Australia’s Design capability gap, how it hurts organisations & how to avoid hiring the wrong people

Oct 10, 2018 · 15 min read

The majority of people in design roles don’t have the capabilities required to help organisations deliver on customer experience and product success

The demand for design in Australia is growing at an exponential rate. Australia’s IT spend was projected to reach $85 billion in 2017, and organisations are quickly realising that design can often play a critical role in the success of tech delivery, as well as being a key competitive differentiator in the consumer and service sectors.

Unfortunately it’s a poorly understood field and the capability pool is very immature — and so organisations all over the place are hiring bad-fit designers that have the wrong capability shape causing long term damage to organisational design capability.

In this article I’m going to go into a bit more detail about the problem & impact to organisations, as well as providing a bit of a compass as to design capability and how to screen potential design hires.

Before we start — Defining design

Design is a pretty broad term, and part of the issue surrounding this topic is that there are many broad terms used but unclear common definitions to describe the capabilities or skills we’re referring to. Terms that go around include User Experience (UX), Experience Design (XD), Service Design, Designer, UX developer, Product Owner etc.

For the purpose of this article I’m going to be using Design to mean:

“the process of identifying human problems through inquiry, and bringing people & teams together to create solutions that can be empirically demonstrated to provide a great experience for end users and value to a customer”

In my experience, it’s this kind of design that can radically shift the dial in terms of organisational outcomes, design innovation, customer experience and product success.

By virtue of this definition, design in the context of this article excludes brand design, artistic design, or art in general.

We’ll go into some specific capability definition a bit further on.

Hiring the wrong people hurts teams & organisations

Design is pretty new as a mainstream field in Australia. While more and more tech companies and groups are realising that they need some sort of design capability, there isn’t a lot of awareness or understanding as to what that means, or what kind of person to hire for… and it’s difficult to get an understanding, as the best way to get that is some experience working with a good designer - to understand what to look for, what success looks like and what doesn’t work. To make everything worse, the pool of resource capability hasn’t grown fast enough to be able to keep up with demand.

Misrepresentation in the design field

There is rife misrepresentation in design related roles right now. There’s a bunch of factors that play into it but ultimately you have a lot of visual designers/graphic designers who want to get into the design space advertising themselves as UX/product designers — and then getting embedded but without training, mentorship or exposure to real design practices. In this way their capability never goes much further beyond visual design, and they continue to perpetuate a very shallow perspective of design.

If this sounds like you & you want to extend the breadth of your capability I strongly suggest reading the design capabilities section, honestly ranking your own capabilities and starting to extend more depth into the upstream/softer capabilities through actual delivery and practical experience.

Impact to organisations

So ultimately you have managers and recruiters in the market looking for designers that just aren’t there, to fill a gap that isn’t well understood or articulated.

Where this really hurts is that generally part of the role of these first hires will be to define and help shape the concept of design within the organisation. Organisations right now are hiring for design leaders to help grow, shape and direct design delivery and capability. This ranges from consultancies hiring design directors through to enterprises and service organisations hiring in house design leads to grow a design culture and practice internally.

So what happens when you hire a design leader for your organisation that doesn’t actually have the capabilities you need?

This does long term damage to your organisational design capability in multiple ways:

  • Opportunity cost — a permanent hire is difficult to move on once embedded. Organisations only have a set amount of headcount to allocate for design, and so if you under-hire for capability it’s not necessarily possible to just fix the gap by hiring more people. It becomes a long term impact to your design capability.
  • Along with that is Lost opportunity for upskilling & capability diffusion — a highly capable designer will be able to identify design ‘seedlings’ and help nurture capability across teams and resources.
  • And additionally Negative impact to further design hires — A design leader with limited understanding and capability will often hire within their realm of understanding and awareness — meaning you have a self perpetuating capability limitation.
  • Difficult to repair reputational damage to “Design” — because it’s such a poorly understood term, most people in your organisation will associate “Design” with whoever you hire to promote it. Poor delivery and representation will result in difficult to undo misperception and entrenched disengagement.
  • Deflating design enthusiasm — poor design leadership can lead to disenfranchisement of existing designers or design enthusiasts who will either move into other spaces or leave.
  • Loss of opportunity for blossoming design delivery, capability and evangelism — This is the culmination of all of these. What you could have is an amazing embedded design capability that amplifies your ability to deliver value to customers and improves your customer and employee experience. You just don’t get this with the wrong hires.

