In a startup environment, designers inherently have a lot of visibility and influence with colleagues. But in larger companies, design can become relegated to a service organization.
Allowing design to become isolated means its purpose and value are less likely to be understood, and the talents of designers are more likely to be wasted pushing pixels.
Socializing designs across the enterprise is perhaps the best strategic solution.
So let’s look at some tactics that can help you do this, plus see what experienced leaders have to say about putting design on equal footing with engineering and product groups.
Create Social Capital
Relationships, relationships, relationships. Their importance with folks outside the design team can’t be overstated, and they have to be developed intentionally.
For designers, that means spending less time head-down and earphones-on, and more time visiting with colleagues and asking about their work. It means making introductions for new hires and grabbing lunch with cross-functional counterparts with the aim of getting to know one another better.
This kind of networking shouldn’t be limited to just lateral counterparts, either. It’s important to spend time with executives to ask questions about broader company strategy and learn about their roles and expectations.
Ultimately, these relationships will make designs better informed and more valuable, while also helping to make sure the design organization gets a seat at the table when important decisions are made.
AirBnB has a terrific reputation for an egalitarian culture that balances accountability between engineering, product, and design. Alex Schleifer, Head of Design, told us on the Design Better Podcast it begins at the leadership level, where the heads of each discipline function together as a unit.
“It requires us as a leadership team and organization to create environments where these types of relationships can grow,” Alex Schleifer said, “everything from the way our offices are designed, to the tools we’re building, to the processes, to the way we share information.”
Make Design More Visible
When it comes to sharing design work, digital is convenient, but print is often prominent.
When designers print work and hang it for feedback in well-trafficked locations, it opens the door to new and unexpected collaborations. Leave post-it notes and pens nearby, and be sure to keep track of who offers good feedback so you can purposefully engage them when you share future prototypes.
For remote teams, consider a regular schedule (perhaps Friday before lunch) for distributing links to digital prototypes. Use a platform that allows your cross-functional colleagues to quickly and easily scan through several projects and leave feedback. InVision’s Freehand, Prototypes, and Boards tools work really well for this.
Inviting executives and cross-functional colleagues to regularly scheduled design reviews is another way to forge relationships and keep design on the company radar. Whether you receive notes in person or in writing, it’s important to keep the feedback loop primed. Andy Law, Director of Mobile Product Design at Netflix explains:
“Feedback is only valuable when it’s interpreted, synthesized, acted on and then — whatever that action is — is given back to the person who gave the feedback so that they’re more inclined to continue sharing their opinions in the future.”
–Andy Law, Director of Mobile Product Design at Netflix
Avoid the Communication Pitfall
As a general partner at Spark Capital, Megan Quinn assists a lot of fast-growing companies with turning product development into an efficient engine for driving the business forward. When she visited the podcast, she explained that the biggest challenge is almost always maintaining good communication between designers, engineers and product folks.
As a rule of thumb, she said every time a company adds another 30 people, communication strategies break down. “The advice I give is to instill processes around communication earlier than feels necessary. Make it so it almost feels like it’s too much process and too much structure for where the company is at. Because if you’re growing and doing well, it’s going to be just the right amount of process and communication by the time you get any good at it,” Megan said.
Alex had a similar point of view, stating the tensions that arise between design and engineering are usually technical and process oriented — things that are completely solvable with a bit of focused attention. “We’re investing heavily in tools, and we’re investing heavily in process and education to smooth out those gaps between engineering and design,” he said.
Balance the Org Structure
A big part of keeping design visible is having the headcount to adequately represent the organization.
Here at InVision, we’ve done some preliminary research to try to determine the “golden ratio” for product development. It will, of course, vary a bit depending on the product type. But for a large enterprise, we believe the ratio is around:
1 project manager, to 3 designers, to 5 engineers.
Megan also believes there’s a “magical ratio” for balancing the disciplines, but she didn’t have a specific set of numbers in mind. Instead, she said each company should be mindful of finding its unique balance. “It can’t just be: ‘We need more engineers. We need more warm bodies that can code,’” she said. “We need more builders and the notion of builders being engineers, product people and designers. Frankly, you can’t over-hire on any one of those and under-hire on the rest and expect a really functional building machine.”
She stressed the importance of design being a standalone group that doesn’t report to engineering or product. In having equal footing, she said the organizations should ideally see themselves as an interconnected product development team, not three disciplines working in competition.
When it works, Alex said this kind of shared accountability and decentralized decision making can actually recreate the small-team atmosphere that people love about the startup environment. “Once you take this leap and get into that flow with your peers — your engineering counterpart, your product counterpart, your data scientist, your researcher — it really feels like what everyone misses,” he said. “It feels like that first time you worked in a small team and everyone was synching everyday and moving forward in the same direction and operating as a small unit. But it requires a level of trust.”
If you’re looking for more ideas on how to make design more visible and viable in a large enterprise, be sure to read or listen to chapter seven of the Principles of Product Design Handbook, “Break the Black Box”.