The Challenge of Hiring Senior Design Leadership

Over the past few years, I’ve talked to a number of companies about design roles at director and executive levels. And maybe because such leadership is relatively new, I find most of them have been quite naive about such roles. Here’s how I put it in an email to a company I was engaging with (this was to lead a design team of about 25-30 folks):

Bringing on this kind of senior design role is hard, because there are a host of things to balance. You want someone who is:

  • a brilliant design visionary
  • a solid design practitioner (can role up sleeves and execute)
  • a strategic thinker (can help set direction for product/brand)
  • an inspiring leader (can keep the team engaged and hopeful)
  • a detail-oriented critic (can suggest ways to improve the team’s work)
  • a considerate manager (mindful of the professional needs of the team members)
  • a teacher of design methods and practices, and when to use them
  • a diplomat (can collaborate and communicate with product, engineering, brand marketing)
  • dogged recruiter with a nose for talent
  • an operator (working the organization and unblocking paths to success)

That’s a lot to ask for!

Of course, companies don’t want to have to choose — they want it all! But the reality is, even if someone can do all of these things, they aren’t going to, at least not with any regularity. There’s simply not enough time.

So, what most companies incline to hire in a senior design role is a Creative Director — someone who can deliver on vision, practice, and critique. Basically, a senior-er version of a great designer.

However, if what you want is someone to lead a design team, then such an approach would be a classic Peter Principle move. Because while it’s crucial that this person come from a design practice background (in order to understand the ins and outs of design work), the qualities that matter most — leader, manager, recruiter, and operator — are those that have nothing to do with design execution. Those other qualities, while definitely nice to have, are gravy, and will not be the core of this person’s role.

Something that seems to work well is to split ultimate design leadership across two roles, one more creative, the other more operational. Engineering orgs will have a CTO (super senior systems architect type) and VP of Engineering (responsible for engineering teams and their operation). Newspapers have an Editor-in-Chief and a Managing Editor. Design orgs could, and when they reach a certain size (greater than 30 or so), definitely should, have a VP of Design (the team leader I’ve described) and a Creative Director (or Chief Design Officer).

I’d love to hear of other leadership models for design that you’ve seen work well.

I’m about to be self-unemployed

I have given notice, and my last day at Groupon is April 18.

For the past year and a half, I’ve been leading the Design Union (what we call the global design team). When people ask me what I’m most proud of, it’s not the obvious things (like a sitewide redesign that immediately performed better than its predecessor, and was actually aesthetically pleasing), or our continued success with a leading commerce mobile app.

It’s that I took a group of 30 team members, who were a bit bedraggled and often underappreciated, and was able to grow it (to 60) and evolve it so that design is seen as an essential partner and collaborator throughout the company. And probably the most important thing I did was bring on a cadre of amazing design leaders, folks who have proven themselves through thick and thin in terms of delivering high quality design, coaching their teams to deliver beyond expectations, and do so with charm, grace, and good humor. Yes, I’m happy with the great stuff we’ve shipped; but I’m even happier to have shaped an organization that will continue to deliver great things, regardless of my presence. (And I’m bummed I won’t be working with these folks any more.)

As the title of this post suggests, I don’t know what’s next. And that’s a little scary — I haven’t not known what my next job is since before I joined Epinions in 1999. I’m sure it will be fine, and I’m looking forward to some opportunity for reflection and writing, for connection with people I haven’t seen or talked to in too long, and ultimately, for figuring out what’s next and best for me. (Oh, and maybe spiffing up this blog a bit.) If you have any ideas, don’t hesitate to reach out!

 

Information architecture reborn

The IA Summit has just finished. What I’m about to write might be ironic given my previous post. But what I’m walking away feeling is that information architecture is reborn.

7 years ago, I wrote how IA was not dead, but sleeping. There was a period in the field’s history that felt stagnant and disappointing. And I think it’s related to that last post, because IA allowed itself to fall under the “user experience” umbrella, and the Summit started to feel like any UX conference warmed over.

