Design is a team sport
First and foremost, a design leader needs to be empathetic, driven by curiosity to observe people beyond just dialogue. This will support design leaders to better understand the needs of customers to initiate relevant innovations, drive great design leadership amongst their creative talent, and enable cross-functional collaboration with colleagues.
“First and foremost, a design leader needs to be empathetic, driven by curiosity to observe people beyond just dialogue.” @3M CDO Eric Quint
Great design leaders recognize that their team’s work is but one piece of the broader ecosystem of their organization. Engineering, Product management, Research, Support and many other teams play important roles in creating a great user experience. You’ll need to build social capital across your organization by developing rapport with your colleagues.
Get in the habit of stepping away from your computer to get to know people. Grab lunch with a developer who may build out your team’s next design. No need for an agenda—just get to know each other. Spend time with researchers who have their finger on the pulse of your customers, sales people who hear frequent requests, product managers who understand schedules and scope, and customer service agents who know where users struggle the most. All have valuable context to offer you and your team. Each one influences the success of your team’s work.
Your legs are your most effective design tool. Get out and connect with people.
“Your legs are your most effective design tool. Get out and connect with people.” @mopland @facebook
Design leadership: How top design leaders build and grow successful organizations
In this handy little book, Richard Banfield shares findings from interviews with a number of veteran design leaders, exploring a wide range of topics from shaping culture to leadership styles.
And don’t just network laterally—spend time with different stakeholders and executives to understand their roles and expectations. Ask questions about the broader strategy of the company. You’ll need to understand the big picture to design products that fit into the company vision.
We see our greatest successes when we involve the right people along the way.
“We see our greatest successes when we involve the right people along the way.” @helloryanpage @CapitalOne
As you become connected to colleagues on other teams, not only will your team’s designs be more informed, you’ll also put design on everyone’s radar, which is critically important. Your conversations will educate the rest of the company about design as a function, profession, and mindset. Your outreach to colleagues over time can change your company’s culture, making it more compatible with the needs of designers.
Design is often protected—intentionally or not—from those who are perceived to be outside the process. That’s a shame, as often there are experts that are excluded simply because they don’t move in the same social circles at work.
It’s important to bring stakeholders into the design process early and often to get feedback and fresh perspectives. Sharing your work digitally makes it easy to gather feedback from specific people, but there’s value in setting the stage for unsolicited feedback too. As mentioned in the previous section, surprising things happen when you print screens and post them in a space where passersby can catch a glimpse. Leave Post-it notes and pens nearby and see what happens—you’ll get surprising feedback from unexpected sources with this approach.
Unlike digital, print is persistent and casual. It invites spontaneous participation even when you’re not around, which is perhaps its greatest strength. Take note of who leaves useful feedback so you can include them when you share your team’s next prototype.
When design is accessible to all, the process feels inclusive.
Regularly scheduled design reviews can be a great way to not only keep your design team synced, but to forge connections with other teams. At the health tech company Counsyl, Laura Martini (now at Google) made a habit of inviting engineers and execs to design reviews to get new perspective for her team, but also to put design on people’s minds.
I often invited influential people in the company to my team’s design reviews so our work remained visible. My team was a little nervous about showing their early work to company leaders, but I knew it was important to do.
“I often invited influential people in the company to my team’s design reviews so our work remained visible.” @martinibot
Empathy at scale
In his article for 99U, The Subtle Art of Being a Designer at a Massive Company, 3M’s global head of design Eric Quint talks about how he translates empathy for customers to empathy for his colleagues, helping him build inroads into design within a massive organization.
In addition to design reviews, you can make colleagues aware of the work happening inside the design team by delivering presentations as a coffee hour or a lunch and learn. You can present your work on an important project, or deliver a crash course in Design Thinking. Create a design Slack channel to share books and articles with those who want to learn more about your discipline, and share updates on your work.
The more visible your team is in your company, the easier it will be to connect and collaborate with other teams.
Educating your company about design
Even if your team is already visible within the company, it can be challenging to find ways to focus the company culture on design without hiring more design resources. One method is to find alternate means of educating non-design colleagues about how designers solve problems.
At Netflix, Andy Law approaches this in several different ways. Once a quarter, Netflix holds a “UX Progressive,” where engineers and others can visit a designer’s desk to get a demo of current work in progress. Andy has also used screenings of InVision’s DESIGN DISRUPTORS film as a way to educate colleagues about design: “There are a lot of people interested in how designers approach and solve a problem, and DESIGN DISRUPTORS does a really good job of synthesizing what that is.”
Another approach is to host one-on-one sessions with colleagues who are interested in learning more about design, or who seek design help with a project. When Irene Au was at Google, the design team held weekly “office hours” where colleagues could come with questions and get feedback on their projects.
No matter the approach, educating colleagues about design and empowering them to use elements of the design process offer opportunities to increase the visibility and influence of design within your company.
- Set design review days on your team’s calendar and invite specific people to participate
- Your org chart is not a list of names; it’s a group of potential allies. Get to know them.
- Post your work in an accessible space. Present your work at company coffee hours. Talk about your work and answer questions in a company Slack channel.
- Solicit feedback every step of the way. This isn’t design by committee, but good ideas—and constructive criticism—can come from anywhere.
- Find opportunities to educate your company about design (UX progressives, film screenings, office hours).