June 25 / 53 MIN

Josh Ulm: The role of design in business

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Josh Ulm

Josh Ulm

SVP of Strategic Design, Wells Fargo
About The Episode

Josh Ulm has quite the CV—Adobe Design Lead, Vodafone Head of UX, Oracle VP of Design, and now Wells Fargo SVP of Strategic Design and Insights. One thing he’s learned along the way is that “the most valuable role for design to play is influencing the business—not just the product.”

In this episode of the Design Better Podcast, Aarron and Eli covered subjects ranging from where the connected workflow is most broken, to the one critical question to ask executive sponsors when starting a project.

Key Takeaways:

  • How to set up a good project kickoff, with a large team
  • How to stand your ground as a designer, and call out when quantitative metrics are being used inappropriately
  • Learn to say no when design projects aren’t measurable


For two decades, Josh Ulm has been leading global design and product teams in the Bay Area. He’s currently the SVP of Strategic Design and Insights at Wells Fargo and has led teams at Oracle, Adobe, and Vodafone. Josh has created award-winning work for brands like Microsoft, Sony, and The Olympic Games and been profiled in Wired and Communication Arts magazine. You can follow his musings @ulm.



Wells Fargo’s Josh Ulm on design’s role in business

The following is a complete transcript of this episode of the Design Better podcast. Enjoy the episode!


Josh Ulm: I think the most valuable rule for design to play is to not just influence the product that you shipped, but influence the way that the business is run, and that really means getting as close as possible to understanding what the motivations of the business are with the executive teams.

Announcer: This is the Design Better podcast, where we share lessons and insights from today’s foremost design leaders. We hope the conversations and stories you hear help you transform your design practice and build remarkable products. In our third season, we’re exploring the connected workflow, how designers work more effectively and efficiently with their engineering and product counterparts. We’ll talk about how building key partnerships throughout an organization can help you ship better products faster. This podcast is hosted by Aarron Walter and Eli Woolery and is brought to you by InVision, the digital product design platform powering the world’s best experiences.

Josh Ulm isn’t afraid to speak his mind. When we first got to know him at the 2018 design leadership camp that InVision organized in collaboration with the Bureau of Digital, Josh said something that stood out to us. He said, “Our role sometimes is to call BS on the metrics and data. You could tell any story with data. You have to ground your product in value you’re creating for your customers. Design has a legitimate perspective that we shouldn’t have to apologize for.” Josh has a long leadership track record in the design world, from a long tenure at Adobe leading UX teams, to head of UX at Vodafone, to his most recent role as Group VP of Design at Oracle. During our conversation with him, we covered subjects ranging from where the connected workflow is most broken to the one critical question to ask executive sponsors when starting a project.

We hope you enjoy this chat with Josh, and thanks for listening.

Aarron Walter: Hi, this is Aarron Walter.

EW: And I’m Eli Woolery. We hope you’re enjoying the Design Better Podcast, learning a thing or two that will help you in your career.

AW: We put a lot of time and energy into producing these interviews with top industry leaders, and we want to share their wisdom with as many people as possible. You can help us achieve that goal by taking just a minute to review the podcast on iTunes or Google Play.

EW: Your review will make this podcast more discoverable and will help us reach new people in the design and business community.

AW: We appreciate your support. Now let’s get to the show.

EW: Hey, Josh, thanks so much for taking time to talk with us today. We got to hang out with you in Hawaii a few months back at the design leadership camp, which is an event that we put together in partnership with the Bureau of Digital and Karl Smith. We got to talk about a lot of interesting things there, and we want to maybe revisit a couple of those topics there. We heard a lot of talk about trying to operationalize teams. I know that with your history at Oracle and Vodafone and other places, that operations has been an important part of how you build high functioning organizations, especially at scale and that tends to be a big focus of yours.

So, maybe we could start there. Do you want to talk a little bit about how you think about operations and how you see it fitting into design teams and your personal experience and maybe also other teams you’ve seen in the industry as well?

JU: I think that I was lucky enough when the first tour I took at Adobe where I was matched up very early on as I started to figure out how these teams are going to grow with a great design operations team at the time, and that, you know, I think right off the bat taught me the value in operations being part of the design organization specifically and I think I’ve kind of carried that through all of my work along the way, because I’ve really just seen the value in doing that, but what it fundamentally kind of comes down to for me is that even though design needs to mesh very intimately in with development and engineering, the process of running product development through its cycles doesn’t match one to one with the process of design doing their deliverables for product development and that unless there is someone who is looking at the way the design bills and delivers and hands off and collaborates, that that whole part of the process often gets dropped.

