What does it take to enable great product design?
It’s interesting to me that whether I’m talking with designers or business leaders, I often hear variations of the same question: “What does it take to make great design outcomes happen?” CEOs and business leaders ask the question because they want to know how much they need to invest in design relative to other priorities. Designers ask the question because they want to know how to sell a design initiative to business leaders.
I’ve been lucky enough to build design teams that have achieved some truly great outcomes, either by creating new products or transforming existing products from good to great. Based on all these experiences and other discussions with design leaders, here is my point of view on what it takes to enable great product design:
Freedom to build a great team
At many companies, it’s hard to get approval to hire or attract the design talent you need. It’s not possible to build a great product without a great team.
Successful product design comes when you not only have a generalist designer partnering with each PM, but also have the freedom to hire specialists like illustrators, motion graphics experts, and UI engineers. These specialists work across teams to ensure that the most important parts of your product are truly outstanding.
It’s a mistake to assume that all designers operate in the same way, or have the same skills. There are different types of designers. Some designers are great visually, others are outstanding at thinking about the underlying structure of a product. Some designers are design documenters and pattern setters; the people who make things consistent from one part of the app to another. Some are visionary inventors, while others know how to take an existing design and optimize. Some are able to give a product a personality that users connect with.
It’s important to staff the right designer on the right problem, and to hire a variety of genius types on your team. You want a diversity of skills and ideas. You want to hire people who are passionate, not just smart. People who fall in love with a problem and can’t rest until it’s solved well. Building a great team means finding people who are extremely gifted and confident, but don’t let ego get in the way of collaboration.
When I talk with product leaders who are frustrated with the quality of the design work coming from their design team, it’s often because they have too few designers, they see all designers as having the same skills, or they try to fix design problems by hiring more PMs. Their designers are spreading themselves too thin by working with several product managers. They aren’t able to take the time to really partner with the PM to internalize the business problem and create a solution that is thoughtful. Companies with struggling products don’t invest in hiring specialists to enrich the product experience.
This may seem obvious, but companies that deliver great design, have strong design leaders and support from the CEO to invest in design work & polish. After giving presentations to designers about large design projects I’ve worked on, one of the most common questions I get is, “How did you get the executive team to fund this project? How did you convince them that design was worth investing in?” The honest answer is that I don’t have to work hard at that, because I choose to work for companies that understand that design is important, and I have a seat at the table in defining the roadmap.
At one point in my career I looked at my portfolio and saw some work that was good and some that wasn’t. I was worried that I wasn’t consistently good. When I looked at the context behind the projects that were the most successful and the ones that were not, one key difference was that executives were strongly supportive of the efforts that were the biggest wins. Great products come from a continuous process of building and refining, not just building and building more.
It’s becoming more and more common for companies to have design leadership sitting along side business, product, and engineering leaders helping to make decisions. If a company doesn’t have great design outcomes, it’s likely that they don’t have design leaders who are able to partner with product and engineering leaders to define the roadmap and prioritize design work.
A well defined brand
Another key enabler to product design is a well defined brand. For many software companies, the product is the brand, as that’s where your customers spend the bulk of their time interacting with your company.
Having a well defined brand means knowing the core emotion you want people to feel when they use your product. It means that you know how people should be describing you, and you are actively working to ensure that what you build ladders up to those descriptors. A well defined brand will mean that users feel that they know what makes your company unique; they feel a sense of trust and loyalty to you.
Whether it’s user experience principles or brand attributes, the product team needs a north star that they are working with to know what feels right and what doesn’t when making design choices. Outstanding products offer interactions that help you make a deeper connection with your brand, and with others using your product. A lot of companies can make something functional, but truly great products give people an emotional benefit. They have features, visual metaphors and other experiences that are ownable and sacred. These are areas of the product that get special attention and oversight.
Design thinking across the company
Great design doesn’t come from the design team, it comes from a design thinking company. I’ve been fortunate in that many of the product, marketing & engineering leaders I partner with are great design thinkers. They know how to work with design to make a minimum viable release that still feels great. They think about not just the functional needs but the story we tell to engage with our customers. They are good at beginner’s mind, and are able to see the product through the lens of their target users. They intuitively know that small details matter, and that inconsistencies chip away at a user’s confidence in your product.
One of the most important parts of a design leader’s job is not in fostering design thinking within the design team, but in creating a culture where the whole company participates in design. The most successful projects I’ve experienced have cross functional teams come together to collaborate well.
Engineers that sweat the details
So much of the credit for a great product design should go to the engineer. Companies that have outstanding product design have outstanding engineers who care about every use case, and every detail. They do their own QA and take the time to sweat the details. They think at the component level and understand that reusing consistent patterns benefits the user and helps with engineering velocity. They contribute design ideas and collaborate in product ideation, understanding the goals of the project and offering solutions that are better. Asana has a phenomenal engineering team. We look for design-minded engineers, who work closely with designers. Both the design and the engineering teams have a culture of pride and craftsmanship in getting the details right, but also in moving quickly.
A collaborative & empowering culture
I believe that you can look at the user experience and tell whether the team building it is empowered to do their best work. You can actually see where organizational lines are drawn by looking at the inconsistencies and seams between one area of the product and another. You can see whether a designer had the freedom to think about a page or interaction holistically.
In order to build a great product your team needs to be working and collaborating effectively. You want heated arguments between passionate and smart people, but also a team that knows how to get on board and work together to execute quickly. You want role clarity, but also a lot of role blending and trust.
Having a culture of empowerment is one where employees have the freedom (and responsibility) to build their own company culture and to be responsible for fixing problems in process or collaboration when they arise; one that allows teams to make their own decisions, and leaders who facilitate rather than dictate. At Asana, we’ve been lucky enough to have the flexibility & creativity to build a design culture that consistently delivers outcomes we are proud of. Learn more about the Asana design team at https://asana.com/jobs/design.