There’s a growing phrase in the product design industry, that 'design should have an equal seat at the table’, but how is that earned? Designers can offer more than ‘great customer experiences’ and as more companies practice agile development practices and continuous integration, what are some of the valuable contributions designers can make, which aren’t pen-to-paper?
What do businesses value?
There are many types of designers and many hats we can wear, but it’s important to take a step back to evaluate how you, as a team, can help make your company successful. When starting out I believed in solely solving customer needs, but it’s not as simple as that.
I like to think of this challenge as an equation: Successful delivery (velocity) is a combination of speed and direction.
There are a million general ways to increase work speed, but there are a number of skills that are specifically part of a designer’s tool box. For example, by creating a consistent design system which matches code components you can dramatically reduce the number of new components being built. As an extreme example, GitHub design team keep their components perfectly matched via branch management. This perhaps starts to touch on the beginnings of a Design Ops role, but many smaller design teams aren’t at that point where that’s necessary, so it’s worth spending some time to do the basic necessities as you go along.
Designers also have the ability to increase speed by increasing team cohesiveness — part of the design process is stakeholder management, and by managing buy-in and generating interest within your engineering team, you will increase productivity.
Your company could be suffering from a lack of customer insight, which is playing out through whimsical experiments that aren’t aimed at real customer problems. If you can prove value to your business by offering clearer product direction, you’d quickly find your team greatly valued.
Decentralising idea generation is key to a successful business. In the beginning, startups rely solely on the few founders to generate winning ideas, but as businesses grow its easy to echo chamber existing ideas. In 2013, the Bank of Innovation specifically recruited new staff with little prior experience of the financial industry and gave them full control, growing from an 80 to 200 person company the next year. As designers, we have the tools to collate ideas from all over the business as well as customers, to drive innovation. Good ideas come from anywhere.
Opening up the black box of design
What I do vs. what others think I do are different. The majority of work happens away from others, so it’s about exposing the process to those who find it useful within your business. Not only will it bring others onboard, but it’ll likely improve your processes by having them scrutinised. As an aside, use the design community as well.
Design kick-off meetings
To allow stakeholders to contribute early and see our process. We sometimes design in a group, sometimes just share ideas. Keep it short and sweet. This is an abbreviated version of the sketch phase in Google Sprints as it’s nicely generative but doesn’t require too much resource.
Exposing in-progress design work
Design transparency is probably the most important thing. The worst designers work in isolation and return after a few days with a presentation. This doesn’t allow people to contribute and gets zero buy-in. If you’re so precious about your designs that you want to keep them secret, I fear you are in the wrong job. Good ideas come from anywhere. Practically, we use Figma and everyone has view access, but you can also print in-progress stuff and put them on the walls, leave post-its for people to leave comments. We also invite external guests into our design critique sessions.
Sharing all user-research
We share all of our research in a #user-research channel (slack). This stuff is gold and it helps with business decisions. If you don’t have time to synthesise research, just put the raw stuff up there. You’ll be surprised how many people read it.
There are many ways for you to prove the value of design within your business but your first steps should be about providing business value, not (necessarily) the perfect customer experience and making sure you, and your process, is as open as possible.