So, having recognized that I’ve always seen it as a crucial part to make sure that the design organization itself is at the very least responsible for its own process in delivering that along the way and so I’ve always kind of built out those organizations and made sure that they were part of my team, and over time, have found that that’s just been even more necessary, not only to make sure the design team operates well, but really just to communicate and understand the process of product development better and really just kind of seeing how all of that meshes. I’ve seen many times how most of the processes that are involved in product development will draft off of engineering and what their goals are, which it needs to certainly, but if it only does that, then design can get dropped.

I think a lot of other parts of the process get dropped along the way, so I think advocating for just understanding the process writ larger and certainly how design, again, meshes into any product development process has always been really important to the success of the design teams I built.

EW: Yeah, it’s almost like operations is an input/output layer for design to build tighter partnerships and build rapport. I’m curious if you could talk a bit about the rapport side too, because you know, the operations is helpful so you know when you need to plug into different teams and bring in different partners, but there’s also kind of an interpersonal skill set that needs to be developed just to be effective.

JU: My view of operations, specifically for design, or at least starting with design, it starts around our process, and that really comes down to, in my mind, this fundamental question of how do you take something that is inherently subjective, i.e. design, and make it as objective as possible so that you can have good conversations and make progress and know that you’re making progress? I think that’s one of the fundamental rubs in just doing design and product development today is building that bridge and being as objective as possible as you can about what you are delivering and what’s working and what’s not, but also allowing the subjective side of design, the art, the craft side of it to have its space in equal measure so that you get beautiful things that people love in the end.

I think that often times I’ve seen product development teams that aren’t successful not getting that balance right, either weighing too heavily that we’re all objective, we make all our decisions based off of the data, in which case you lose a lot of the soul of whatever it is you’re building, or you’re all objective, in which case nobody has any real faith in design, because they don’t know how the decisions are made, and they don’t know kind of what it is, and it’s all just those fancy guys over there doing their fancy things. You can’t lean from my experience on just one of those. You need to get that equal balance, so in doing that, I think a big part of it is what objectively are you doing, how do you measure all of that stuff?

That means kind of almost the obvious simple stuff is making sure design teams are working in the same feature and bug databases that the engineering team is, so you’re communicating well, and you actually can measure the work that you’re doing, which not all teams can or even know how to do. That’s kind of where it starts is just how do we bring that objective critique of the work out, but the other side of it is to say that in order for a design team to run effectively and efficiently, again, you can’t lose that culture and the soul of it. So, I also believe that operations just as much is responsible for establishing the culture and talking about design or helping the design team talk about design and that means, again, really facilitating a discussion, facilitating the discourse around what does design do? What does it “bring to the table”? And what does it mean to have a relationship with design and what does it mean to take these different cultures, be it product management or engineering or QA or executives or whatever it is, and bringing these different personalities together and forming conversations that can work well in that.

I think design often times is in a really good position to lead that, because design is about the presentation of things for the most part. It is about how are people going to interpret this? How are we going to talk about it? What meaning does it have? What value does it have for the people that are going to be using it? So design can facilitate that, so that often means really facilitating and getting deeper into the well let’s facilitate the relationships that are going to make sure this is going to be successful throughout the company, with the customers, internally with a design team, etc.

EW: That’s great. So, one of the things that you said at design leadership camp that really stood out to us, and this ties into exactly what you were just talking about, is that, and I’m paraphrasing here, but you said our role is sometimes to call BS on the metrics, data, etc. you can tell any story with data. You have to ground you product in the value that you’re creating for your customers, and design has a legitimate perspective, so we shouldn’t have to apologize for. Are there any other ways that individual designers or design leaders who may be in the habit of deferring to data when it’s thrown up against them can stand up more confidently for their own perspective?

JU: I mean, yeah. There’s lots. The biggest one that kind of comes to mind is just really being the voice of the customer. There’s other teams that kind of can do this, and you see a lot of companies now kind of creating a customer experience team lead role. I’m thinking InVision has a very successful one, where that teams is really responsible for everything that kind of “touches the customer” and how it is interpreted by them. And I think that that’s a good start. The challenge that I’ve seen with some companies that do that is that again, their perspective on why that’s an important role or who’s responsible for that role, and I think that regardless of how it’s framed or who ultimately it rolls up to, the point that I like to make is that I think that design needs to take some responsibility for that, which one of the things we talked about a lot at that camp, which is a topic that I love because I think I take a contrarian position to it, is does design kind of have a seat at the table, like a lot of designers like to say that.

Like, “We don’t have a seat at the table,” and I hear that a lot, and where I understand it’s coming from is we think decisions are being made in the company and designers aren’t in the realm to do that, to make those decisions, and the thing that I come back to is that it’s really less about being in the room and more about actually having the information you need in order to make the right decisions along the way, and who has that information and who’s bringing that information to the conversation?

