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.

3 inspiring people and thoughts from BusinessWeek’s Design conference

Last week I attended BusinessWeek’s first conference dedicated to design. I got more out of it than I thought I would. Many had eye- and mind-opening things to say. I thought I would share a few.

Brian Chesky, CEO of AirBNB

Among my favorite presenters was Brian Chesky, CEO of AirBNB. He has a degree from the Rhode Island School of Design, and is very design-forward in thinking about how to run AirBNB. Some of his thoughts/beliefs:

  • Designers have the opportunity to remake the world around them. If there’s something we don’t like, we can fix it.
  • Early on AirBNB followed Paul Graham’s advice of being loved by 100s rather than kinda liked by millions. They felt that passion was important, and they were very explicit in designing the service to stoke that passion in their customers.
  • At one point he said, “You’re not going to A/B test your way to Shakespeare”. Too often companies defer decisions to A/B testing.
  • “Take a method acting approach to design”… Develop deep empathy for your customers so that you can then really understand what it’s like to be them. This will allow you to develop magical experiences, and you can help your customers elevate their expectations of what a great service can and should be. I LOVE THIS.
  • When asked about what flaws designers have, Brian said, “They can lose touch of who they are designing for. Particularly when they silo themselves. Designers have to watch their ego. And collaborate with every function throughout the company.”
  • Brian also stressed the importance of physical space. He remarked on how most offices interiors are awful, and most home interiors are delightful. They’ve designed their conference rooms as re-creations of spaces available in people’s homes on AirBNB.
  • AirBNB doesn’t offer a desk for every person. Some people need permanent desks, yes. Many don’t, because they’re always collaborating, or rarely at them. So AirBNB favored creating spaces to promote collaboration rather than making sure everyone has a dedicated desk. I ALSO LOVE THIS.

Paul Bennett, Chief Creative Officer at IDEO

Paul used a metaphor of flying flocks of wild geese to talk about designers and design teams:

  • the lead goose creates uplift for followers
  • when the lead gets tired, it moves to the back of pack
  • the followers honk as a way to motivate the leader

Tony Fadell, CEO of Nest

Tony Fadell, lead designer of the iPod and iPhone at Apple, and now CEO of Nest, the dynamic thermostat folks, stressed that any design/product team needs to have a “point of view, a vision.” The reality is that not every decision can be fact-based, that many will be opinion-based, and with a shared point-of-view, teams can arrive at a shared opinion.

For me, this tied into Brian Chesky’s comment about A/B testing. If you simply let A/B testing decide your future, you’ll have a product that might perform well in the moment, but that could miss out on a much more impactful gestalt. You need that point of view, that shared perspective, to ensure coherence and the best experience over all. I think you should then use A/B testing to optimize those parts of the experience.

“Scientism”, rationality, and practicing design

Even though it was written by someone from frog, I have to give props to Ben McAlister’s “The Science of Good Design: A Dangerous Idea.”. At some point soon-ish I plan on writing about some of the follies of how design consulting is bought and sold, and Ben hits on a key aspect — the need for certainty from the design process. The reason designers will cite research in a scientistic fashion is because clients seek dependability and predictability. This is one of many holdovers from Industrial Age bureaucratic thinking, and will be among the most difficult to root out.

The challenge that practicing designers, though, is how not to come across as simply arbitrary. Design warrants a rationale, but should not be stifled by obsessively conforming to rationality.

Samsung has crappy design — so why is it always an exemplar?

I’m reading Do You Matter? How Great Design Will Make People Love Your Company. In theme and topic, it’s *very* similar to Subject to Change, which mostly makes me grateful that we published first. We also don’t reference Apple *nearly* as much as this book does, though I guess it may be excusable, because one of its authors, Rob Brunner, worked there (though, he worked there when Jobs wasn’t there, so take that as you will).

Anyway, I’m compelled to blog because when talking about “design driven” corporations, the book cites, among others, Samsung. Now, I know that Samsung has been lauded in the design process (though not for a few years) because of how they used design to elevate their brand from an east-Asian also-ran into the next Sony. BUT, from what I can tell, Samsung’s “design-driven”-ness is all sizzle and no steak. I’ve owned two Samsung products in the time since they supposedly got design religion, and one sucked (a mobile phone) and one is mediocre (my DVD player). Am I missing something here? Are there Samsung products that are truly useful, usable, and desirable? If so, please point me to them… OR STOP USING THEM AS AN EXAMPLE.