Design can be so much more than “problem-solving”

I’m writing a book on building effective in-house design teams. I occasionally share passages from the book that stand on their own. What follows is something I’m have a beast of a time articulating. Feedback is welcome!

Design can be so much more than “problem-solving”

Business in the industrial and information ages of the 19th and 20th centuries was dominated by the analytical approaches typical in scientific management and engineering. These approaches are insufficient for tackling the complex challenges companies face now. This has lead to greater investment in design for the following reasons:

  • Squeezing greater efficiency has run its course, and design’s generative qualities are seen as means to realize new business value
  • By its very nature, software breeds complications that require design to rein in; with networked software, this complexity is exponentialized
  • The shift from products to services, with umpteen touchpoints by which someone chooses to interact, places greater reliance on design for coordination so as not to overwhelm the customer

While these challenges explain why corporations are willing to spend, focusing only on known problems limits the potential impact that design can have on a company. While design is often associated with “problem-solving,” the irony is that this view represents the same reductionist mindset that created the challenges that design is being brought in to address.

Problem-solving is only the tip of the iceberg for design. Beneath the surface, design is a powerful tool for problem-framing, ensuring that what is being addressed is worth tackling. Deeper still, and discover the core opportunity for design is to inject humanism into work. The best designed products and services don’t simply solve problems, they connect deeply with people. When design is combined with social sciences like anthropology and sociology, and other creative disciplines such as writing, there exists the possibility of creating a powerful expression of the human experience. As Steve Jobs said,

Design is the fundamental soul of a man-made creation that ends up expressing itself in successive outer layers of the product or service.

Hiring: reject a candidate for the right reasons, not just because they’re different

(I’m currently writing a chapter on recruiting and hiring designers. The following passage is about the debrief after The Day of Interviews, and how to proceed if the the interview panel is split. Essentially, make sure that it’s not just because the candidate is somehow different.) 

The challenge is when a candidate splits the panel, where some are strongly positive, and others are inclined not to hire. Navigating this proves to be among the most heightened and sensitive tasks for a design leader, because there is nothing more damning than a mis-hire, especially where there’s evidence that not everyone was on board.

In most situations where there’s a split, the easiest decision is the same as the right decision–do not hire. Given how costly it is to make a hiring mistake, this is where better-safe-than-sorry is an appropriate strategy. BUT. It is not a universal, and how this is handled is one of those areas that distinguishes design leaders from design managers. If a design leader deeply believes in the potential of a candidate, and can identify flaws in the rationale of those who object, the design leader should make the case for why an offer ought to be extended to the candidate.

There are reasons for rejection that design leaders need to be wary of, and call out if they are the only impediment to hiring.

Unfamiliar background or approach. Designers, particularly those with less experience, can be quite orthodox in how they evaluate other designers. They may be suspicious of any designer who doesn’t share their background or approach. An atypical background (maybe they didn’t study design in school), or unfamiliar approach (perhaps they don’t use typical design tools, or they’re unfamiliar with industry standard methods), can make panel members uneasy, because it’s not how they do it, and they don’t understand how other ways can be successful. The design leader’s role is to remind the panel of what is most important – results. If an unorthodox approach leads to great design work, the onus is on the team to figure out how they might be able to incorporate such different ways into their team. In fact, a willingness to consider people with atypical backgrounds provides two benefits: there will likely be less competition for that person (because other companies will also be hesitant with the unfamiliar); and the incorporation of new ways of working will increase the team’s diversity of perspective, and enable them to do better work.

Awkward communicators. If the interview process has one crucial drawback, it would be its reliance on conversations as the primary medium of understanding. The portfolio review mitigates this somewhat, but one of the things any candidate is being tested on when talking to people over the course of a day is how well they communicate. Many talented designers are not good oral communicators, and many are quite introverted. It might even be part of the reason they got into design–they may be more comfortable with pictures than words. People who are awkward communicators (and good designers) often process the world differently than others, and that difference can actually make for a stronger team by bringing in uncommon ways of working and thinking.