I think design does have a seat to the table. They just need to stop just being designers, or stop only designing screens and start representing the customer and being that voice of the customer using, at the very least, if they’re not seen as the authority for being the voice of the customer at the company, at least representing the customer to the extent that they do have ownership over that space and bringing that to the table, whether that means, for example, again, different companies at different stages. We were talking kind of earlier before we started, or I was sharing kind of how I think it’s dangerous to take the Airbnbs and the Ubers of the world and use those as the model for how design should operate, because A, those companies mostly started with design in their DNA from the beginning, which is wonderful if you have it.

And also that the design is represented in those companies top down. You have really strong leadership at the top that understand design and can push that through the company and every aspect of the business. Very few companies are like that anymore. Even ones that are starting today, they may have it, but they may not, and the vast majority of businesses that are really trying to transform themselves don’t have either of those things, and so I think it’s important for design to step up and say, “It’s not just about the screens that we’re developing.” That is a part of it, and that ultimately is the output that they have and should and will be measured off of the quality of the success of those solutions in the customer’s hands. That’s right.

But, if that’s all design does, if all design does is say, “We’re the guys that use Sketch and Studio and Photoshop or whatever it is, and we produce a bitmap of this size,” then I think they’re totally missing the point in that I think the design is the responsibility to say, “How did we get to this screen? How did we get to these pixels in this format?” So that is where I think design needs to own whatever part of the voice of the customer that it has that got to that point and speak to that and share that insight and help the company see the process by which it gets to that and own that piece of it. That is not often times … in fact, I think most of the time is not an objective part of the conversation. That is listening to people that say they don’t like the color blue and figuring out whether they really don’t like the color blue or whether it’s something else that is really affecting them.

That is the subjective side of the interpretation of the customer that design owns and represents and needs to bring to the table and needs to find ways in which it can speak to that and talk to it and present it and make sure everyone understands it so that when those decisions get made of the screen needs to look like this, the product needs to behave in this way, the company comes along for the ride for that, and it’s not just about a well, because the button is at this corner of the screen, objectively it’s performing better. If the design is only focused on that part, on just the data part, then you will be forced to quantify it that way, whereas if you can bring that voice and explain why you got to that point, then I think it brings a lot more value to the role of design and ultimately why the decisions are being made of what design is doing.

EW: One of the things that I hear in product teams is see a lot of product designers, design researchers, representing the voice of the customer and bringing that understanding of motivation, or as data is really about these are the behaviors that are happening, but we don’t really know why, what’s driving that, and the voice of the customer that this qualitative findings can help us understand the motivations behind that. But I’ve often heard, and I’ve heard other designers report that when they present the voice of the customer, the pushback is, “Well, that’s one person, and we’re looking at a data set that’s much bigger, so ours is a much larger representation of our audience than yours is.”

I’m curious if you’ve encountered that same sort of pushback and how you deal with it.

JU: Yeah, of course. Again, I definitely don’t have a silver bullet for how to deal with these conversations. I make them up as I go along, so there’s not really, I think, a way to handle any one of these things, but I will share a couple of thoughts on that. Again, I think that it can be the case that those kinds of agreements are coming out of a notion of ownership and shared understanding of who the customer is, and I think that’s something that honestly is probably another subtext for when designers say, “We want a seat at the table,” what they’re saying is that they don’t actually have the authority to represent their view of the customer as deeply as they think that they should, or as deeply as important to have the product be successful.

So I think that design does have to confront that, but I think that some of those problems end up being cultural. For example, if the company, again, has their history based in analytics and data and running by the data. That’s a hard cultural thing to change. Changing behavior for customers, let alone for the company, I think is the hardest thing to change is really getting them to understand that the culture is going to have an effect on the output for the customer, so that is a problem or a challenge that the design has to take on. If it is cultural, then it has to be dealt with culturally and not necessarily by a preponderance of the facts. It really is a going forth and saying, “Okay, there are stakeholders in the company that have a strong influence on the direction of the product and they have a certain cultural bias towards one way of making decisions,” and deal with that head on is to go to that and say, “Okay, how do we bring those people along for the ride?”

I think that, again, this is something that design is known for having to deal with, because I design is so fundamental to the end product that gets shipped and yet because most companies are measuring the success of the product financially that the financial bias of the company, which often is a very good bias to have, is the bias to have, but that bias, if it’s over rotated, can diminish any empathetic voice for the individuals inside the space, right? So I think it is design’s job to help change the culture of that. Again, so what I would suggest, or what’ve done in the past is to take that on directly and find those individuals in the company that may have those biases, and bring them along for the ride. Bring them in closer, you know? You could use the keep your enemies closer kind of approach to that, which is to say, like, bring them in and help them understand who their customers are.