Help! How do I hire the right people?

It’s not easy hiring outside your capability awareness, but it helps to research and understand the field you’re trying to hire for, especially if you’re hiring your foundational design hires.

What I’m going to do here is provide a rough outline of design capabilites — to help you pinpoint the kind of people you’re looking for and problems you’re trying to solve, and also lay out some things to look for and ask when assessing candidates.

Beyond that I would suggest trialing different consultancies on small projects to get some experience with how different groups approach design, and reaching out to design leads in other organisations to build your mental map around what different designers look and feel like, and how they think and move in the world.

Design Capabilities

Design as a problem solving praxis is a broad field of expertise. In the same way software development is a broad field with many sub areas of specialisation, design too has separate capability buckets. In order to get the best outcome for your project, team, or organisation it’s essential that you understand these capabilities at least at a high level, and also identify which ones you need.

We’re going to go through them starting with most technical/low level & specific, and moving through to higher level, strategic and soft-skill based.

You will often find that people have multiple adjacent capabilities.

Front End Engineering

While this capability definitely impacts the ultimate user experience, it’s probably not the capability you’re looking to hire when looking for design leaders & problem solvers. However it’s often conflated with UX, so let’s define it so we can definitively exclude it.

Front end engineering refers to the capability of technically creating the layer that users interact with — most often in a web UI sense. This means that front end engineers have proficiency in javascript and associated frameworks such as angular, bootstrap, ember, react and so on, as well as HTML and CSS proficiency.

A great front-end engineer takes a visual design and makes it even better when they translate it into reality.

A front end engineer with some visual design capability is often what recruiters are looking for when they advertise for a ‘UX developer’.

Visual Design

Visual design is what most people associate with the term design.

The visual design capability is what produces the final gorgeous manifestation of the design process — the high fidelity visual pieces you see on behance, invision, pinterest that look like you could eat them are created by visual designers.

People with visual design capability will often either have some front end development capability (think HTML, CSS and some JS), or will have some interaction design capability.

Visual design is a very important skill and has a huge impact on the final experience of customers. However a problem arises when you hire this capability when you actually needed a different capability. Visual designers will often call themselves UX designers.

Interaction Design

Interaction design is the process of creating the fundamental structure and framework of an experience.

People with this capability are proficient at understanding and defining things users/customers are trying to do (goals & tasks, motivations) and creating structures that allow these to be met with ease and delight.

Outputs will often look like wireframes, interaction flows, final-state journey definition, sometimes detailed process flows. Often these are provided to visual designers as the basis for their design outputs.

Interaction designers will often also call themselves UX designers. While their work no doubt impacts and improves on the customer experience, if their capability is limited to interaction and visual design then there will be little or no customer validation or feedback into the process and so there a limit to the value that can be provided by design.

Additionally user testing makes interaction designers better. An interaction designer who’s had to watch users using what they’ve designed begins to internalise how to create usable and intuitive experiences. Interaction designers isolated from this are prone to creating problematic experiences.

Important note about interaction designers

By nature of their work, interaction designers may often have their process point to more fundamental questions about the experience they’re creating, e.g.

  • What are people trying to do with this product?
  • Why are we building it?
  • Do we understand our users enough to design/build the right thing?

However in the case of a lack of capability they are often unable to lead the team or project on the path to answering or solving these questions. This leads to frustration on the part of the designer, and a situation where they are seen as negative/self-victimising as they often frame it in a way that suggests others (management) are to blame, without taking ownership themselves and framing the value to justify the work, or just doing it.

(If this sounds like you, I highly suggest you take full ownership of the experience and just do the work you think needs to be done (i.e. research) even if it’s new for you. You’ll develop experience in this area and if your work is good, you will demonstrate the value of it.)

Research

Research is the capability that allows design to probe into human contexts and synthesise understanding of human perspective, experience, mental models, desires, goals and problems. Research can de-risk projects, invalidate hypotheses before we’ve even built anything and identify strong bases for value propositions as well as key opportunities for experience improvement.