Candidate is a little weird. Maybe they talk fast or loud. Maybe they have some uncommon obsessions. Maybe they demonstrate unbridled enthusiasm or a lack of social graces. Whatever it is, you will interview candidates that are a little weird. Don’t let that weirdness be a turn-off. In fact, lean in to your team’s weirdness. If a design team can’t bring weirdness into a company, who can? If people on the interview panel grow wary when candidates’ let their freak flags fly, reorient their thinking to the quality of that candidate’s work, and whether they think the candidate will be truly disruptive (and not just a little strange).

Principles for Recruiting and Hiring Designers [FEEDBACK DESIRED]

[The following is a passage from my book-in-progress on in-house design teams. It’s a (very) rough draft on the principles that should undergird the recruiting and hiring process for designers. I think I believe everything here, and I think it’s pretty complete, but I’d appreciate feedback, commentary, calling of bullshit…]

Recruiting

The recruiting and hiring process warrants the same design attention and intention of any other experience. Do not succumb to your company’s standard operating procedure.

Recruiting designers is different from other recruiting other roles. Recruiters, even those who work with other craftspeople such as engineers, are often surprised to find that what works for other disciplines falls flat with designers. What follows are generalizations, so will not be true in all cases, but have borne out over our careers in hiring. Generally, what we have learned is that designers want to do great work, work with interesting people, and get paid fairly for it, pretty much in that order.

Make the approach humanistic. While no one wants to feel like a cog in a machine, designers are more sensitive than most to feeling subjected to bureaucracy, and some recruiting processes feel like filing taxes or hospital visits–filling out forms, submitting material into a faceless system, uncertainty as to when to expect a response, shuttling from handler to handler. Make sure to provide a human touch at every step in the process. Beware of adopting approaches that make it easier for you, but less personable. Given the competitive talent market, it’s worth feeling some friction and taking on extra work if it makes the experience more pleasant for the candidate.

Money is table stakes, but not a strong motivator. This one is a little tricky, because it can be interpreted that “designers don’t care about money.” While that might be true for a few, most designers want good compensation for their work, particularly where the cost of living is high. That said, throwing money at designers does not guarantee they’ll accept an offer. In fact, many will find it suspicious, wondering what such largesse is masking. (Many designers have an uneasy relationship with money.) Don’t try to exploit designers’ antipathy towards money–they’ll ask around, and if they feel like they’re being taken advantage of, the deal is off. Commit to making offers that are fair for the market, and then spend time and effort on the other factors that will guide their final decision.

Emphasize the work to be done. For most designers, the primary motivation is the nature of what they will work on. Such inclinations vary widely–some designers love hairy content problems, others want to build complex enterprise software, others crave sexy consumer experiences. Recruiting efforts should stress what makes the work compelling from a designer’s standpoint. When Peter was at Groupon, the stock was in a bad place and the company had become a media whipping boy. However, he was able to direct attention to the interesting design probem, which was to figure out how to leverage Groupon’s success with daily deals and create other ways to connect shoppers and local businesses. Designers were attracted by the opportunity to to deliver new features and functionality that created a marketplace, and the meaningful challenge of working with small local businesses at scale.

Explain the context in which that work is done. While some designers are dedicated to solving problems in specific industries, such as healthcare or education, many designers can root out what is interesting in any sufficiently complex problem. So when they’re choosing between job options, they seek to better understand the context in which they will work. Will they be expected to work on their own, or will they be part of a team? Are there opportunities to mentor or be mentored? What kind of authority and ownership will they have over their work? Is design respected within the organization? How does the company treat its employees? No one context works for all designers, so be clear about the characteristics of yours.

Be honest, even frank. Don’t just tell them what they want to hear. Engaging with candidates reveals their preferences and desires. For design leaders hungry for talent, it can be tempting to tell candidates what they want to hear, to get them through the door and at a desk. However, if it contradicts what they then experience, the working relationship starts off on the wrong foot. That person is now less likely to suggest others to join, may themselves be looking for exits, and the effort invested in bringing them proves for nought.