Even if it is just one person, that’s a valid argument. I mean, it rarely is just one person, although a great quick aside to that is I’m sure that everyone that’s been in that situation has also been in the exact same situation when the CEO comes in with but one email and that one email says, “This one thing is broken,” and that one person seems to have a lot of importance, so you can kind of throw that whole argument out the window. It depends on who’s bringing the one person in.

EW: Right.

JU: Which is why I say it’s not about one person. It’s about the cultural shift and finding the people that have not understood the value in listening to one person and hearing what that one person is saying and then using that as it is, so the argument that I like just for balancing those two things is to say yes, that is one person, or maybe let’s say a smaller subset of the overall data that we’re getting, but the richness of that data is far, far greater in terms of the success of the product than the data which is removed from the emotional decisions that are going on. So, while there may be less and the quantifiable part of it, there’s far more on the qualitative part of it that makes it a larger set of data that needs to be taken to a different level of understanding than the quantitative side, which is why they’re not apples to apples and they have to be seen in their own value in their own right.

EW: That’s great, so one other thing that you said at design leadership camp that really stood out to me was that you said at the start of a project, ask the executive sponsor, “What does success look like for you and how will you be tracking it?” Why do you ask that question?

JU: Exactly that same point, which is to say that I think it’s important for everyone to get on the same page. I mean, this is probably one of the biggest issues is just I think that, again, design is certainly guilty of this, but I’ve seen this in all disciplines: engineering, research, you know, product side, which is that they think they know what the goals are. They’re working under some set of goals, and they may even be right about what their immediate goals are, which is to say that they have to ship a product on a certain date and it has to work, so they may have that understanding, but those understandings, I think, do not make for the most empowered organization possible, and I think the most powerful organization possible is one that understands what the leader’s goals are.

I’ll give a quick example. This just came up in the past couple of days with a team I’m working with that we were looking at new product. It was a kickoff meeting for a project, and we spent the first half of the kickoff just going through what all the deliverables were, and by the time that I finally was able to raise my hand I was the first person to say, “Who’s the audience for this thing? Who are we presenting these screens to? Who’s going to see them? Then, what’s that person going to do with these screens?” As soon as that became kind of the starting point of the conversation, the whole conversation kind of changes at that point, because it’s really not about the delivery of the actual screens or the product in the end. The conversation becomes about how do we tailor whatever it is we’re going to create to make sure that that audience is hearing what we need them to hear in a format, in a way, that is going to suit the way that they are going to be able to make this thing actionable.

Meaning that some of the questions that came out of that is that are we developing something for that person to then think about, to encourage a new way of thinking for this person, in which case our delivery is then going to end once we hit that person? Or are we developing something for them that then they are going to take and they are going to bring to another audience and use themselves as material for something? Just that simple question alone dramatically changes what the output is. In the first situation, if I’m just giving a leader something to help create critical thought for them, it will be a very different type of product than if they are going to take that and then use it themselves to go and try and sway other stakeholders or customers or something else. Unless you ask that question, you don’t really know.

I think that you can take that example or I take that example and I extrapolate it out to just, again, the way the design organizations need to operate in my opinion, which is that they really need to understand who they’re trying to influence and how they’re trying to influence those people so that they can be the most successful, and bar none, the starting point always has to be the CEO, the leader of the company, the person that is deciding where we’re going to go. Their motivations, again, can be vastly different. If the company is in a growth phase versus a maintenance phase, that dramatically changes the design conversation regardless of what any product manager is hearing from a customer. So, if the product team and the designers in that space are only focused on well, we’ve got this next release and we’ve got a list of features that we need to get out because the customers told me they want these things, that’s somewhat irrelevant if the company is actually trying to grow into new demographics and new audiences and expand their business, or vice versa.

If they’re not trying to grow and instead they’re really just trying to create new value for the current customer base that they have. More so a company’s at scale, and as you scale it becomes more difficult, but often that story from the CEO doesn’t make it all the way down. Either the company’s not as transparent as it could be, there isn’t a direct line from the design team to the executive team in order to get that information back, it’s maybe a couple of voices removed, so you play the game of operator, and now what we actually understand may not be the thing. Or we just don’t hear from the executive team very much. Maybe they have like a twice a year fireside and then it’s a couple of bullet points and a PowerPoint, and we don’t really know the depth of what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.

Again, I think design has a responsibility to really understand the motivation of the business, and this gets to, again, kind of the way that I operate, which is that while I am a designer, I love doing design, I still am very hands on in all my design work, and the final responsibility of design is to output a product and ship that product, if that’s all design does, then that’s all design will be. It will be a production resource and not a business resource. I think that’s certainly the most interesting for me, but I think the most valuable role for design to play is to not just influence the product that you shipped, but influence the way that the business is run. That really means getting as close as possible to understanding what the motivations of the business are, what the executive team is.

