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.

“Product designers” and design team evolution

(This may or may not end up being part of a series of my reflections as in my role as VP of Global Design at Groupon.)

In Silicon Valley, there’s a new(-ish) design role called “product designer.” I first heard about it at Facebook a few years ago, and since then, many other companies have adopted it (including Groupon, where I work). Product designers are jacks-of-all-trades, expected to deliver interaction design, information architecture, visual design, and even front-end code. From what I can tell, “product designer” emerged for two primary reasons:

  1. Startups don’t have the resources for many employees, and so needed individual designers who could cover a lot of ground
  2. More and more young designers demonstrate these cross-trained skills, and don’t want to be pigeon-holed

The title also suggests a tight relationship with product managers.

With the rise of the product designer, there’s a simultaneous progression and regression in digital experiences. Using Jesse’s 12-year-old diagram (!) as a framework, we’re seeing the top two planes getting tastier and more interesting — look at Path, Square, AirBNB. Luscious full-bleed high-design screens where it’s clear that designers obsessed over every pixel and element of movement. But in that middle plane, digital experiences suffer from a lack of attention to flows, taxonomies, relationships between content areas, etc. (Any attempt to navigate Path turns into a trip down the rabbit hole.) ¬†We’ve forsaken managing complexity in favor of delight in the moment.

Additionally, a challenge seems to occur as design organizations scale, and the product designer (or 2) needs to turn into a product design team. People who are able to deliver effectively across the entire “product designer” set are few and far between, and so if you require all of those boxes to be checked, you’ll be looking for a long time.

So, organizations end up changing requirements, looking more for “T-shaped” people (strong in one thing, able to work well cross-discipline). This leads to an uncomfortable interim where you have these jacks-of-all-trades who feel a sense of ownership of the whole trying to figure out how to collaborate with a designer who is focusing on a part.

This means designers (and the organizations they work for) must embrace a team model of design. I’ve never worked in a context other than that of team design, so I’ve been staggered by the Silicon Valley startup model where team design is considered optional. (I had coffee with a friend from New York today, who said that Silicon Valley is becoming notorious for the ‘design unicorn‘, whereas New York startups are more, well, traditional in their thinking about teams.)

Another interesting aspect to this is productivity. I’ve always sought to hire generalists, because I believe a small team of capable generalists (who each might have different emphases) is stronger and can deliver more than a large team of dedicated specialists. Product designers often work alone, and because they’re expected to do so many things, end up working on projects of limited scope. (I think this contributes to the problem of managing complex user experiences). My supposition is that the small team of generalists can also out-produce an equal number of team-of-one product designers. You get higher quality, because folks who have a functional emphasis (such as visual design or interaction design) can deliver better than those whose priority is developing a broader set of tools. And you get greater output, because their mastery of those areas means they can deliver more quickly. What you give up are the transaction/overhead costs of teamwork, but I don’t think those are as great as the gains.

An essential element to making this all work is leadership. Design teams *will* be less effective than a squad of singular designers if there’s no clear leadership and authority. Someone needs to step up and be accountable, or design teams will flounder. For reasons I’ve never quite understood, design teams can be quite bristly about leadership, but it is essential. Much the same way that there’s one director of a film who makes the final call, there needs to be one leader of a design team who makes decisions and keeps things moving.