Facilitation is a necessary design skill

(I’m writing a book on building in-house design teams. This brief passage struck me as worth sharing.)

In a networked-software-services world, to render an entire customer journey is a matter of managing overwhelming complexity. No team of designers, no matter how talented and capable, can acquire the necessary deep knowledge across so many domains to deliver robust work. This means that the design team can no longer rely solely on the hard skills of their practice and craft to succeed. In order to arrive at the most suitable solution regardless of context, the design team needs to practice the soft skill of facilitation. This is because designers are not the sole creators – there are too many moving parts, too much specialized knowledge necessary to fully appreciate a situation. Designers need to facilitate the creative output of others throughout the organization, tapping into a resource often left dormant. If working in a hospital setting, get nurses, technicians, and doctors to ideate around their specific problems. In a call center, have the customer service representatives pitch how they think things should be. The point isn’t to be slavish to the input from other functions – the design team still has the crucial responsibility of refining, honing, and executing these ideas. But it’s a recognition that the problems we’re solving are too big for any one team to have a complete handle on.

9 Principles for Superlative Design Teams

For the book I’m writing on building in-house teams, I was wondering if it was possible to articulate the Ideal Design Team, in order to have a frame of reference, of comparison, against which to judge any team. A quick chat on Twitter made it clear that this was a foolish proposition, but Leisa Reichelt suggested a developing a set of principles that could work regardless of organization.

I’ve spent the day noodling on this, and arrived at the following. I’ve tried to articulate them the way I would experience principles for a client — brief statements, hopefully memorable, that help drive decision making when thinking about establishing your team.

  1. Shared sense of purpose
  2. Dedicated, focused leadership
  3. Authentic user empathy
  4. Render the entire journey
  5. Deliver at all levels of scale
  6. Assert quality
  7. Real artists ship
  8. Nurture team members
  9. Manage operations effectively

After I posted these to Twitter, Jess McMullin suggested: “10. Understand, articulate, and create value (for both business & users),” which I don’t think I can argue with.

For the book, I’ll dig into each of these. I’d love to hear y’all’s take on them, any glaring holes, or what you find most resonant.

How to structure your centralized design team

I’m co-authoring a book on building in-house design organizations. In it, we advocate for what I call the “Centralized Partnership,” where design remains wholly centralized, and broken up into teams that are committed to different aspects of the business. We propose some radical ways of structuring your design organization, and I thought I’d share a rough draft of what we’re thinking.


Don’t just mirror the product organization or business units. In order for your team to successfully collaborate with others, it’s important to understand how the rest of your company is organized. However, it’s insufficient to have your design teams simply reflect that structure. Organizations grow and evolve over time, and the reasons for how they arrive at a particular structure are varied (e.g., acquisitions, firings, failed initiatives) and might not make sense for your team. A design organization that is not wedded to the structure of the broader company can help maintain a stable customer experience when the inevitable reorganizations occur.

If you can organize by customer type, do so. A fallacy is to have designers obsessed with the products and services they work on. Product and service features are just manifestations of parts of a user’s relationship with your company. Instead, you want your designers obsessed with their entire user’s experience. So, organize your teams by types of users. Many companies have clearly distinguished audiences — marketplaces have buyers and sellers; banks have personal/consumer, small business, and institutional customers; educational services have teachers, administrators, students, and parents; and so on. When a design team focuses on a type of user, it can go very deep in understanding them, and that empathy leads to stronger designs that fit the users’ contexts and abilities. So, for a marketplace, have a “Buyer Design Team” and a “Seller Design Team.”

This kind of organization proves quite radical in certain companies. Banks and other financial institutions typically organize their teams around products or lines of business (basic banking, credit and debit cards, loans, mortgages, etc.) that behave as if in silos, and rarely coordinate. However, the same customer is engaging across these products, and can find the lack of coherence frustrating. To have a “retail consumer” design team that works across these products should lead to a better customer experience but will be difficult to maintain in the face of a company that incentivizes business units through their specific products’ success. This might require executive sponsorship to demonstrate just how crucial a cohesive customer experience is for the whole company.