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AW: Josh, you’ve seen some kind of the extremes of design teams in terms of scale and working inside of really large orgs with different ratios. Sometimes the ratios are pretty far off that there’s way more engineers than designers. When you think about the product design workflow, there are a lot of people that have to be involved. It’s not just design. Design is not the center of the universe. It’s a stop along the way. Where do you see the biggest break points in a workflow of connected workflow across all these different partnerships?

JU: Gosh, it’s always hard to answer those questions, Aarron, because I’ve just seen so much variety. I mean, I think that’s the one thing that I’ve come back to, be it in every place I’ve been, Adobe, Vodafone, Oracle, they all have had, again, all of these very large companies, very large portfolios, and because of that very large variety in the processes they use to ship their product inside that same company. Oracle, the company that I was just at most recently, more than any other. I was responsible for some 70-plus different services, and every one of those service teams ran their business differently, had different processes, and we had to solve things differently across all of those.

Again, which is why I always walk in the room with a very open mind and confront every challenge like it’s the first time I’ve confronted that challenge, because I don’t know what’s going to work for this particular team and what challenges they’re facing, but I will say that what is probably generally true is that teams are often not discussing what a shared process looks like, or what it could look like. Some of the problems that fall out of that is that often times, as we kind of started off, design will just draft off of engineering, and we’ll jump onto whatever process they have and then try and manipulate that process along the way, so try and make it more agile or try and adjust it so that there’s specific sprints for design, but they’re always modifying a process that currently exists, which is almost never ideal, which is always just starting with the okay, well let’s band-aid the situation we have versus really let’s look at the way that we bring it in.

And that’s only for design, like bringing design in. That also doesn’t include I found, you know, all the others, as you said the other pieces that have to come in to that equation along the way, like for example, other product teams and how those product teams are going to interface. You see a lot today how a common challenge for these product teams at scale is integration, is just how do they get different products to fit together in different ways so they can sell a suite of pieces, a platform if you will, for how all these things fit. Well, the problem that comes out of doing that is that you may have a product team shipping a service that’s got it totally dialed in for their designers and their product managers and their engineers, and that’s working great, and maybe another product team’s got the exact same thing and they’re dialed in, but you try and hand off between those things or connect those things, and again, the process starts to break apart again. They’re not on the same cycle.

Their springs aren’t lining up correctly, or their length of duration of those things aren’t exactly the same, or the output and/or when dependencies need to be identified isn’t coming up soon enough in their processes. So the meshing of process, I think, is such a fundamental one, which again, brings us back to operations too and why it’s so important, I think, to have a design organization that can look at itself and say, “How do we change the way we’re doing what we’re doing in order to solve some of these problems?” And if your design team does not have someone thinking about that and only thinking about the we’re using a design tool to output bitmaps, then you’re not going to be able to affect that. You’re not going to be able to affect the role that design has across things.

So when I was at my second tour at Adobe, one of the pieces I worked on was trying to figure out how to do cross-cloud experience. So, they had, still have, three very different businesses between document cloud, creative cloud, and marketing cloud, and three very strong products in their own right, but three very different businesses that ultimately if I’m a customer of someone like Adobe, then I don’t really care about your org chart. I want to be able to use Acrobat to do my document management and use creative cloud to have my designers building their stuff and use marketing cloud to measure the success of the products we’re building. I want to use all that stuff together. But if the products themselves don’t integrate, then I’m not able to do those kinds of things.

So, again, I think it comes down to the company looking internally and saying, “What are the right processes for us to bring all this stuff together?” And that, I think, is one of the hardest things, because that ultimately means the company needs to start to standardize on some of these things, and standardization is, I think, in equal measure a powerful tool and a very scary thought to large companies, or companies that want to grow, because standardization means efficiency, most certainly, and all companies want that, but it also means a tamping down of innovation, or it can mean that. So, I think companies can often step away from standardization, because they’re fearful of losing innovation, they’re afraid of letting these teams do what they do well, and that’s kind of what gets us great, so getting that balance is really tricky, and I think the only way that I found to address it is to confront process, not design, but process as a way of figuring out how are we going to take our successes and codify those things into things that we can then extrapolate out to a larger part of the business?

EW: So to that point around process, let’s talk about a very specific part of the process, the kickoff. And what does a good kickoff look like when you’re working at Oracle or Adobe, and how do you make sure that the right people are involved?

JU: So, another topic we were talking about just before we jumped on was just that I still, at the moment, am struggling with the models we have for design today. As I kind of oversimplify it, I kind of see that there’s kind of two models. One model is the company has an internal design organization, and they use that to build and ship their products on a daily basis. Maybe those designers are distributed across product teams? Maybe they’re centralized, whatever, but they’ve got someone body of design resource that’s in their company that they’re using to ship their products.

