table layout, contextual descriptions, useful alt tags, and a splash of color to assist sighted users.

Screenshot of the accessible table layout of our research findings

Tables can be highly accessible and navigable when used right. Accessibility consultant Brigitta Norton inspired me to consider how to expand their use in my work. My table-based layout begins with an introduction to the size and layout of the paper to assist all users in building a mental map of the content. Straightforward text with minimal formatting fills most cells. Each image in the center row is accompanied by lengthy alt text descriptions describing both the intent and the numeric results represented. View the accessible table and underlying data here

A vibrant website for a dynamic conference

Entrepreneurship@Cornell hosts a conference each year to showcase new ideas and leadership in the entrepreneurial space. This website is from Summit 2019, just before Covid cancellations. Moderated by Adobe’s Scott Belsky, the Entrepreneurship Summit is a dynamic event that calls for a vibrant website full of color and surprise.

With it’s sun-washed palette and mesmerizing kaleidoscopic animations, the website beckons you in and provides a taste of the energy you can experience in person.

  • Gallery of screenshots from the Summit conference

Without large areas for animation, the mobile version layers an exciting background behind the content. An animation would reduce legibility behind the text, so engagement is achieved through bright colors and typography.