Organize by the customer’s journey. If your company is successful, you’ll need to grow those teams. Keeping in mind that no team should have more than 7 people, consider splitting them up along a customer’s journey. For example, if you’re a travel service, you could section the teams into “Plan Your Trip,” “Book Your Trip,” “Take Your Trip” and “After the Trip.” Remember, this is regardless of whether the product or business teams are organized this way. Organizing by the journey allows each team to shift focus from features (search, browse, booking) to the overall experience, and the design work on those features will fit within the broader whole.

These specific teams will still roll up into a broader “Traveler Design Team.” It’s important that they remain in contact, even if it’s just a weekly meeting to share out what each sub-team is working on.

A ramification of this approach is that you might have designers from two different teams work on the same feature where your different customer types interact. One example of this is in a marketplace, where a buyer wants to book an appointment with a seller. From a product management and engineering perspective, “Book an appointment” would likely be the responsibility of a single feature team. In a decentralized organization, the same designers would work on the user experience for both the buyer and the seller. When you organize by customer journey, however, the concern shifts to figuring how this feature fits in the buyer’s and seller’s respective workflows. You want the Buyer Team to design the appointment feature in the context of the broader Buyer experience, and likewise on the Seller side. It might feel like inefficient overhead, but it should result in better conversion as the designs are mindful of context.   

New Logistics Hot Take: Uber Rush (powering merchants) v Postmates (powering shoppers)

This morning, Uber launched its expanded same-day (same hour?) delivery service, UberRush. As the current marketing shows, Uber is directing this at merchants as a way to help them delivery their stuff to customers throughout their city.

When I first heard about this program, I assumed this was a shopper-facing program. I hadn’t read the Shopify x Uber announcement closely enough, and figured this was another option Uber was presenting its app users, much like UberEats. I thought it was pretty genius, Uber getting people to buy from Shopify merchants through their app, and then overtime, as they build their own systems that more deeply integrate with merchants, just take those customers away from Shopify.

Instead, Uber is simply serving as a carrier, a service for merchants that doesn’t have a consumer-facing component.

This struck me as odd, because I believe, right now, the real opportunity is not simply to power merchants, but to become the Aggregator (or intermediary) between shoppers and what they want. This is what Postmates does — they provide a window to all local businesses, and through them you can get anything you want at those businesses. While some of those businesses integrate with Postmates, the vast majority do not. Whereas most services (Instacart, Caviar, Doordash) require the merchants to have ‘bought in’ to the system, Postmates does not. A key challenge for marketplaces (such as Groupon, where I worked), was having both the demand (shoppers) and supply (merchants) in equilibrium. That shit is hard — Square finally through in the towel after attempts like Square Wallet and Square Market. The genius of Postmates is that merchants aren’t necessarily knowingly on the platform. They’ve solved the supply part of the equation.

Currently when you search Postmates, you search on businesses. It doesn’t take much imagination, though, to see that in a near future, you’ll be able to search on any specific item — and once they do that, Postmates has shifted the power from merchants and their assortments to themselves and their ability to aggregate. It’s what Amazon has done in online retail (you can pretty much find anything in their search box) or Google has done with search.

The Uber approach is surprising because it means Uber is taking a back seat, a secondary role. This is a company that has been very aggressive in getting its name, its brand out there. Now, we’re still quite early in Uber’s life, and who knows what their long term play is (i.e, simply getting merchants more comfortable with them, developing the network so that they can take over the consumer-facing aspects, learning more about ecommerce and delivery before the really invest whole hog, a fundamental shift where at least part of the business is willing to be simply behind-the-scenes, like Amazon is with AWS).

It intrigues me that a day after I wrote about The New Logistics and Exponential Experiences, this is announced. This space is crazy active right now and surprisingly fun to watch. Grab your popcorn and enjoy!

Experience Exponentialized in The New Logistics (Uber, Lyft, Instacart, Postmates, etc.)

(I previously posted this on Medium. I’m posting it to my blog so I have one place with all my writing.)

Over the past couple years, we’ve seen the ferocious emergence of logistics “unicorns,” startups such as Uber, Lyft, Instacart, Postmates, Munchery, Caviar (owned by Square), as well as BigCo plays such as Google’s Shopping Express and Amazon’s Flex.

Judging by valuations, anecdotal evidence, and conversations I’ve had with people familiar with these companies, their uptake has been phenomenal. Once customers start using these services, they stick around. We are at the outset of a sea change in how people and stuff move around.