If a candidate makes clear they want to manage others, but there’s no opportunity for that in the foreseeable future, don’t tell them, “Oh sure, let’s discuss that in 6 months and see where we’re at.” Whatever the pain in losing a great prospect, say, “I don’t think we have a fit at this time,” and move on. Bring that person on, even if they have been told there are not management opportunities, and every discussion is clouded by that management desire.  

Be direct and honest about what it is like to work there. Don’t sugarcoat troubles. Don’t dwell on them, but acknowledge them and make clear the steps being taken to address them. The design community can prove surprisingly small and tight-knit, and word gets around. Bullshit is found out.

[There you go. Thanks for reading.]

“Head of Design”: Defining this role

I’m co-writing a book on building in-house design teams. I’m also currently in the job market, so I’ve been thinking about, and talking about, the role of “Head of Design,” which you’re starting to see pop up across Silicon Valley. Here’s what I wrote to define the role.

Head of Design

For design to realize its potential requires focused, empowered leadership. “Head of Design” has emerged as a title for this role, which works regardless of whether they are considered a manager, director, or VP.

Whatever the level, the head of design is the “CEO” of the design organization, ultimately accountable for the team’s results. That impact is the result of how they handle three types of leadership:

  • creative
  • managerial
  • operational

A Head of Design provides a creative vision not just for the design team but the whole organization. They establish processes and practices for realizing that vision, and set the bar for quality. They contribute to the development of brand definition and experience principles, and ensure that those are appropriately interpreted through the team’s work.


Their managerial leadership is realized through the tone they set for their team. What kind of work environment do they foster? How are team members treated, and what opportunities are they given to grow? How is feedback given? How do they hire, and who does that bring in? The sum of these decisions defines the Head of Design’s managerial style.

Operational leadership is a combination of very little things and very big things, all in the interest of optimizing the design organization’s effectiveness. The little things are what the rest of the team sees, in terms of how communications are handled, which tools are supported, how work is scheduled, how team meetings are run. The big things tend to happen behind the scenes, and involve interactions with a company’s core operations teams such as finance, HR, IT, and facilities. These include opening requisitions for headcount, adjusting salaries to ensure market competitiveness, establishing employee growth paths, acquiring the necessary hardware and software, and claiming physical spaces.

A common mistake made by company leaders when hiring a Head of Design is to favor creative leadership qualities over the managerial and operational. They bring in a creative visionary with big ideas and a beautiful portfolio, but often those folks don’t have the patience or mindset for the mechanics needed to actually make an organization run. Team members struggle without good management, flail without tight operations, and the team proves far less effective than they could be. Admittedly, it’s a challenge to find an individual skilled in all three forms of leadership. Remember, this role is the “CEO” of the design team, and as such, managerial and operational excellence are crucial.

As the team grows, the Head of Design will not be able to perform detailed duties across these three areas. This is when you bring on Design Managers and Directors (for people management), Creative Directors (for creative vision), and Directors of Design Program Management (to run operations). With these lieutenants in place, there is still plenty to do. At that point, a Head of Design focuses on:

Recruiting and hiring. Always. There may be nothing more important in the organization than identifying talent and getting them to join the team.

Living the culture. Addressed in depth in Chapter 7, the culture of a design team is essential to its long-term success. A Head of Design not only establishes the team’s cultural values, but demonstrates them every day through their actions.

Process and practices. Working with design managers and creative directors, establish a methodological toolkit, and make sure it is shared, understood, and used throughout the team.

Vision. Developing a “north star” for the company is not a one-time act, but an ongoing process of refinement and evolution.

Represent design for the organization. The Head is the primary voice of design inside and outside the company, sharing its work, evangelizing its success, articulating its vision. And sometimes this representation means fighting for design in the face of policies, procedures, and bureaucracy that limits the team’s potential.

 

Thoughts on fostering a collaborative work environment

[I just wrote the following passage for my book on building in-house design teams. It needs work, but I still felt it was worth sharing.]

Realizing the benefit of diverse perspectives requires a supportive environment where people are encouraged and comfortable sharing their work, spurring collaboration that makes the final output better than what anyone would deliver on their own.