Example output of a research capability — Role specific journey and experience

In the context of design, researchers can have both qualitative and quantitative research capabilities. This could mean they can engage with people directly in a variety of ways (interviews, contextual studies, workshops, user tests) to derive qualitative research outcomes, and/or that they can frame quantitative research activities such as surveys, A/B testing, and usage analytics.

While quantitative research is undeniably useful, qualitative research is far more valuable for the purposes of framing problems and opportunities, understanding product success or failure and continuously improving the product/experience.

Good researchers should be great listeners, have excellent EQ and an ability to communicate their findings to teams and stakeholders to drive direction change and improvement.

Product Strategy

Product strategists bring business acumen to design direction. This capability involves creating and structuring a competitive vision for the product that clearly articulates customer value proposition, feature shape, and helps to drive value trade-off decisions.

A product strategist’s work at the start of a project will set the foundation for the work to come & continuously shape the the team direction and priorities in response to changing & evolving business drivers, customer understanding and market opportunities. Often this can take the form of roadmaps, scope definition, MVP definition, and what constitutes a valuable release.

Product strategists should live and breathe the product — they should be working closely with tech leads/developers, researchers & other designers as well as the business to ensure there is cohesion in outcomes vs. what is being delivered, and clear understanding of vision to drive decisions throughout the team. This means they need very solid communication skills, and ability to rally and inspire people around a common vision.

Sometimes product owners will have product strategy as a capability (not always!), sometimes product strategists will also be project managers, and sometimes researchers will drive product strategy.

Service and Process Design

Service and process design begins to look at the bigger system in which experiences occur. We’re no longer looking at a single interface, we’re looking at how people move in environments, how those environments support them and what outcomes or experiences are produced.

Service/Process designers will look to understand the current state of a system or environment and map this out — producing current state service maps, journey maps or processes, and then look to creating a desired future state for the system that creates a better outcome for customers and/or the organisation.

This is a complex domain as service design often has implications for departmental and organisational structure as well as capability and systems uplift.

For service organisations, this is a key capability as customers really experience service organisations through a variety of touch-points which need to work together harmoniously to create a seamless experience. For enterprise design, process mapping and re-engineering is often crucial to the success of business changes that go hand in hand with systems changes.

Service designers often have some research capability and come from other soft fields.

Facilitation and Direction

This capability is often implicit in other design capabilities, but I wanted to call it out as a key capability in itself because it is so important and has it’s own technical depth.

Facilitation is the skill of creating and framing spaces to allow people to purposefully & productively collaborate to move toward an outcome. Managing people in this way is a complex skill, as is proficiency in different facilitation frames, games and crafting new ones to achieve a particular outcome.

It’s a key skill that needs to be represented within a team, regardless of whether a designer has it or not. However, a designer who cannot facilitate groups toward meaningful outcomes will struggle beyond basic representation in a team.

Because designing an experience requires cross-role collaboration, one of the key roles of a designer (and this has been called out many times by various prominent designers, and is true in my experience) is to bring together team members to work together to shape the final outcome through conversation, trade off, story telling and work definition.

Separately, designers as product strategists and researchers need to be able to help groups of people frame problems, explore domains and also explore and workshop solutions.

A good designer should have this capability.

Design Transformation & Leadership

Design transformation & leadership goes beyond the actual delivery of design outcomes. This is a capability that starts to include organisational change and strategic capabilities.

Anyone you hire to do this will generally only embed the design capabilities they have understanding or awareness of. This presents a huge risk — if you hire a ‘creative director’ in a role like this you run the risk of populating your design team with ex-agency visual designers, because that is the limit of your design lead’s appreciation for design capability.

To deliver on this, a lead needs to have transformative leadership capabilities — that is, the ability to inspire large groups of people to change & adopt new behaviours. They also need to be able to navigate organisational structures — and help change them to support embedding design within the organisation. This means that even if you hire the best cross-capability designer, if they can’t define and execute change they will be struggling to have an impact beyond their immediate project delivery involvement.

