Holy shit! I co-wrote a book. You can read it right now!

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Org Design for Design Orgs, the book I co-wrote with Kristin Skinner, is now available as an ebook. You can order it from Amazon or O’Reilly.

We’ve also launched a website which we hope will over time become a growing source of ideas and materials for people building in-house design teams.

Now that there is a dedicated website, I’m going to be placing my org design thinking over there (and believe me, I have a lot of it!).

I’m so excited, and eager to hear what people think of the book!

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.

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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.   

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.

The Why and The How of Organizations that Deliver Great Experiences

As companies embrace the need to take user experience seriously, often their first step is to build out a “UX department.” However, the reality is that user experience is a phenomenon that emerges from an entire organization’s activities, not just the efforts of one team. There are (at least) six components that need to be aligned throughout the organization, which I’ve grouped into “The Why” and “The How”.

The Why

Values

What do you stand for?

An organization must have a clearly articulated set of values, and if you want to deliver great experiences, those values most include humanistic qualities of customer-centeredness and empathy.

Values statements from Apple, Southwest Airlines, Target.

Vision

Where are you headed? 

Everyone must have a shared sense of where the organization is going. This vision must be concrete and inspiring. Bulleted lists do not comprise a vision, because it allows team members to have very different interpretations, which will undermine their efforts to deliver a great experience. At Groupon, before we launched our redesigned website, we created an internal-only “north star” that illustrated what our experience could be in 2 years time. It helped orient everyone in the same direction. Deborah Adler’s “SafeRX” prototype embodied a vision for a new pill delivery system better than any list of requirements could.

Jared Spool has written good stuff about vision: The 3 Qs for Great Experience Design, The 3 Steps For Creating An Experience Vision.

Goals

How do we know when we’re successful?

At Adaptive Path, my favorite question to ask client stakeholders during the initial discovery phase was, “How do we know when we’re successful?” It seems so obvious and innocent, but as I worked with more companies, I grew to realize just how few organizations had a clear sense of what success meant to them. However, if you’re not clear about goals and success metrics, it’s much harder to make decisions throughout your process, and your efforts lose focus.

Christina Wodtke’s discussion of OKRs is a good place to go deeper.

How

Incentives

How do we encourage desired behavior within the team?

Incentives might seem a highly specific tactical matter compared to the others. Thing is, it warrants being called out as it’s where the best laid plans of delivering great experience get bound up in the legacy behaviors of an organization.

How is performance assessed? What criteria drive rewards (raises, bonuses, promotions)? What behaviors get lauded and evangelized? 

I’ve worked with numerous financial services organizations, where people were rewarded based on the performance within their business unit (banking, brokerage, insurance, loans) or their channel (in store, by phone, online). Such incentives are anathema to great experiences, as it discourages internal cooperation, even though customers are engaging across businesses and channels. 

I recently spoke with Irene Au about her career leading UX teams, and a challenge she had at Google is that individuals were promoted based on how much stuff they shipped, and not about the quality of what was shipped. Optimization and refinement was thus discouraged, even though such iteration is necessary for great experiences.

Processes

How do we operate?

The first thing to understand — there is no One True Way. No grand process to rule them all. Delivering great experiences requires discarding rigidly defined processes, instead embracing a toolkit, a set of techniques that can be used as needed to solve specific problems. 

However, there are characteristics of organizational operation that typically lead to the delivery of better experiences.

Work as a cross-functional team as early as possible. Waterfall approaches, where one functional group hands off to the next functional group, deliver poorer experiences. The complexity of the problems you’re trying to solve, the components that need to be marshaled and coordinated in order to succeed, requires input from the entire team from the outset. And not just at a kickoff meeting, but throughout throughout definition, design, and development.

Upfront, qualitative field research reveals opportunities, leads to insights, and sparks creativity. Engaging prospective and active users at the start of a project, understanding their current behaviors, and revealing the motivations and emotions that drive their actions, will lead to insights that in turn identify new opportunities for delivering customer value. 

Design and prototyping are activities that support the entire process, not discrete steps in the process. You can use design and prototyping techniques from the beginning of the process. (For more on this, read about The Double Diamond Model)

Bias towards building and making, not thinking and documenting (though some thinking and documentation can be quite helpful). Companies that deliver great experiences are constantly crafting those experiences, refining and refining them.

Capabilities

What skills are necessary?

This question is the hardest to answer generically, because it’s so dependent on the specifics of experience delivery. That said, there are a couple of newish roles that organizations serious about great user experiences must consider.

Strategic designer. As design gets brought into earlier parts of the process, it’s important that designers are comfortable with strategy and planning. Not all designers excel at these discussions, so it is important to have designers who can engage with and are excited by strategic concerns, and who can hold their own with business analysts,  product managers, and engineers.

Prototype engineering. Engineering is typically seen as a production exercise — creating code that is ready to be deployed. In this new era of iterative design and prototyping, a role has emerged for those who can quickly cobble together interactive prototypes with no concern as to whether the code created is reusable. 

This capability comes from one of two places — technologists who are comfortable being nimble, or designers who are comfortable prototyping their designs. Either way, it’s important that your team can quickly prototype new solutions in such a way that users can experience them and provide meaningful feedback, which will then inform subsequent iterations of the solution. 

I’m Sure There’s More

While I think this is pretty complete, it’s doubtless not exhaustive. I’d love feedback on improvements, be they amendments, refinements, or removals.

 

The key, overarching insight from CREATIVITY, INC.

Creativity, Inc

Creativity, Inc., by Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace, is an important work, not just as a business book, but as a piece of non-fiction. In it, Catmull shares his hard-won lessons on management from 40 years of work, the last 30 as President at Pixar.

Just given Pixar’s unparalleled success, Catmull would be worth listening to. However, he goes beyond expectations and shares his story with remarkable candor, humanity, wisdom, and humility.

In a book riddled with insights, the single most important is the overarching realization that any creative organization is a constantly evolving complex dynamic system. The book’s subtitle could have been Corralling Dynamism To Deliver Greatness.

This insight has a number of implications:

  • practices that aim for certainty will curb creativity, and are fruitless anyway, because dynamism
  • instead, embrace that dynamism, as it leads to unexpected awesomeness that couldn’t be predicted
  • as dynamism is messy, develop practices that encourage discovery and recovery
  • create feedback loops throughout the organization, so that this dynamism is continually tacking towards positive outcomes
  • these feedback loops require candid communication throughout the entire organization, which means everyone needs to be comfortable sharing their thoughts and concerns, without fear of retribution
  • like tending a productive garden, management and leadership’s work is never done, and just because something worked in the past doesn’t mean it will continue to do so

These implications scare the crap out of most senior leadership, who are under the notion of “you can’t manage what you can’t measure,” and who require certainty in the desire to be predictable. Catmull addresses this in one of my favorite passages:

“You can’t manage what you can’t measure” is a maxim that is taught and believed by many in both the business and education sectors. But in fact, the phrase is ridiculous—something said by people who are unaware of how much is hidden.

This is but a sliver of what the book offers. To do it justice, I’d pretty much have to rewrite the whole damn thing, so just go read it already.

There is one thing that the book punts on that I find crucial in any creative enterprise, and I’d love to ask Catmull why he didn’t address it directly. And that’s the matter of taste, of judgment, of knowing when something is great. Catmull takes it as a given that all ideas start crappy, but through iteration, interrogation, research, and refinement, they become great. But he doesn’t share when his team (particularly the Braintrust) knows when to be satisfied that something is great enough and requires no further improvement.

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.