Are your team members respected as individuals?

I’m co-writing a book on building in-house design teams. Occasionally I’ll write a passage that stands on its own and feels worth sharing. 

A byproduct of bureaucratic work environments is that they encourage treating employees as cogs in a machine, not as the idiosyncratic people that they really are. Job titles suggest equivalence and interchangeability for anyone with the same title. Discrete numbered levels are used to assess seniority and salary ranges. Org charts delimit access and authority.

Actualized design teams overcome such practices by treating team members as individuals, with all the messiness implied. They recognize job titles are imperfect, and two people with the same title may have different skills. That’s okay, though, because everyone knows those people’s strengths and weaknesses, and makes sure that they’re set up to succeed. Seniority levels are seen as guidelines, not strict containers. Reporting structures are there for communication and mentorship, and do not limit anyone’s ability to share ideas and have an impact.

The reason companies adopt bureaucratic methods in the first place is to manage people at scale. While maintaining this individualistic perspective is challenging as the design organization grows, it’s worth the effort. Designers, perhaps more than other professionals, are a sensitive, empathetic, expressive, and quirky bunch. Reducing them to labels and levels removes their individuality, blunting their engagement and, in turn, their work. Instead, celebrate their individuality. Let their freak flags fly.

The Personal Professional Mission

When I work as a direct manager, my primary concern for anyone reporting to me is their professional and career development. I’ve learned that there are many ways for people to grow, and I want to be sensitive to the particulars of each individual on my team.

To get at that, there is what I call the Personal Professional Mission. I ask each team member just what is it that motivates them; why, in a universe of opportunities, have they made the choices that land them in the role they have. It’s a big idea that most folks have never been asked about, and haven’t considered deeply, and require some time to develop an answer. However, I find it to be the key to understanding how the person will want to grow, and the guidance and mentorship I can provide them on that path.

To help them understand what I mean, I share my personal professional mission: to make the world safe for great user experiences. This has pretty much been my animating principle since I first started blogging in 1998, and was perhaps most fully realized in the creation and development of Adaptive Path. It also spurred my departure from Adaptive Path, when I felt that I could best tackle this mission from inside the enterprise, as user experience no longer needed a laboratory for development, but instead required operationalizing in-house in order to deliver on the promise.

I was sharing the idea of the Personal Professional Mission to a design director looking for guidance in her career. And as I was explaining it to her, I had an uncomfortable realization: I don’t know if my mission still holds true for me, and I haven’t figured out what would replace it. This isn’t something I had thought about recently, and it caught me by surprise. But it also helps explain why I’m a bit adrift right now. I’m in the process of figuring out my next professional move, and the universe of options is a bit overwhelming (I know, it’s a good problem to have). I’m thankful I’ve uncovered what is at the root of this uncertainty, as it should help me address it. We’ll see where it takes me!

Keep design weird… but relevant

Historically, most formal design has been practiced by design agencies, which were environments set up to deliver optimal design output.

As design increasingly moves in-house, into environments that are not only not optimized for good design practice, but can prove quite hostile to it, a measure of a design team, and its leadership, is how they navigate this.

Many design teams find themselves at one of two poles.

I’ve now seen a number of teams, whose leadership comes from the design agency world, try to protect design by insulating the team from the rest of the organization. Essentially, these teams try to re-create the studio model when moving in-house, but in doing so inhibit connection with the rest of the company. This may lead to great design work in the abstract, but it also ultimately leads to ineffectiveness, as without those connections, the work of the design team is not realized through the product.

The other pole is one of total integration. Product design molds itself to whatever product development process exists, usually some flavor of agile. While this integration allows design to have some effect, the quality is subpar, because design is a different kind of activity than engineering, and what works for technical development is not ideal for great design. So, by trying to be accommodating team players, design loses what makes it interesting in the first place.

The challenge for in-house teams is to figure out how to keep that creative spark that makes design such a valuable contributor, without isolating it so much that it’s simply out of sync with the rest of the organization. It’s one of the (many) reasons I advocate for what I call the Centralized Partnership–centralization allows design to maintain it’s mindset and community of practice (i.e., it allows design to remain a little weird), while the partnership ensures those connections with the rest of the organization that keeps design relevant.

To maintain this balance requires vigilance and continual adjustment. This is a key aspect of any design leader’s role, ensuring that design doesn’t get run over by development processes, and not being so precious that it’s never put in a position to be realized.

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.