Traditional Logistics

Pre-internet, even pre-smartphone, logistics was pretty much a function that existed deep within businesses. If a customer ever interacted with logistics, it was at the very end of the chain, with the delivery of a package (think FedEx and UPS), or picking something off a store shelf (think supermarkets and Walmart), or configuring a computer online (Dell). The focus within logistics was to be as efficient and effective as possible, to remove waste, in order to reduce costs.

The New Logistics

In a post-smartphone world, logistics has bled out of the enterprise and into the fabric of our lives. Primarily due to smartphones, but also thanks to data science, and machine learning, we’re all becoming participants in The New Logistics, either as shopper, courier/driver, or merchant.

From a perspective of user experience, this presents plenty of interesting wrinkles.

Historically, logistics is an analytical endeavor, using Tayloristic principles of scientific management, and its modern spawn such as Business Process Reengineering and Six Sigma, to seek ever greater efficiencies in the marshaling of resources. Companies like Dell or Walmart succeeded because their ability to predict demand, move components, and reduce waste were unparalleled.

The human actors were employees who understood their job within this context. With the New Logistics, analysis and efficiency are crucial, but insufficient, because there are now multiple parties that must be managed. No one wants to feel like a cog in a machine, and so the New Logistics grapples with the irony of melding extreme efficiency with humanistic concerns of autonomy and delight. Basically, how do you turn logistics into a human experience?

Perhaps the plural, “experiences,” is more appropriate, because it not about user experience, but the experiences of all the users, in this case all the actors in the New Logistics actors, such as the courier and the merchant.

These services exist because a buyer is willing to spend money to for convenience, often paired with time savings.

However, convenience and time quickly become commoditized. BPR and Six Sigma don’t command as much attention any more because they largely ran their course, as every system has a limit to its efficiency. At some point, further efforts are met with diminishing returns.

Service Experience in The New Logistics

When the core of these New Logistics offerings become commoditized, it will be in the areas of service experience where additional and specific value are created. It will be essential for each service to be clear about its specific value proposition, and to portray a distinct personality.

That personality will emerge as a product of four criteria:

1. Assortment/selection. People use services because of what they can get from it, particularly if they can’t get it from anyone else. It’s why Netflix and Amazon are investing so much in their own content. It’s why people still pay for HBO. For the New Logistics, it means exclusive access, either to certain items (e.g., you can only order from this restaurant through this service), or distinct experiences (e.g., you can only get a ride in a Tesla from this service).

2. Person-to-person interactions. Until the point we have self-driving cars or everything is delivered by drones (and this will likely persist even after that), the courier’s behavior is a huge contributor. It’s why these services are so active in getting buyers to rate things.

3. Functional design of the software or service. How much effort do I need to put in, and how much do I get out from it? Does it remember what I’ve done in the past? If collateral is necessary as part of the experiences (like with Munchery’s cooking instructions), are they effective?

4.  Brand trappings of the experience. How are the brand’s characteristics communicated, and does that conveyance work? Do customers appreciate being associated with that brand? Are those brand characteristics carried out through all material, from marketing, through software product, to the box you’re given or the ride you take, to the follow-up email?

Armchair Analysis

Right now, of the major providers of which I’m aware, Uber and Lyft are the strongest across these criteria, followed by Munchery. Uber, with its “Everyone’s Private Driver” tagline, conveys an elevated, even aspirational personality, and still offers black cars, though UberX is most active. While Lyft has reined in the pink mustache and no longer states “Your Friend with a Car,” friendliness and community are still at their core, and I’ve found many riders are either “Uber people” or “Lyft people” (even though many, if not most, drivers, work with both). Munchery features quality meals, prepared by chefs each with their own story, presented in handsome boxes with easy-to-follow instructions. Caviar has truly nailed the ‘assortment’ category, so while there’s not much more to it’s person-to-person interactions, functionality, or brand trappings, the fact that they have many of the best restaurants in our neighborhood available to us in less than an hour (which means we can eat great food without worrying about how our small children will behave) makes them a winner.

The shopping services, like Instacart and Postmates, seem to still be focusing on the convenience and time aspects. That makes sense — those are the table stakes, or the lowest level on Maslow’s hierarchy, and if you don’t have that right, the rest doesn’t matter. But pretty soon, they’ll have to demonstrate differentiated experiences if they want to meaningfully stand out (and warrant the big investments both took the past year.)