But starting last year, and coming on strong this year, there has been a new energy, born of an exchange of ideas that really only can be called “information architecture”. In particular, Track B this year was what I’ve been looking for from this event – deep, penetrating, talks that didn’t talk down to the audience, that interrogated the role, the practice, the meaning, and the relevance of information architecture. What the community is recognizing is there’s no need to make excuses, and in fact, the practice of information architecture is increasingly crucial and essential in addressing challenges we face as people, community, and society.

I look forward to seeing you in Minneapolis next year.

User experience has stunted information architecture

I came up through UX practice as an information architect and interaction designer. I was an avid reader of Peter and Lou’s “Web Architect” column, spoke at the first IA Summit, and was an early proponent of facets and tags in the broader UX community.

The UX community was essential for casting light on the importance of information architecture. It made clear how the organization, structure, relationships, and semantics around and in our information are key to delivering a successful user experience. There was a period, around 1999-2005 or so, where information architecture was a vibrant, dynamic, evolving field.

But there are only so many talks to give on facets, tags, and the like. And, over time, it feels like IA has been swallowed by UX (and seen in strange competition with interaction design).

IA had become less and less of my practice as Adaptive Path shifted towards strategic design consulting. And so I didn’t think about it too much.

Then I went in house. In particular, I joined Groupon. A month or so into the job, I became part of discussions to change evolve our site navigation. This excited me — I would get to flex some of those old analytical muscles that had atrophied over time.

As I dug into it, though, I felt a little like I was peeling an onion. Every layer presented new layers beneath. And I quickly left the realm of site navigation, and found myself engaging in conversations that went deep to the core of Groupon’s operations. Because, it turned out, our taxonomy influences everything we do — the deals we strive to get, the operations of our sales force, the presentation of our offers across devices and channels, heck, it even determines where some people sit.

And I realized this was bigger than I could tackle at the time, because I had (and still have) a design department to run.

And it also made me realize that IA had been stunted by its relationship with user experience. Because information architecture, when approached with the depth and rigor that is warranted, is a deeply seated operational and organizational function. The UX component of information architecture, how information is represented to end users, is important, but truly a tip of the iceberg. (And not just Peter Morville’s iceberg.) But in order to IA to have the impact it could (and should), IA needs to free itself from being seen under the umbrella of UX, and instead pursued as a distinct, and difficult, practice that’s not just about taxonomies and semantics, but the organizational, operational, and technological change to realize that.

Programming Conferences

This morning on Twitter, a conversation flared up around IA Summit 2014, because they received over 400 submissions for 50 spots, which means many many people, even those whose sessions were reviewed highly, were rejected. (I was rejected as well, but I half-assed my proposal.)

FOR STARTERS, let me say nothing but praise and thanks to Aaron Irizarry, Johanna Kollmann, and Abby Covert, the IA Summit chairs. They are friends and colleagues, and I know they are working tirelessly to do the best for the IA and UX communities.

OK, back to the conversation at hand. Jared Spool raised his concerns that with so many submissions for so few spots, there’s a lot of “wasted effort.” I share that concern (though I recognize my lackadaisical effort was not wasted), because a lot of people, and thus good people, likely feel burned by the work they put into a submission, and would be less inclined to submit in later years. So while this year’s summit benefits from being able to draw from such contribution, how will later summits fare?

Professional associations have it kind of tough. When I was at Adaptive Path, I programmed MX and UX Week events, all based on what I wanted to see (and suggestions from colleagues). Professional associations have a responsibility to their membership, and tend towards the “call for papers/proposals” process. The benefit of this is that you can get interesting new voices and ideas, and you give the membership a voice it might not otherwise have. The drawback is that your beholden to submissions, and it can make it hard to craft a compelling event.

Which events are better, invited/curated or submitted? They both can work, though, given that I’ve curated, I lean towards that style. I like it when there’s an editorial point of view that connects the presentations.

However, I’ve had transformative experiences at the IA Summit, and as a conference organizer, always sought out rising stars there. There’s a randomness/unexpectedness that often delivers crap, but can yield amazing stuff.

