Partnerships, Not Pixels, Are the Key to Great Design Teams

Aarron Walter
Jul 15, 2019 · 9 min read

How more strongly bonded teams design better together

Image for post
Image for post

These days, it’s not uncommon for design teams to double in size in less than 12 month, and not just in tech startups. Insurance, banking, and many other industries with long histories are investing in design as they feel competitive pressure from younger companies using digital customer experience as a competitive advantage. Design is increasingly seen as a key component of any successful company — great news for those of us in the design field.

Here’s the bad news: as teams grow it gets harder to do good work. When the design team is small, just 3 people, you have 3 lines of communication to maintain to ensure everyone’s aligned. Add a fourth person and now you’ve got 6 lines of communication. At 5 you’ve got 10 lines of communication. By the time your team is 14 people you’ve got 91 lines of communication. Extrapolate this out to an entire company and communication becomes a full time job!

Image for post
Image for post
Figure 1. Communication becomes exponentially more complicated as new people join a team.

Communication between team members and teams is essential to doing our best work. Production at scale, whether you’re producing a chair or a piece of software, requires deep specialization. We need designers, engineers, marketers, sales people and more to deliver an end-to-end customer experience. Each of these disciplines has its own specialized language, making it hard to understand one another and even harder to find alignment.

In a siloed company where connections between teams is tenuous, few see the end-to-end journey and the customer experience suffers for it. In recent research we discovered definitively that when design teams invest in building key partnerships with other teams the impact of their work is far greater.

Connections are the secret to producing great work at scale.

The famous design team of Charles and Ray Eames saw connections as the lynchpin of creating great work.

“Eventually everything connects — people, ideas, objects. The quality of the connections is the key to quality per se.”

Charles Eames

Thinking in Groups

The quality of connections is the key to the quality of design, and for good reason. Humans have evolved to think in groups in which each individual holds specialized knowledge that when combined empowers us to create things far beyond the capacity of any individual.

“No individual knows everything it takes to build a cathedral, an atom bomb, or an aircraft. What gave homo sapiens an edge over all other animals and turned us into the masters of the planet is our unparalleled ability to think in groups.”

Yuval Noah Harari

Thinking in groups works because we can combine knowledge and distribute effort. Strong communication and connection is required, though.

Strangely enough, in the work our Design Education team does at InVision — studying the best, highest functioning design teams across industries — we see this borne out in design maturity, or the variation in design practices in relation to business impact.

We recently conducted a large study led by Director of Design Education Leah Buley — the biggest of its kind to date — called the New Design Frontier which looked at more than 2,200 companies across industries around the world to examine how teams work and how they influence business outcomes like revenue, cost savings, time to market, and valuation. What emerged was a clear model that shows five levels of design maturity with 9 dimensions that shape impact on business value.

There are many interesting themes that emerged but perhaps most eye-opening is how the quality of connections dictates the success of design. To illustrate, let’s take a quick look at the five levels of design maturity.

The Five Stages of Design Maturity

Level 1: Producers

The first level of design maturity we call Producers represents 41% of the companies in our study. These companies are focused on the most visible aspects of design — the pixels on the screen.

These teams engage in design practices like wireframing, creating design comps and prototypes, and doing basic usability testing. These are often activities that require little connection to other teams. Design often operates without the benefit of research or data.

The main business benefit these teams influence is product usability.

We often hear from these teams that design is misunderstood and undervalued. It’s no wonder as design at this stage is a black box — few outsiders can see in to grasp the potential impact design can have on the business.

Image for post
Image for post
Figure 2. Level 1 Producers primarily focus their efforts on UI design, and subsequently fail to develop strong connections with key partners.

Level 2: Connectors

The second level of design maturity are the Connectors — 21% of the companies we studied. To build relationships — and presumably a little more influence in the company — these design teams start to step away from their computers and engage their peers in other teams. They want to teach others about their work often using design thinking workshops, design sprints, and other co-creation processes.

Connectors have a little more robust design practice. They do rapid sketching within the design team to explore ideas quickly and even with colleagues from other teams at times. These folks engage stakeholders for input more regularly. Their efforts influence the business by improving customer satisfaction.

“We see our greatest successes when we involve the right people along the way.”

Ryan Page, Cars.com

Image for post
Image for post
Figure 3. Connectors begin to invest in cross-team collaboration and see dividends in the form of key partnerships and early executive engagement.

Level 3: Architects

Things really start to get interesting at Level 3, which we refer to as the Architects. At this point, the influence of design in the company has been recognized and the design team has grown. Now they need to operationalize. The main focus in this group is on infrastructure and operations to do design at scale effectively. Taking a lesson from their counterparts in engineering who operationalized with DevOps and Agile, these teams stand up DesignOps functions and work to map team structures over to engineering and product.

They do daily standups, have clear work prioritization, and start to document their processes so they’re repeatable. At this level the design team starts to influence revenue.

“Design as a practice requires a singular focus on the operations that maintain the best interests of design and an organization’s business.”

Dave Malouf, DesignOps Summit and IxDA

DesignOps acts as an input/output layer for the design team making it easier for other teams to interface with, which is of critical importance to building strong connections throughout the company.

Image for post
Image for post
Figure 4. With DesignOps in place, the design team can more easily align its efforts to engineering and product and build stronger partnerships.

Level 4: Scientists

Level 4 teams are the Scientists. Now that the design team understands how to build partnerships with other teams, they begin to engage the data team to help them explore new hypotheses and conduct experiments that dial in the customer experience. These teams regularly develop new concepts and do A/B testing, something that’s very challenging without partnerships in data and engineering.