Further Opportunity for Designers

The New Logistics opens up some fascinating new avenues for design. The personality aspect is just one. For each role, a “customer journey” needs to be drawn up, as the buyer, the courier, and the merchant are all ‘customers’ of the New Logistics provider. Those customer journeys then need to productively integrate. We’re not talking about experience * x (where x is the number of actors), but something more like experience ^ x, where the interactions between the parties leads to an emergent overall experience.

This is hairy stuff. I hope to keep exploring it. Would love y’all’s thoughts in the comments.

(Thanks to Matthew Milan who helps me think through this stuff.)

My Design Organization Design Talk, Slides Plus Audio

At IA Summit 2015, I spoke about “Shaping Organizations To Deliver Great User Experiences.” Here are the slides:

Now, here is the audio of my talk:

Press play on the audio file, and then guess when it’s time to advance the slides. That way, you can RELIVE THE MAGIC.

If you go to The IA Summit page for my talk you can download the audio, read a complete transcription (!), all captured thanks to Jared Spool and UIE.

Lessons Learned at Adaptive Path: Project Team Dynamics

Four years ago, as I left Adaptive Path, I wrote a series of emails about things I learned during my time there. One of those was in response to a request from a colleague, “How about some knowledge about managing challenging team dynamics, both on the client or internally. Basically project leadership tips.” Team dynamics is among the most important determiners of project success, but also among the least understood and discussed. What follows is very much consulting-oriented (and at some point I’ll write it out from an in-house point of view), but I still think has plenty of general relevance. Just replace “Client Team Dynamics” with “Cross-functional dynamics” and it pretty much works. 

Internal Team Dynamics
Let me start with internally. I don’t know what it is, exactly, but I haven’t had a challenging internal team dynamic for, well, years. I would attribute this to a few things:
  • I do not tell people *how* to do their work.
  • I expend my effort creating a space (figurative or literal) where great work can happen.
  • I nip negativity in the bud — criticism and expressing concern are good, but when it gets into a truly negative place, where conversation and exploration is getting shut down, I tackle that directly.
  • I acknowledge my faults and shortcomings (i.e., you don’t want me opening any Adobe tool).
  • I don’t take things personally.
  • I’m pretty laid-back in a project environment.
This is not to say I am not super concerned with quality, or I’m willing to let substandard stuff go out, because I’m too groovy to get up in people’s business. But my critique and feedback style, which the Yeti Skyway [a project code name] team saw, is less about, “This sucks, make it better,” than it is, “Hey, I think we all recognize we could push this to a better place. Let’s reframe the problem, and poke at it from a different angle.”
Client Team Dynamics
This gets a little trickier. I’ve been lucky in my last few projects where I’ve had the fortune to work with delightful client partners. That said, I’ve definitely had my share of challenging clients. One key thing, which I mentioned with internal team dynamics is:
  • I don’t take things personally
This is so huge. As Chula pointed out at lunch yesterday, it’s probably the thing that allowed me to work well with all the original founders, even when some of them couldn’t work well with one another.
We cannot let ourselves get caught up in our clients’ shit.
I also find being open and honest with clients has served me well. What have we got to lose? They’ve hired us to challenge them. I sometimes have to remind them that if we’re not making them uncomfortable, we’re not doing our job.
With client team dynamics, I have found that it can be powerful to engage with the emotional aspects of the relationship. Too often we think that because this is a “business” relationship with our clients, we have to shut down those elements that make us human, and be a bit more like automatons, focusing on the work product, and ignoring emotional factors. But emotional factors directly affect our work, and, if handled respectfully, it can be quite helpful to address them.
A key to successful client relations and team dynamics has been to keep the client in the loop. Even if the updates are brief, daily or semi-daily updates, communications through Basecamp, etc., go a long way.
Other Aspects of Project Leadership
Something project leads need to have, and which takes a while to develop, is swagger. Swagger is that confidence in yourself, your team, and your approach. It’s a belief that you are *probably* right (though it’s important to recognize when you are not). It’s a certain charisma that gets the client comfortable with you, and to believe that you’re doing best work for them.
Swagger doesn’t have to be some masculine strut, it just has to be the confidence of your convictions.
The other thing to remember about project leadership is that it is a consulting role first, and a design role second. This is probably the hardest part for folks to understand and embrace as they become project leads. You need to let go of some of the design work, trust the team to do great work, and instead focus on creating the space for great work to happen, and engaging with the client in such a way to make sure they’re supporting the great work.