Every member of the team must demonstrate respect to every other member, or the openness required for successful collaboration will not emerge. Dismissiveness, insults, cattiness, and behind-the-back gossip lead to people feeling shamed and shutting down, and cannot be tolerated.

Earning one another’s respect is necessary in order for the team to “get real”, because frank and candid critique and feedback are essential for upholding the high quality standards. Greatness comes from the tension and collision of different perspectives, addressed openly and honestly. Design teams that favor politeness over respectful candor will rarely produce great work.

Organizational hierarchy can stifle the free flow of ideas within a design organization – when senior people speak, it often stops the conversation. It’s now become cliche, but it’s worth repeating – great ideas can come from anywhere. Great design leaders encourage everyone to speak up, and, for themselves, wait to speak last. These leaders must also place their work alongside others, and accept others’ critique with grace and humility.

The collaborative environment referred to so far has been figurative, but it also should be made literal. Great design work takes space – places to collaborate, whiteboards for sketching and ideation, walls to show work. And those spaces should be permanent, places where the team works and sees their work all around them. Not only does this encourage continual engagement from the team itself, such spaces enable people outside the team to quickly connect with the work. It literally demonstrates openness and transparency. And instead of having occasional big share-outs (that require preparation that takes time away from productivity), these spaces support frequent lightweight check-ins that ensure the work is on track, because if it’s beginning to veer off-course, it is quickly corrected.

THE best conference for UX/Design managers and leaders…

…is Adaptive Path’s MX Conference, taking place on March 29-30 2016 in San Francisco.

I’m biased. After a few years away, I’m back and helping program and host this year’s event. We have a stellar line-up, including Bob Baxley (formerly Apple and Pinterest), Hyo Yeon (leading the design charge at McKinsey), Janaki Kumar (VP Design at SAP), Kim Scott (spreading the gospel of Radical Candor, a philosophy I can totally get behind), and many others. Oh, and me (I’ll be co-teaching, with Kristin Skinner, a workshop on “Org Design for Design Orgs”, based on what we’ve been writing in our book).

No other conference packs so much value into two days for folks who are managing/directing/leading design teams.

AND: Use the promotional code FOPM to get 15% off the registration price!

Design Team Leads

My friend Dane Petersen asked on Twitter: “Honest, unsnarky question: If design is thinking by doing and leadership means someone else does the doing, how does a design leader think?”

I’ve written a bunch about this in the book I’m writing. Here is what I wrote about the “team lead”, the person responsible for a 3-7 person design team tackling a problem.

Team Lead

Regardless of size, each design team benefits from a single point of authority and leadership, an individual with vision and high standards who can get the most out of their team. This is the most important role on the team, and the hardest job to do well.

Team leads must be able to:
Manage down. Leads are responsible for overall team performance. They need to create a space (whether physical or conceptual) where great design work can happen. They must coach, guide, mentor, and prod. They address collaboration challenges, personality conflicts, unclear mandates, and people’s emotions.

Manage across. Design leads coordinate with product leads, business leads, technology leads, and people in other functions in order to make sure their teams’ work is appropriately integrated with the larger whole. They must also be able to credibly push back on unreasonable requirements, and goad when others claim that the design team’s work is too difficult to be delivered.

Manage up. It’s crucial that these leads are comfortable talking to executives, whether it’s to explain the rationale behind design decisions or to make the case for spending money, whether on people or facilities. Design leads must present clear arguments, delivered without anger or frustration, that demonstrate how their work ties into the larger goals and objectives of the business.

In short, the best team leads are a combination of coach, diplomat, and salesman. And they are folks who, through, experience, find they can span the conceptual scale from 1,000 feet all the way down to 1 foot. They oversee the end-to-end experience, ensuring that user needs are understood, business objectives are clear, design solutions are appropriate, and the final quality is high. To achieve coherence, they must integrate efforts across product design, communication design, user experience research, and content strategy. They are responsible for articulating a design vision shared not just by their immediate team, but their cross-functional partners as well. No wonder it’s so hard to find such people!

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.