Their influence on the business really starts to take off at this level: They influence cost savings, time to market, conversion metrics, employee productivity, brand equity, and help the company press into new markets. The business benefits are big at this level.

Image for post
Image for post
Figure 5. Level 4 Scientists are able to conduct experiments to dial in the user experience because they’ve built partnerships with the engineering and data teams.

Level 5: Visionaries

In Level 5, which are just 5% of the companies we studied, we find the Visionaries. These teams speak the language of business fluently and align their efforts to business initiatives regularly. They have strong relationships throughout the company and they’re an important player in business strategy.

These teams look into the future with trendspotting and foresight, they create vision artifacts showing the company a view of tomorrow, and they think about the customer experience across platforms. Level 4 Scientists calibrate what’s close at hand — existing products and their iterations. In contrast, Level 5 teams look to the distant horizon for what’s next — a future revolution.

These teams influence valuations, share price, and create new intellectual property for the company.

Image for post
Image for post
Figure 6. Level 5 Visionaries use tools like trendspotting and foresight analysis to look into the future at what customer experiences the business could be creating in the years to come.

Progressively More Connected

If we boil down this research to identify key themes, we find echoes of the wisdom that Charles and Ray Eames shared 70 years ago.

“The quality of the connections is the key to quality per se.”

Charles and Ray Eames

As the design team becomes progressively more connected, their influence and the impact of their work grows.

  • Level 1 Producers focus on craft.
  • Level 2 Connectors start to build relationships and help others understand their work.
  • Level 3 Architects operationalize the design team and concretely align engineering, product and design.
  • Level 4 Scientists deepen relationships with engineering and form new ones with data.
  • Level 5 Visionaries are engaged with the C-Suite where the power of design is truly realized by creating durable competitive advantages.

Shared language, shared goals

To be successful, Design can’t operate in a vacuum. Design as a discipline must transcend the borders of the team. Partnerships must be forged, people of other disciplines need to be brought into the design process and in doing so we introduce diverse perspectives which leads to better problem solving.

When we transcend the borders of countries we adapt to new languages. The same is true as we build partnerships across teams.

Stanley Wood, former Director of Design at Spotify who is today head of digital design at Volvo, struggled to align language in the engineering culture of Spotify.

“Engineering didn’t understand me when I said, ‘This work is poor quality’. I had to change my language to something they could relate to. I told them about ‘UX crashes’ that required immediate attention, and ‘design debt’ that we’d have to deal with. They got the message.”

Stanley Wood, Head of Digital Design, Volvo

As we saw in the top levels of design maturity — the scientists and visionaries — these people not only find ways to translate their design language to the language of stakeholders, they also regularly think and speak in the language of business. Incidentally, the individuals whose careers we’ve seen grow tremendously through the years all have the common trait that they’re always connecting their efforts back to business goals.

Abigail Hart Gray, Director of UX at Google, is one of those people. Here’s what Abigail told us on the Design Better Podcast about how she builds relationships with key partners:

Abigail Hart Gray of Google talks about how she builds partnerships to help her design teams extend their reach.

As Abigail described, aligning around key problems that everyone has a stake in is key to building partnerships and seeing outcomes that help the business through the efforts of all. To do this, we all need a shared understanding of the customer too.

Our work is most fruitful when we have strong connections between our disciplines, when design happens not within the walled confines of a single team but when it happens iteratively with the involvement of partners in engineering, product, data, and more. The diverse perspectives our colleagues bring to our process helps ensure our ideas are scrutinized and expanded.

“Your legs are your most effective design tool. Get out and connect with people.”

Mark Opland, Facebook

Simple Steps to Stronger Connections

There are many ways to build the connections your design team needs throughout the company to be most effective. Here’s how we see design teams in organizations large and small building strong partnerships that increase their influence and lead to better quality work:

  1. As John Maeda recommends, speak the language of business to executives and other partners to ensure your work is aligned with broader goals and understood by all.
  2. Bring people into the design process by running internal design thinking workshops or design sprints. Northwestern Mutual and The Home Depot have had great success with this approach.
  3. Run efficient design reviews and bring partners in to be part of the conversation, as Slack and Airbnb do.
  4. Step away from your computer and spend time with partners on other teams to build rapport. Alex Schleifer, VP of Design at Airbnb, has breakfast with his colleagues in Product and Engineering not only to align efforts but also build relationships that create fertile soil for collaboration.
  5. Align design KPIs to those in engineering and product. Shared goals leads to shared efforts.
  6. As your team scales, build out a DesignOps function to create reliable ways to align design to other parts of the org.
John Maeda on connecting design to the rest of the org.

As you and your team press forward in your work, keep in mind the partnerships that will be required to be successful. The customer experience is not owned by one team, but shared by all. Without strong connections between teams great work is hard to come by.

As Charles and Ray told us long ago, “The quality of connections is the key to quality per se.”

To learn more about our recent research examining the qualities that make design teams most impactful to business, download the New Design Frontier report.

Design Better

Brought to you by InVision, Design Better provides…

Aarron Walter

Written by

Author of Designing for Emotion, second edition from @abookapart. VP of Design Publishing @InVisionapp.

Design Better

Brought to you by InVision, Design Better provides unprecedented access to the insights that power the world’s best design teams. Learn more at http://designbetter.com.

Aarron Walter

Written by

Author of Designing for Emotion, second edition from @abookapart. VP of Design Publishing @InVisionapp.

Design Better

Brought to you by InVision, Design Better provides unprecedented access to the insights that power the world’s best design teams. Learn more at http://designbetter.com.

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store