The IA Summit faces a challenge in terms of not discouraging great submissions because potential contributors feel the effort isn’t worth the likely rejection. One solution is to raise the bar on what it takes to submit, to weed out those (like me, this time around) who are half-assing it, and cluttering things up. Another might be to more aggressively ‘track’ submissions into categories, to make sure there’s a good spread of topics (and make clear to folks that we don’t need yet another submission on agile/lean UX).

Separately, I heard complaints about panels. There are always complaints about panels. Done wrong, panels are a lazy way to fill a conference slot. And many panels suck, because it’s simply 4-5 short presentations. However, I still have vivid memories of one of the IA Summit’s best sessions, a panel in 2003 on “Wayfinding and Navigation in digital spaces” which was legitimately mind-expanding. So, don’t count panels out. Just structure them so they’re stimulating.

Best Book I Read Last Year: COOL GRAY CITY OF LOVE

I don’t read nearly as many books as I used to. I chalk that up to parenthood, laziness (Google Reader Feedly is just so easy to browse through), and an Instapaper account overflowing with longreads.

Still, I try, and I was truly impressed with one book: Gary Kamiya’s Cool Gray City of Love , an idiosyncratic history of San Francisco.

coolcitycrop.jpg

The author has done his research, and this could have been presented as a straightforward telling of facts and stories. Instead, he always finds a personal connection which provides a distinct lens through which to understand the city. Gary clearly loves San Francisco, warts and all, and his passion for the city is infectious.

As an easily distracted internet-addicted type, I also appreciate the book’s 49 chapters (either for the ’49ers’, or the 49 square miles of our 7×7 grid), some of which are as short as a couple pages, which allows for easy dipping into.

I don’t buy many books (I prefer the library), but this is one I gladly own.

Movies worth watching on Netflix streaming

There have been some articles recently whinging about how Netflix doesn’t have the movies you want to watch. While this is true, it’s clear that, because of rights issues and costs, we’re a LONG way from Spotify from movies, so it also means that the point is moot. Also, there are plenty  of movies worth watching on Netflix streaming, many of which I’m guessing you haven’t seen. Some suggestions to add to your queue (All pointers to InstantWatcher, a great service for browsing Netflix):

Spool’s “Design is the Rendering of Intent” and the Double Diamond

Jared Spool’s most recent post, “Design is the Rendering of Intent” reframes the activity and outcome of design in a way that makes it more organizational, and less “the thing that designers do.”

Towards the end, Jared writes:

With this definition of design, the process shifts its focus to two distinct activities: Having the team arrive at the same intentions and ensuring we render our intention the way we desire.

These “two distinct activities” are pretty much exactly the two diamonds in the Double Diamond diagram I wrote about a while back (and which I’m re-embedding here:)

What Jared and I both are stressing is the importance of intentionality in that first activity. Too often that activity is simply assumed by a team, who then move to the rendering (execution) phase. However, if we have come upon a shared product definition (or, in Jared’s words, arrived at the same intentions), we’re setting up our rendering for failure.

San Francisco Scapegoated for Silicon Valley’s Civic Blind Spot

Here in the Bay Area, not a day goes by without news of the discontent between San Francisco’s ascendant tech population, and those who are feeling pushed out, marginalized, and left behind. It’s genuinely troubling — forget the working class, with astronomical property costs astronomically, San Francisco is in danger of losing its middle class. The backbone of the city, the folks who work there, whether in civic roles, education, service, etc. increasingly have to live elsewhere.

And while San Francisco undoubtedly could do more from a development standpoint, it does have a very real constraint — geography. It’s 49 square miles, and already pretty dense. Growth can only go so far.

I think the real issue, oddly not at all addressed in anything I’ve read, is that cities in San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties (where Google, Facebook, Apple, etc. are all based), have done absolutely nothing to address the need for housing, particularly around creating environments that are appealing to the recent college grads upon whose labor these companies rely. The Google Bus wouldn’t be such an icon of gentrification and displacement if the folks who rode it could happily live in Mountain View or Sunnyvale.