Capability close-out notes

Before you start recruiting, it’s important to be very clear on what capabilities you’re looking to fill, and being very clear that no one person can represent all of these capabilities within your team or organisation. Even if they could jump into any one of these roles, there isn’t enough time in the day to adequately do the work to represent every capability.

As a rule of thumb you should be looking for someone to represent at least two capabilities with some level of depth, with an awareness of and ability to interface with others.

Designers as problem solvers

If you’re looking for designers to help with product direction, experience uplift and problem identification, framing, and solving you need to be looking for people with capability in interaction design, research and product strategy, as well as representation in facilitation.

Assessing Candidates

If you play your cards right, you shouldn’t have to end up with people who might damage your organisational design capability long term. There is a long enough vetting period from resume scanning through to probation review to get a sense of someone’s capability and impact to the organisation.

Past experience & study

Great designers come from many different backgrounds. It’s the case that great human centered designers come from tech backgrounds, visual design backgrounds, and even business analysis backgrounds. University degree shouldn’t be a limiting factor in your search. It’s true that a psychology degree, Human/Computer Interaction (HCI) degree or ethnography/anthropology degree add depth to a candidate, but they don’t guarantee practical delivery experience.

Training courses can be valuable too — many candidates will probably have general assembly type quick courses on their resumes or profiles. However training on its own without practical experience is near useless.

Designers become good by practicing their craft in real delivery environments. Through this they learn how to move in teams, co-ordinate success, represent their role effectively and what failure and success look like.

Carefully read a candidates work history. Look at their previous role titles and descriptions. What are they saying they did in their previous roles? What language is being used? Capabilities often come through in creative role descriptions, but they can often be full of jargon and terms like ‘personas’ and ‘journey maps’. Look for description of outcomes achieved and problems solved as well as methods used.

Keep an eye out for drastic changes — e.g. going from web designer or creative director to researcher or design thinker. Changes like this signify a personal rebrand on the part of the candidate — they’ve decided to market themselves as a ‘Design thinker’ or ‘UXer’. In this rebrand it’s likely they didn’t have the capabilities they marketed, but were looking to develop them. How many roles/projects between the rebrand and you? Does it look like the candidate stayed anywhere long enough to develop those capabilities and deliver on outcomes?

Portfolio

Any worthwhile design candidate will have a portfolio of projects or products they were involved in. This is one of the key windows you will have into how the candidate frames themselves, what experience they really have, how they approach problems and what their contribution to teams is.

A highly visual portfolio will immediately indicate a stronger lean toward visual design capability — which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, however it’s important to probe beyond the surface and understand the map of this candidate’s capabilities.

Assessing against the above capability set, seek to understand how the candidate influenced and shaped the teams they were involved with. A team player is important here — design artifacts mean nothing unless they are heard by the team that is doing delivery work. To what degree did the candidate affect the value being delivered? Was their role to improve the aesthetics of a product? Did they measurably increase conversion rates? Did they significantly shape a product direction based on team facilitation and field research? Think about what capability you need to expand in your team and whether this person’s portfolio exhibits those traits.

If you’re looking for a leader, then probe for the leadership capabilities you want to see in a design lead. Have they ever integrated design into a delivery function? How? How did they measure success? What work have they done in defining and building design capability?

Close Out

I’m going to be the first to acknowledge this article was born out of a frustration as to the way I see things trending, but also want to add that this capability misunderstanding issue goes beyond just design. In many ways, leadership’s lack of understanding of capability in general leads to hiring the wrong fit in any area — be it software engineering, data science or analysis and so on.

If there’s anything I’d like to leave you with it’s that nothing exists outside of the people in the teams you operate. The kind of people you hire will define the work and value that gets created — no two ways about it. You can’t mask bad ingredients and you can’t brush over lack of capability.

Hiring processes should never be blasé, and when in doubt bring in an expert to you help you assess candidates so you can prevent making a long term costly mistake.

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Thanks for reading. Please hmu if any questions or feedback, or any similar experiences!

Valeria Spirovski

Written by

Product Architect, Designer, Researcher, & Change Agent. Blending Agile, Design Thinking and Lean UX to continuously steer teams toward success.

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