The challenge with that model is that over time, those designers, and the work that comes out of those design organizations, can stagnate. After a while you know how the sausage is made, you’ve accepted the challenges that inherently you have, you think you know who your customer is, and you start to get into that rhythm and you, frankly, get lazy. And the inherent culture in business I think often encourages that. Again, to try and get to normalization and standardization because that can be more efficient and more cost effective for a business, that you can lose innovation, and I think that’s a real challenge that internal teams have to deal with. On the other side of it, the other, I think, prominent model is there’s an agency, and a company doesn’t really have a significant internal design team, so therefore they outsource it.

They have a studio come in, and they partner deeply with that team, and they let the designers kind of hand stuff over to them. Then, they take it and they run it off and they go and build it. That’s very successful, and very common as well. The challenge with that model is that those external agencies never really get deeply connected to the business. They’re always kept at arm’s length, and because of that they’re never able, or very rarely able to attain that connection with the motivations of the business that I was saying are so important is actually understanding the CEO or where the C-suite and what they’re doing and why they’re doing what they’re doing, because as an external agency for whatever reason, either there’s security protocols or logistically it just doesn’t make sense to have them know all of that stuff, or the leadership doesn’t think it’s important, yatta, yatta, yatta.

So they’re always kind of kept at arm’s length. Both of those models kind of have inherent flaws, and I that because of that what you see is that the process itself also ends up being kind of fundamentally different along the way. The team internally, its processor, its model for a kickoff is going to be very different than an external agency that’s going to kick something off. An external agency is probably going to come in and they’re probably going to say something to the effect of, “Okay, well let’s deep dive for a week with you, and we’ll get all the stakeholders in a room. We’ll bring a bunch of external research in. We’ll dump that on you. We’ll talk about the customer a lot. Maybe we’ll do a bunch of design explorations. We’ll do the design sprinty kind of thing,” right? And separate from a product sprint where if you’re really just sprinting on design you’re really just going to brainstorm, brainstorm, brainstorm around that, come up with some really crazy stuff that’s hopefully awesome, and then work backwards from that area of really far committed innovation to how do we bring it back into the reality of the product.

I think that’s, again, there’s a lot of advantages to that model in that it does bring a lot of innovation into it very early on. I can be successful as long as the stakeholders that are part of that actually have influence in the end. Again, who is that audience? Who are you sprinting towards in the end? If you come in as an external agency and you’re just working with a brand team and the brand team ultimately is going to take all of that identity stuff and all it’s going to become in the end in reality is a bunch of letter head and not actually make it into a product, then that kickoff model doesn’t have as much value regardless of how much innovation it has. On the flip side, if you’re internal, your kickoff meeting probably looks more like an intense couple of days with whoever currently has the ownership hat running the show.

They often come in and will say, “Okay, I’ve already figured out what this thing is, let’s spend this kickoff figuring out how, not why.” I think that is kind of the fundamental problem internally is that often times the internal processes are kicked off with the how question, not the why question. Because again, it’s so indoctrinated that the why is just assumed that any exercise is really just about how to execute on that. I think in either model there’s challenges to face. In the external agency model I think designers should be asking themselves, “Who is my audience? Is this the right audience? If it’s not, how do I help my client see who the right audience is?” That may be work in and of itself, and oftentimes agencies, I’m not going to call you all out, you need to do the hard work to really make sure you’re bringing value to the company.

Ask yourself what it is you’re really delivering. If all you’re delivering is a bunch of bitmaps, no shame in that. Often times that may be what’s necessarily, in which case that’s your business, be clear on what you’re delivering, and ship that stuff off, but if you’re being brought in to kickoff a new product or for example to kick off a new direction in the company, often times companies will come along and they’ll say, “We are stagnating. Let’s get some new minds, some new thoughts into this. Let’s bring them in,” but then they’ll cut them off at the knees by not actually giving them the stakeholder information or access that they really need to be successful in doing that. Designers in that situation should certainly be asking, “Who is my audience? Who ultimately am I trying to convince of this? And are they part of this conversation?

If they’re not, how do I help the client that I do have understand the value of that?” That’s that challenge. If you’re internal and you’re kicking it off, I think now the challenge is not who is the right person, because you probably have the right person or know who that person is, but how do I get them to ask the right question in the end? Which is how do I get them to not think about how but to think about why? Again, now we’re getting back into the qual versus quant part of this, which is that most of the time product teams at kickoffs will come back and say, “How do we optimize? How do we grow our numbers?” Which is, again, a how question, not a why question. I think the design often times need to, in that situation, make sure and push really hard to a process that is going to say, do we have the right assumptions to begin with before we have this conversation? And how do we come to those assumptions? If they’re right, then awesome, then we can move forward.