Over the last 40 years (since the dawn of Apple and Intel), more wealth has poured into Silicon Valley than probably any other region in human history. And yet from a civic and municipal standpoint, there’s very little to show for it. And so the Peninsula remains an unappealing place to live, leading folks to reside in San Francisco, where there’s restaurants, bars, stores, entertainment, and the ease of walkability.

And it’s pretty clear that the cities on Silicon Valley are not going to do anything to address this. I think they think that small is beautiful, and to hell with how our bad planning causes trouble elsewhere. And so I suspect the only way this gets addressed is if the companies that fund those buses begin to spend their money local to their campuses in an effort to improve the nearby quality of life. These companies ought to embrace their civic and municipal responsibilities.

Design’s power is in its leverage

As we shift from an economy of products to services, the role that design plays, and how it’s situated in the organization, must shift as well.

How It Has Been

In ye olden days, in-house product design was typically organized as an internal services function. There would be a group of designers, and they would receive requests from throughout the business for Things To Be Designed. Designers would then work to deliver on that request, and, when finished, would then move on to the next thing, which could be for a totally different part of the business.

For designers, the upside was that they could work on a wide range of projects, and they got to group together with other designers. The downside was that they were seen purely as tactical makers, with little influence over how business decisions were made. And, because they would work on things for such a brief period of time, it was easy for the members of the product team to dismiss a designer’s suggestions, since designers weren’t seen as being committed to that part of the business the way they were.

A more recent shift, spurred by digital product design, is for design to be decentralized such that there are designers embedded in product teams, working alongside engineers and product managers, and reporting up through that product team. The upside is that designers are included throughout the product development process, their commitment is appreciated, and their voice is taken seriously. The downside is that designers may find themselves working on a fairly narrow problem for a long time, they aren’t easily able to engage with other designers, and they can feel lonely “fighting for the user”.

In a services world, this embedded model features an additional drawback from the perspective of customer experience. Design problems are solved in isolation from one another (because designers on different product teams don’t interact), and so what gets shipped can feel fractured, or “Frankensteined,” as a customer moves through some experience, unknowingly being passed off from product team to product team.

A New Model Emerges

At Groupon, we operate under a new model, one that I’m hearing other digital/internet native businesses are using as well. I’ll call it the Centralized Partnership model, which endeavors to deliver the best of both models, and is suited for the coherent delivery of services.

At Groupon, all design is functionally centralized. Though we technically live in the Product organization, we also support marketing, lines of business, and internal needs. (I am of the opinion that the typical division of design, where you have a design team in marketing and a design team in product, is stupid. In a service world, you design for a customer’s journey, which weaves between marketing and product touchpoints. Those designers need to work together to ensure coherence throughout.)

Though centralized, we are not an internal services firm. We have design teams (Platform Design, Local Marketplace, Goods, Getaways, Internal, Core Merchant, and Merchant OS) that are dedicated to certain collections of products or features. So, our Platform Design team works on anything that underlies the entire Groupon experience, such as personalization, social, checkout, gifting, and user-generated content. Senior members of that design team have partnerships with the product managers of those features. And that team is dedicated to support those features, leading the product managers and engineers on those teams to respect the designers’ views. But by not working from within those teams, the Platform Design team maintains a holistic view of the Groupon customer experience, and can ensure that design decisions across those features are consistent and coherent.

This Centralized Partnership model has an interesting additional advantage, one that took me a while to appreciate. The entire designed output of Groupon flows through this one team. We have around 50 folks in the Design Union (what we call ourselves internally), and they touch everything across the business, interfacing with many hundreds of developers, marketing, and operations people. That’s leverage! We serve as the glue that holds things together. And, often, we’re the first to realize that two different teams, who otherwise aren’t interacting, are working on the same, or related, problem, and need to work together.

The more that design is seen as contributing to organizational strategy, and a competency to be outsourced at a company’s peril, this leverage should prove increasingly influential. We’ll know we’re on the right track when companies fear that design has concentrated too much power in too small a team.