Personal update: Self-employed, writing a book, and looking for lunch

Not long ago, I wrote about Design at Jawbone. How quickly things change. Due to organizational restructuring, which lead to the elimination of all executive design roles, Friday was my last day.

There’s a big silver lining, though, as I’m co-writing a book on building and operating design organizations, and now I can do that during the day, instead of stealing time on evenings and weekends.

I’m considering management consulting gigs around design and product management. If you’re building an in-house design team and need sage advice and an outside perspectives, don’t hesitate to reach out.

And, I’m passively looking for my next full-time gig. I want to focus my time on the book, but if there are interesting conversations to be had about new opportunities, I’m always willing to talk.

Finally, given my new status, I’m up for all manner of breakfasts, lunches, coffees, and early ‘after-work’ drinks. If you’re not in the SF Bay Area, happy to hop on Skype or Google Hangouts. Let’s catch up!

Lessons Learned from Adaptive Path: The Evolution of UX Consulting Practice

In 2011, I left Adaptive Path after being there for over ten years. Before leaving, I wrote a series of emails on things I’d learned. These recently came back to my attention, and I thought I’d share them here.

When Adaptive Path started, in 2001, most companies had no UX competency, some had 1 person doing UX, and a very small number actually had UX teams.

So, when we were brought in, it was to be the ones to deliver on user experience. Clients recognized that this emergent practice was important to their success, but didn’t have the people in house to do it.

In that period, our work tended to live in this squishy space between strategy/planning and detailed design and development. In pre-UX days, it was common for product development to go right from product definition into detailed design. One of the values of UX practice was to recognize you needed to bring more of a systems thinking approach to product development, to understand the structure of the product, how the piece-parts related to one another, and how someone would move through it.

Now, in 2011, most companies have a decent UX competency. They don’t need us to come in and do the architecture diagrams, workflows, wireframes, and the like, because they have staff members who do that.

Instead, UX consulting work seems to be bifurcating.

On one end, UX is being recognized as an approach that can inform, if not drive, strategy and planning. The work we’ve done for [various big multinational clients] is in this vein. Companies recognize it’s no longer sufficient to have spreadsheets and checklists driving their product strategy. They need to add research and experience strategy in the mix as well.

On the other end, there is an emerging requirement for new modes of UX execution and delivery. [Startup clients] are indicative of this — trying to figure out how UX can best be performed when the product is already defined, in a time-constrained environment, and collaborating with development.

The squishy middle, where Adaptive Path initially staked its claim, seems to not be a viable consulting service any more.

I’ve been talking with some people about this for the past couple of months, and so it was interesting to see the reframing of Adaptive Path service offerings presented at the company meeting last week:

        – Experience Strategy

        – Service Design

        – Detailed Product Design

The first and third map directly to the bifurcation that I am talking about.

And after the meeting, I realized that

        service design:2011::ux design:2001

Service design is now the squishy middle that companies are starting to realize they need, but don’t have the people in-house to deliver. And it is reliant on the kinds of deliverables (journey maps, service blueprints) that have fallen out of favor in the UX world. And seems to have finally achieved a maturity where clients, even if they don’t know to ask for “service design,” are coming to us for service design challenges.

[end of email]

Looking back over the past four years, I feel pretty good about what I foresaw. We’re seeing companies acquire design/UX firms to do that squishy middle stuff that wasn’t as viable to do as a consultant. We’re seeing management consultants actively moving into the experience strategy space. We’re seeing small agile design firms successfully delivering product, augmenting in-house teams. The one thing we haven’t really seen is the Rise of Service Design like we saw the Rise of UX. By 2005, UX was pretty firmly established as a thing companies were investing in (and it was around that time that Adaptive Path grew in earnest). Here in 2015, Service Design still feels niche. I’m thinking that’s because companies still don’t know how to buy service design, because it requires drawing from multiple departmental budgets, whereas UX usually drew from a single group.