If they’re not, how do we at least carve out time in this process to make sure that we validate that we’ve understood … we all have understood and been part of and come along for the ride of answering the why we’re doing what we’re doing.

EW: The why part seems to be a recurring theme we’ve heard with a number of guests. Margaret Gould Stewart, VP of design over at Facebook, talked to us about that too, and this seemed to be key theme, especially when there’s scale, you’ve got a whole lot of people, and you’re working across teams, across product lines and so forth, and how do we unify our efforts going in the same direction?

Wonder if you’ve had experience creating product vision or creating why, not just in the kickoff meeting, but as an artifact that can be referenced by multiple teams, you know, different touch points where people have to come into the process.

JU: Yeah, I mean, I’ve certainly created artifacts like that, and there’s a variety of ways in which you can do that. Again, I think this is getting more into the building design organization and design as a strategic role versus as a development role, and I think that’s something that’s new for a lot of companies. They’re trying to figure out how to do that better, and once you transition that you realize that there’s other outputs of design besides bitmaps, and some of the challenges that come out of creating artifacts like that, whatever they are, tone of voice, documents, speaking to it, creating materials for executive teams to understand and get buy in of the why we’re doing what we’re doing, a lot of those things I think end up being things that are not necessarily design documents, but strategic documents that design can help influence and certainly craft and shape and create process around defining those kinds of things.

So there’s a role that they can play there. I think that part of the challenge in doing that is helping or growing, because again, I think that part of this is just a sense of maturation. Just because we know that one day we’re all going to be adults doesn’t mean we can skip all of the teenage years and just jump to that. You still have to live through it. You still have to grow through all of those phases.

EW: If only.

JU: Yeah, if only. So, just because I know what it looks like when it’s working really well doesn’t mean I can just say it and it’s going to happen. Changing behavior takes time, and so you have to understand that. You can’t walk in. You can’t get frustrated if after six months the whole company is not embracing design thinking when they didn’t even know what it was six months ago. It just takes time, and you have to play a long game when you’re doing that kind of stuff. But I think part of the challenge once you’ve accepted that it’s going to take time is that you have to help the company see that that is a role that design can help with, that that is something that actually we can feed into and contribute to, because again, most companies, if they’re not doing that, will need help understanding that design can create artifacts that aren’t directly related to the product.

The challenge there maybe cultural, and I have to convince this company that I’m going to spend money, IE resources, on these things that is not the thing that the company thought was the only thing I was doing, which was shipping product. I have to have some way of convincing this company that, what, 10% of my resources or 20% of my time is going to go towards creating things that aren’t directly related to shipping a product, and that is an exercise that the design team has to take on and recognize that they have to validate that and they have to make a case for that happening. You can’t just assume that that’s going to happen. So, part of that means communicating that to the business, helping them see that that has a value, and then helping them understand what level of commitment makes sense for that. I know that there’s lots of actually good data out there that says that.

In fact, I think you guys sponsored a wonderful presentation. I saw it recently from Leah Buley, who was speaking to how to help represent the value that design has, and she makes a wonderfully eloquent case for just the objective value that you can demonstrate for a design team that it has on finance and process and efficiency and all these things. And those are great, I think, studies to look to to get the data that you need in order to make the case for what design needs. I think I would encourage designers to kind of take a mindset of you’re not just creating bitmaps. You are in the process of helping the company to see the role that design has.

That means looking out there and gathering data that help tell your story for that, so if I’m going to go and convince the business that the eight designers I’ve got on my product team that I’m going to take 25% of their time, IE I’m going to take two of those designers, and I’m going to use those not to ship product anymore. Then, I better have a case for that, that at least helps the company understand objectively the value of doing something like that. That’s not easy for designers to do. Designers are not inherently analytical. We aren’t fundamentally just taught that at art school, so you have to get in the habit of doing that, of making an objective case for that. Luckily, that is far easier to do now than it was five, 10 years ago.

There are really good success stories. There are studies out there. One great tip that I won’t take credit for it, because Leah shared it, but I loved it, was just go and look at your competitor who is already bringing design into their business, and use them as an example. Go into their press releases. See the way that they are talking about it. See the way that they are demonstrating the role that design has, and use that as an influence back to your own business so you can use that as a way of saying, “Well, we see these people as being successful, potentially more successful than we are. We want some of that success. How do we use the justification they made to make that our justification?”

Again, that ends up being very influential back to a business, but also an objective measurement, so it doesn’t have to be just, “We think it is because we show that people ‘like’ this more.” We can show that objectively this business is being successful because they’re bringing it in. Let’s use those as values that we can use to influence how we start to influence our own stakeholders internally. I think design definitely has to build up a skill for looking strategically at the business that’s going on and figure out how they can use that to communicate the role that they should evolve to and justify that back to the business.

EW: Wonderful. Josh, we have one more question for you before we wrap up. You’re having a chance to take a little time and think about your next move. Are there any books or blogs, podcasts that are helping you as you think about that?

JU: One of the things that I am just so impressed by … there’s some companies out there that I just think it’s almost like I wonder if they’re in the wrong business. One of the businesses I think that does this really well is Salesforce. Salesforce, I think frankly, does better at teaching their customers about the business that they’re in than they build great products for those businesses, which is not to say that Salesforce does not build great products, they do. They build fabulous products. Their design staff is, I think, one of the best design staffs that I know, but they are really freaking good at just teaching people. Their trail head thing it just an amazing piece of technology.

I think that InVision is one of those companies as well. Build world class design tools, but the teaching that I get from InVision I’m just constantly impressed by. Every time I go and follow a link somewhere to some new piece of learning, more often than not I’m surprised to find that it’s actually being fostered by InVision. I wouldn’t even know what it is, but the other day I was looking for some design inspiration, found some great little chrome extension which changes my home screen to give me design inspiration every day. I installed-

EW: Yup, that’s Muzli.

JU: … it. Then, only after using it for a while did I find out it was built by InVision. You guys definitely do a fantastic job of that, but what I would probably just share more than that is I think it’s really important for designers to be engaged and to challenge themselves as much as possible. One thing that I think is happening now that I think is really exciting for me is the way the design tools are just continuing to evolve and change. Obviously, I’ve played a big part of that myself with my time at Adobe and even at Oracle and the tools that we built there, but I’m just really inspired by the role that design is continuing to play, and I think it’s really important for designers to stay on top of that, because I think especially now, again, there’s another transformation of design happening where my goal as a designer is always to bring the designer and the end product as close together as possible.

If I can remove as much of the distance there I think the product is going to be better, because the fidelity is better, and the understanding of the customer is going to be closer to what is actually developed. I think that even just in the past couple of months we’ve seen a lot of design tools kind of come out and evolve and change in a way that the designer’s just now even closer to the end technology. I would even argue I’m not a developer myself, I’m a designer, but I work very hard to myself and get my design team to get as close to the technology as possible to understand what it means to code and develop front end and to actually be responsible for the building and shipping of the product.

The more the designers can do that, I think the better. I encourage them to take whatever vehicle they have at their access to learn more about that, and there’s just a plethora of them today. I have a subscription to LinkedIn and they do a great job of creating material for learning and all of those things, and I am just hungry to soak all that stuff in wherever it is. There’s so much of it today, and so much of it is really quality learning that I think designers owe it to themselves to continue to challenge themselves, and again, I am taking a little bit of time off now. Hopefully very little bit of time. We’ll see what happens in the next couple of weeks, but I really relish this opportunity to just go and learn and to see what’s out there and soak it all in and to grow.

Any designer that really cares about their craft, I think that even if you are swamped by work you owe it to yourself and the future of your career to try and stay on top of where the technology is going, because you are going to play a fundamental part of where that’s going to go and influence the product and everything that is necessary to make that product successful. So, keep current and keep out there and keep learning, because it’s going to be important for the success of all these products the more that design is part of that.

EW: Excellent. That’s a great place to leave it. Josh Ulm, design executive with a storied career. Thank you so much for taking time to chat with us today on the Design Better podcast.

JU: Aarron, Eli, I always love chatting with you guys. Thanks for having me.

EW: Thanks, Josh. That concludes this episode of the Design Better Podcast. Thanks so much for listening. If you’re hungry for more stories and lessons to continue to level up your design practice, visit InVisionapp.com/designbetter. You’ll find ebooks, videos, and articles on design that you and your team can use to learn more about design thinking, building world class operations, facilitating enterprise design sprints, and so much more. If you enjoyed this episode, please leave us a review on Apple Podcasts, and share this podcast with have friend or teammate interested in designing better today. Thanks so much for listening.


Meet Your Hosts

Aarron Walter
VP of Design Education

Aarron Walter is Director of Product on the COVID Response team at Resolve to Save Lives. Previously, he was VP of Design Education at InVision, and founded the UX practice at Mailchimp where he helped grow the product from a few thousand users to more than 10 million. He’s the author of a number of books, the latest of which is a second edition of Designing for Emotion. Aarron’s design guidance has helped the White House, the US Department of State, and dozens of major corporations, startups, and venture capital firms.

You can find Aarron on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Eli Woolery
Director of Design Education

Eli is the Director of Design Education at InVision. His design career spans both physical and digital products, and he has worked with companies ranging from startups (his own and others) to Fortune 500 companies.

In addition to his background in product and industrial design, he has been a professional photographer and filmmaker. He teaches the senior capstone class Implementation to undergraduate Product Designers at Stanford University. You can find Eli on Twitter and Medium.

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